All learners in the process of acquiring a second language have an invisible filter inside of them that has the potential to result in anxiety, stress, and lack of self-confidence. This invisible filter is theoretically called the affective filter, and it has an important role in the learning (or not) of another language.
Some people have a naturally low affective filter and are relatively confident about learning a second language. However, not everyone is so lucky. Many other people have experienced anxiety and inability to effectively comprehend or communicate well in another language. They sweat, stammer, and butcher the language. They can’t seem to control what comes out of their mouth. Sometimes they can’t even utter a peep.
The affective filter can make or break proficiency in a second language.
It was because of a high affective filter that I took a long detour on my personal route to proficiency in Spanish. In high school I was able to pick up Spanish relatively quickly. As a senior in high school, my Spanish was much more developed than other native English-speaking students and I was the lone native English speaker in the Advanced Placement Spanish literature class. Most of the students in the class were recent arrivals from Mexico and didn’t speak English.
One day as we were reading Don Quixote, the Spanish teacher began to review irregular past tense verbs that were being used in the story. He wrote two sentences on the board with the Spanish verb traer and we had to choose the correct irregular conjugation.
I raised my hand and identified the correct irregular conjugation, traje. Suddenly, one of my classmates began to giggle across the room and she said. “No, traí”. Which of course was incorrect, but I suddenly became confused. The teacher quickly verified that I had answered correctly. I was absolutely mortified and sat there in shame for the rest of the class period, even though I had answered correctly. All I could hear was the giggling.
I never spoke Spanish in front of a native Spanish speaker for almost four years. Every time that someone would talk to me in Spanish, I responded in English.
In college I refused to speak Spanish in my classes and my competence in Spanish was always underestimated and misidentified. In my third year of Spanish at the university level, one professor did not even believe that I was writing my own essays and made me write an essay in front of her. As I walked out the door, she said, “If you could only speak as well as you write-then I would say you are proficient”.
I responded, “I probably could speak as proficiently as I write. It’s sad that it will never happen”.
I’m not exactly sure what happened and when I began to feel comfortable enough to speak Spanish again. I’m sure it had something to do with the many parents of the children that I taught who seemed impressed with and appreciative of my attempts to communicate with them. It also had a bit to do with the many native Spanish-speakers who barely even noticed the errors that I frequently made.
Over the years I have naturally learned how to lower my affective filter and have become more confident with my proficiency in Spanish. But every once in a while something happens, like a room full of one hundred Spanish-speaking parents who are upset about something, and my affective filter begins to rise. In those moments I’m typically shocked at the disaster that begins to come out of my mouth. I can turn from an advanced Spanish speaker to a blubbering fool in the blink of an eye. Well, maybe not a blubbering fool, but at least someone who sounds like they just started learning Spanish.
That darn high affective filter. It will always be a thorn in my side, won’t it?
Has your affective filter ever been raised, resulting in an inability to communicate or understand a second language? Has anyone ever done something to lower your affective filter and make you feel more capable in a second language? If so, what?
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.