Voice: The L2 Writer Identity

Hyun Jung Joo, The Ohio State University, Doctoral Student


It is said that writing not only conveys information, but also conveys something about the writer. Thus, writing is known to be a representation of the self of the writer. Given that writer identity displays authorial identity, self, and positioning, one aspect of identity in writing that has received is voice. First, Elbow (1994) identifies five meanings of voice that is relevant to individual or personal writing quality (Cited in Matsuda & Tardy, 2007), and these diverse meanings of voice include audible voice in a text; dramatic voice of the implied author; recognizable or distinctive voice; voice with authority; and resonant voice. Next, Goffman (1959) describes voice as “self-presentation through social action and language” (cited in Ivanic, 1994), while Bahktin’s notion of voice is connected with writer’s perspective, conception, intention, and worldview. Moreover, Matsuda (2001) defines voice as “the amalgamative effect of the user of discursive and non-discursive features that language users choose deliberately or otherwise, from socially available yet ever-changing repertoire” (p. 40). That is to say, there seems to be an individual aspect and a social aspect in the notion of voice. With this in mind, the voice of the individual is a reflection of multiple voices as Bahktin employs voice to describe how all texts are actually responses to previous utterances (Stapleton, 2002). Further, these multiple voices indicate that people are identified with various social groups simultaneously. In this sense, it can be argued that generating voice is a social process, while a writer constructs textual identity socially and discoursally because the notion of interpersonal meaning of voice distinguished into “the representation of social relations and social identities” (Fairclough, 1992a, cited in Ivanic & Camps, 2001).

Not surprisingly, this notion of voice is not new since it is closely related to L1-oriented composition pedagogy is strongly tied to the ideology of Western individualism. As Atkinson (2001) puts it, the dominant understanding of voice is based on the assumption that individuality is the fundamental fact of our being, and that a fundamental purpose of sensitive, humanistic writing instruction should be the full expression and further development of that individuality. Further, Prior (2001) has observed that “voice is a distinctive marker of an expressivist ideology that favors L1 students, especially those from educated, middle- or upper-class background” (p. 56). It seems reasonably assume that L2 writers may have problems with classes grounded and cultural relevant ideologies in terms of learning the notion of voice.

Moreover, L2 writers have faced the dichotomy between personal and academic writing, in which voice is associated with the characteristics of personal and individual, while academic writing is known to be impersonal, neutral, and voiceless. In other words, it appears that the notion of voice is exclusively close to L1 personal writing, thus the realms of voice seems to be restricted to L2 writing pedagogy. In this regard, Stapleton (2002) points out that “voice is a critical aspect of writing and it should be brought to the mainstream of L2 writing pedagogy either via consciousness raising or through the specific teaching of certain feature” (p. 187).

Given these, it is not surprising to conclude that “the writer identity emerging from the text is partly the responsibility of the writer, partly the responsibility to the reader, and partly the responsibility of socio-cultural context which supports the discourses they are drawing on” (Ivanic, 1994, p. 6). In this regard, I will apply macrofunctions of language proposed by Holliday (1985) in order to examine the studies on the notion of voice (cited in Ivanic & Camps, 2001). Holliday calls writer identities the “interpersonal function” which indicates interpersonal positioning of talking or writing between interlocutors, while the “ideational function” of language is concerned with representing the world or writing about something and the “textual function” is related to talking or writing to shape the text. The studies in this paper will be examined through these three aspects of writer identities.

On the other hand, Staleton (2002) argues that L2 writing pedagogy with the notion of voice believes expression of identity at the expense of the originality and quality of the ideas. It appears that his point of view is based on the deficit view of L2 writers and their writers’ identities are neither valued nor respected. Given that, it is worth to have a close look at how researchers deal with the notion of voice from different points of view in order to help L2 writers to capture their voices and authorial identities that required in L2 writing. In the remainder of the paper, I will also analyze the studies by various approaches to investigate voice in the work of teaching and learning L2.

Studies on the notion of voice

In the study of written discourse, Ha (2010) explores the co-construction of an ESL student author’s identity by peer readers in online written exchanges within sociocultural perspectives. Through computer-mediated communication/writing (CMC) that has relatively fewer social constraints, the written texts reflect the student writer’s original choices since “the notion of voice carries with it the individual or personal quality in writing” (Elbow, 1994, cited in Ha, 2010). The author contends that CMC provides an intersubjective site for the student writer who understands how her voice is developed through dialogic interaction with others. Subsequently, this study suggests that “the nature of voice is captured as an activity, as a process, not as a fixed product to be measured in a piece of writing” (p. 172). Its implication for L2 voice pedagogy is that L2 writers need to aware their repertoire of voices that they already own in order to configure “the elements of the real-world rhetorical situations facing nonnative student writers” (p. 173). Thus, L2 writers are competent user of voice in L1 and it seems that specific voice pedagogy is required for their L2 voice construction.

Similarly, in their literacy study Yi & Hirvela (2010) observe how a biliterate and bicultural Korean 1.5 generation adolescent engaged in meaning-making, self-expression, and self-presentation through self-sponsored writing practice in CMC. This writing practices “allowed her to construct her identity and negotiate with her affinity group in the process” (p. 103). Although the authors discuss about authenticity and agency instead of voice, they suggest that self-sponsor writing will empower L2 writers to be agentive writers who write for real purposes and authentic audiences and express themselves in a productive way. What is noteworthy is that L2 writers already have multiple voices to interact with various affinity groups even though there are a gap between actual language uses in private lives and formal language use in schools for L2 writers. It is important to bear in mind that this gap needs to be narrowed by L2 writing instruction.

And there is more, Park (2010) also traces how a Korean undergraduate in the U.S. formulates his critical authorial voice in his writing and negotiated his multiple identities in relation to his mainstream American audience. The author argues that “authorial voice is a social construct in which context shifts the identification of a person in relation to other people” (p. 153). Further, the case of L2 writer of this study shows that “learners’ processes of reading texts and voice formulation can interact” (p. 167). Thus, his reading agency and authorship construct meaning and express an original voice “by appropriating multiple voices from artifacts, social forces, and himself with his own intention” (p.167). At this juncture, his ownership of language and thought are the base of his voice and his authorial voice is socially constructed in relation to other people. Furthermore, his ownership of language and thought went beyond the deficit view of L2 writers. Nonetheless, the construction of voice for L2 writers has never been a natural process. In the next section, I will discuss the difficulties of L2 writers’ construction of voice.

L2 writers often struggle to establish their authorial identities and voice in L2 writing. In his own experience as an international students at U.S. university, Matsuda (2001) finds that finding his own voice was a struggling when he was told to “be yourself,” yet he recognized that “it was the process of negotiating my socially and discursively constructed identity with the expectation of the reader as I perceived it” (p. 39). At first, the problem here seems that it is because the notion of individual varies across cultures as Atkinson (1999, cited in Matsuda, 2001) contends, not because the notion of constructing individual voice itself is difficult. However, Matsuda (2001) finds out that Japanese students have difficulties in constructing voice in English written discourse due not to its compatibility with their cultural orientation but to the different ways of constructing voice between English and Japanese as well as their lack of familiarity  with strategies in L2. Thus, he argues that L2 writers need to develop a personal repertoire of discursive feature and strategies in order to construct their voice in L2 writing. That is to say that, it appears that L2 writers need extensive socialization in L2 in order to be successful. From this respect, it is not they lack the ability to construct their voices; rather they lack knowledge of the linguistic resources for doing so in English. These findings change the dominant view of L2 writers from the deficit view to see them confident L2 users.

In the same vein, Hirvela and Belcher (2001) has observed that L2 writers come to classroom with already possessed voices and established identities using three case studies. Particularly, the authors contend that their L2 writers who are at the graduate level and as professional writers in their native language (L1) are “not voiceless or devoid of a writerly identity when they enter classroom” (p. 84). What is noteworthy here is even younger L2 learners view multiculturalism and multilingualism as an asset rather than a liability, and they conceived of these qualities as a prerequisite for effective social participation (Ajayi, 2006). Nevertheless, these students are often faced with differences between the conventions of L1 and L2 for academic writing. In this regard, the authors posit that L2 writers’ reconciliation of competing expectations for voice and identity can be a certain appreciation for the acquisition of a new identity as a writer. By focusing on variables of L2 writers’ characteristics, the authors suggest that it is necessary to discuss how to teach voice with in a particular rhetoric situation such as L2 academic writing instruction. Through these studies it is clear that L2 writers already own their voice, if not voices, in L1. Further, this is related to ideational position which is concerned to writers’ ways of representing world and they own their voice to write about something. What is necessary for them is to be exposed to socialization in L 2 with specific instruction.

Focusing socialization in L2, authorial voice is a social construct in which context shifts the identification of a person in relation to other people (Park, 2010). At the beginning, the L2 writers strive to comprehend the notion of individual voice intertextual relations, and then they become creative in voice articulation within relational, social, and situated contexts. In this regard, Tardy (2012) points out that voice construction between readers and student writers, extra-textual identity, and assessment are related. In her study, the author recruited experienced first-year writing (FYW) instructors and English as  second language (ESL) instructors at a university and divided them into two groups. One of the groups watched student video of two student writers, which included their characteristics such as name, gender, race, nationality, linguistic background, perceived personality, and life story. In terms of assessment of two students’ writings, difference between the FYW and ESL instructors were minimal, yet exposure to the student videos positively influenced the readers’ impressions of the writers. Thus, the author concludes that extra-textual identity seems to influence readers’ general impressions of voice and assessment. Moreover, readers’ own experiences and backgrounds make the process of voice construction individualized and text is an important component of voice construction social context. The research suggests that “voice is not a static product of individual manipulation of texts but emerges in an interaction with the reader and context” not entirely controlled by or belonging to the writer (p. 93). This contextual component of voice is important since the role of the reader in constructing voice link the social and the individual in a dialogic and contextual relationship to co-construct voice.

While the construction of voice appears to be a social process, the notion of voice is still closely associated with individual or personal writing and voice is considered to be voiceless in the language of academic writing. For instance, when an overall writing quality is measure by the ESL Composition profile (Jacobs & al, 1981), voice is not measured since the scale has only five categories such as content, organization, vocabulary, language use, and mechanics. Yet, Matsuda and Tardy (2007) challenge this dichotomy between personal writing and academic writing with the notion of voice. Through blind manuscript peer review process, the authors examine how two readers constructed the author’s voice. Surprisingly, the authors notice that these particular readers constructed an image of authors through interviews with the reviewers because identifying discursive and non-discursive features led the reviewers to construct voices of the writers of manuscripts. Also, it is worth noticing that individual readers construct voice of single author in divergent ways although an audience of disciplinary peers has similar expectation for a text to some extent. Therefore, voice can be an element of academic writing and voice is not the writer’s possession, rather it is jointly constructed in reader-writer interaction. In other words, voice emerges when a writer constructs textual identity socially and discoursally within a social process which is related to interpersonal function of writers’ identities in terms of writers’ relationship with their readers. In the next section, I will examine studies through textual function with which writers create and shape text.

Moreover, Ivanic (1994) investigates how writers are positioned by discourses they draw on as they write focusing on critical language awareness. As a result, the author observes the plurality and complexity of the resulting identity, suggesting that L2 writers need to be exposed to the critical discussion of discoursal choices and the way in which they position language users because a cause of their difficulty with writing is from being positioned by their participation in discourses. Therefore, it is necessary for them to recognize that writing in a particular way means appearing to be a certain type of person. In this regard, the author believes that critical language awareness can help L2 writers to recognize the writer identity as who they seem to be, to raise it to consciousness, and to gain control over it. Thus, L2 writers are encouraged to make choices as they write aligning them with social values and beliefs to which they are committed to. This implication of the author is consistent with her later claims. Ivanic & Camps (2001) posit that since disciplinary dress codes exist, each individual ultimately need to exercise individual agency to take elements from different voice types and blend them into a unique, heterogeneous voice according to their own interests, motivations, allegiances, and preferences.

Citing Wenger’s (1998) imagination which means a process of expanding oneself by transcending our time and space and creating new images of the world and ourselves, Kanno & Norton (2003) discuss that learners’ affiliation with imaged communities might affect their learning trajectories. Further, the authors contend that the images profoundly affected the learners’ investment in the target language and their concomitant actions and learning trajectories; thus, hopeful imagination informs particular actions and initiatives. That said, for L2 writers to envision an imagined identity within the context of an imagined community can impact on learners’ engagement with educational practice. In this regard, more informed pedagogy is in order to discuss here. Focusing Norton’s notion of subjectivity that is ever changing, opens up possibilities for educational intervention, Menard-Warwick (2005) argues that when language and literacy development become congruent with learner identities, learning is enhanced. As Dornyei (2005) reconceptualize language learning motivation by positing it to be connected to a language learner identity, motivation is contingent upon both what the individual strives to become and avoid become, as well as the specifics of the language learning experience according to Rubrecht & Ishikawa (2012). In this way, L2 writers need to develop their language identity to be motivated to get L2 writing instruction, and L2 voice pedagogy can enhance their L2 writing skills. It is also noteworthy that the notion of motivation can act as an impetus for L2 writers to involve aspects of the immediate L2 learning environment. In his L2 Motivational Self System, Dornyei (2005) suggests the learner’s “L2 ideal self” with respect to the person the learner wishes to become as a speaker of the L2 can influence their “ought-to L2 Self” which concerns the attributes the learner believes be possessed to meet expectations and avoid possible negative outcomes. Because “it is undeniable that writing is a technology” as Atkinson (2001) posits, L2 writers’ identity and motivation are essential to construct their voice. Moreover, these technologies of writing are “institutionalized human productions designed to accomplish conventionalized human actions” (p. 119). In this respect, as Hirvela & Belcher (2011) suggest that “voicing” is a process of continually creating, changing, understanding the internal and external identities that cast us as a writer; therefore, L2 writers should be educated by more informed voice pedagogy that is how to teach voice within a particular real-world rhetorical situation. Moreover, Ivanic & Camps (2001) remind the importance of L2 writing pedagogy that can raise critical awareness about voice because the notion of voice as self-representation “can help learners maintain control over the personal and cultural identity they are projecting in their writing” (p. 31). In a nutshell, L2 writing and the construction of voice is not simply radical individual expression, and L2 writers must learn its institutionalized conventions with the help of their already obtained L1 identities.


In this paper, I have tried to see what subject positions L2 writers construct for themselves in terms of voice. Also, my question includes what L2 writers own and disown in order to construct voice within three macrofunctions of language proposed by Holliday. It seems clear that they own multiculturalism and multilingualism from L1 and L2. Furthermore, L2 writers understand intersubjectivity which is mutual understanding created in social contexts between readers and writers. Therefore, it is important to notice their voices or identities already possessed by L2 writers. It is equally important to bear in mind that there is a reminder that the role of voice plays not as a teaching device but rather as a means/analytic device by which to investigate and understand the voice-related issues such as voice as identity and self-representation as Hirvela & Belcher (2011) so eloquently assert. From this pespective, Tardy (2012) agrees with the authors, saying “instructors themselves should be well equipped with understandings of voice and the ways in which it functions in academic writing” (p. 93). With regard to L2 writing instruction, it is necessary to let L2 writers to explore their choices. In this light, Ivanic & Comps (2001) note that even though there are certain conventions and expectations that limit students writer’s choices, “each individual ultimately exercise individual agency to take elements from different voice types and blend them into a unique, heterogeneous voice according to their own interests, motivations, allegiances, and preferences” (p. 21). What stands out most of all is that classroom activities that support an interactive understanding of voice and classroom-based research may investigate the effects of such awareness-raising activities to use Tardy (2012)’s phrase.

That said, the L2 learners’ multiple perspectives should be respected and valued since “their identities dictate the degree of their interests, commitment, and enthusiasm in participating in classroom learning activities and therefore how much they can learn” (Ajayi, 2006, p. 478) and learners’ affiliation with imaged communities might affect their learning trajectories (Kanno & Norton, 2003). In that light, we need voice pedagogy and need to know how to teach voice within a particular real-world rhetorical situation. Indeed, more informed pedagogy is required in L2 academic writing instruction for the construction of voice. The second language classroom needs to be a place where a discussion about how to construct writer identities and voices. Through discussion of various aspects of voices, L2 writers can eventually arrive at their own adaption and recombination of voices with what they would like to add and avoid to their already owned voices.

L2 writers deserve their own voices, and their voices certainly posses their originality, creativity, as well as ideas. After all, there are no voiceless words that belong to no one. (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 124, cited in Prior, 2001)


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