The Curious Case of the Affective Filter

by multilingualmania on March 14, 2011

in Language Learning

Questions?It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post about the affective filter about how it’s been significant to my overall language learning. New thoughts bring to mind the following story:

My cousin studied Spanish for four years in high school and three years at the university. Despite having spent almost eight years studying another language, she could barely speak a lick of it. I used to not believe her when she would be unable to understand when someone spoke rudimentary Spanish to her, but over the years I became convinced that she was not faking it.

We eventually bought houses together in Rosarito, Mexico, a small beach town approximately thirty miles South of the United States-Mexico border. In town I frequently had to translate for her because she was unable to communicate effectively with the Spanish-speaking locals.

One night she confided in me that her teacher in high school laughed and said that he had never heard anyone speak Spanish with a “Southern accent” before. She told me that it was around the time of that incident that she felt that she started having difficulty with learning Spanish.

One night while we were staying in Rosarito over the holiday season, I managed to convince her that we should head over to the local bar to throw back a few Coco Locos. When we first arrived, I had to communicate with the bartenders and waitresses because my cousin claimed that she didn’t have enough vocabulary to be able to order food and drinks in Spanish.

After about five Coco Locos later, my cousin suddenly began to run around the bar, talking to anyone and everyone who would listen to her. She chatted all night long in Spanish. In fact, she managed to convince some locals that she was proficient enough in Spanish to go out on the ocean and take a boating lesson with them before she went home. She barely even made any grammatical errors when she was speaking.

As we were leaving for the evening, I told her, “I thought that you didn’t speak Spanish”.

“I didn’t,” she responded.

The next morning when she woke up she could hardly believe that she was able to speak to people in Spanish. She woke me quickly and was excited to head down the street for breakfast so that she could practice all of the Spanish that she thought she had forgotten.

Suddenly, the waitress asked her what she would like to order. “Can you order for me?” she asked, with a confused look on her face. “I don’t know much Spanish”.

That’s the curious thing about the affective filter-when the affective filter is high, we feel anxious or stressed and we’re less successful when speaking another language. When we aren’t so anxious or stressed about speaking another language, we are often more successful. Just imagine how fluent we’d all be if we didn’t have that affective filter holding us back!

Melanie D. McGrath is the founder and editor of Multilingual Mania. She provides professional development and technical assistance to parents, bilingual teachers and administrators in the areas of biliteracy development, bilingual program design and English language development. Melanie can also be found writing about second language acquisition on the Spanglishbaby and TeachELD websites.

More Posts About the Affective Filter:
The Role of the Affective Filter in Language Learning

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