The Role of the Affective Filter in Language Learning

by multilingualmania on March 3, 2011

in Language Learning

184; Stress level: Midnight

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.

More About the Affective Filter:
What is the Affective Filter?
The Curious Case of the Affective Filter

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Spanglish Queen March 13, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Ah, so that’s why if someone asks if I speak Spanish I will always say no. I am too self conscious and too focused on if I am remembering the verb tenses correctly. The only time I will speak Spanish is if I absolutely have to because the other person doesn’t speak English or if I am talking to my baby because that’s the only way he is going to learn. I know, I have to work on that.

multilingualmania March 15, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Just let loose and try speaking! Pretty soon you will start to lower your own affective filter!!

melissa March 17, 2011 at 12:25 pm

I really enjoyed this article and it opened my eyes and brain up a bit and has helped me reframe my thinking about speaking a foreign language. I have always noticed the more I over think things and try to be perfect, and am overly self aware, anxiety levels rise and communicating is more difficult. But, on those great days when confidence is high and the fear of committing errors is lessened, inhibitions are lowered and everything just flows that much more smoothly. I was inspired by your article, it really put things in perspective and I used it as a jumping off point for a blog I wrote today at: Diario di una Studentessa Matta


multilingualmania March 17, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Oh how I wish I knew italian! I’m going to try to use my spanish to understand and if all else fails get a rough translation from google translate. Glad to hear that it was helpful, and that other people have also felt the same!

Jmarie March 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Wow, so painful to read that one girl, one giggle, set off such a chain of insecurity. And she might have sat there feeling bad after she was wrong, but who knows? It’s like all your insecurities about being the lone gringa in the class were confirmed in one moment, and almost destroyed years of competence and excellence…

I hear many stories of ‘that one moment.’ A lovely lady (white) with deep brown eyes once told me a teacher had commented on her eyes. Ever after she was self conscious about the color of her eyes. Here was an adult standing in front of me, with her own daughter next to her, still self conscious about her (honestly beautiful) eyes because of what she ASSUMED her teacher meant – “Your eyes are so brown!” — years before.

Nuestras corazones estan tan suaves cuando estan abiertas, no?

Happy your body has decided it’s more important to communicate than be embarrassment-free, JM

Esther Ortiz Law April 1, 2011 at 7:12 am

Oh, goodness,yes! It’s happened to me and I was an English Language Learner as a child. I was brought up in a community where bilingual education meant bussing to another side of town. My parents did not want us to be bussed so that we could receive an education in Spanish for fear of sending your children to another neighborhood where, in some instances, they were not well received. This was in the early 70’s so there was lots of fear from both sides of the language debate. However, my parents did insist, much to my advantage, that Spanish and only Spanish be spoken in the home. My oral Spanish is proficient but when I have to speak to native Spanish parents who are inquiring, say, as to an issue that they are concerned about, there goes my affective filter. I just hate it! hate it! What happens to me at times is that after I walk away from the conversation or presentation, I feel hot and tense and begin asking myself, “Why did you say it like that? Why couldn’t you rememer that word and instead rambled on and watered it down? Why did I have to search in my mind for the words? or sound so choppy when I am fluent?” I attribute that to my early schooling experience in an environment where Spanish was not considered a resource but an obstacle and that has had it’s toll on my affective filer EVEN THOUGH my parents were always proud that they raised us bilingual. It just comes to show you that teachers and the education of our children, oftentimes have an even greater influence on our affective filter than our parents which is why I believe strongly in the power of teachers!

Oscar June 16, 2011 at 8:09 am

Me gusto mucho tu articulo. As an English language learner I’ve had the same experiences and I always try to keep in mind that learning a foreign language takes a lot practice, but more importantly takes the desire and positive attitude. these two elemenet have helped me keep my affective filter lowered.

Oscar R. Garcia

Baining June 16, 2011 at 11:03 pm

I have seen this take people down! I did happen to me with other things like math for instance. I still can not do a simple problem in front of others, I’m 30! I think the biggest help is being married to my guy, he laughs at everything especially his mistakes. He loves to retell especially when the any of us, family of four, make a funny Chinese mistake. Like saying my wife should go die, instead of saying this is my wife. Thankfully we have unwittingly passed this on to the boys. They laugh at there mistakes and they learn from them and thankfully are not crushed by them. The sad thing is this, usually when people are laughing it is not because they think you are and idiot it is just really strikes them funny! I think that is OK! Try to think of it this way, you just made someone smile today, and you know what sometimes that is a hard thing to do.

madamebaker June 30, 2011 at 7:41 pm

What a great post! This really does say it all!
I have been teaching French for 20 years and every now and then when I am in a group of native speakers I feel like this, although I know that I am quite capable.

Haya September 10, 2012 at 4:50 am

I would greatly appreciate it if you could write to me and tell me what I can do – as an ESL teacher – to try and overcome this filter in my students. Thank you!

azkathi October 21, 2012 at 7:04 am

Thank you. This helped me to clarify my own struggle from childhood. I teach middle school Spanish and see the body language in my students where they try to make themselves smaller; I hear the excuses–“I don’t know how to say it right.” I am trying to address these issues so that my classroom is a safe place to try and make mistakes and try again (for me as well!). I wish it were as simple as telling them to keep talking. That didn’t work for me until I was in my 40’s and just didn’t care what anybody thought anymore because I wanted to speak so badly to my own parents in Spanish.

Parent-teacher conferences are coming up and I am already stressed and worried about freezing up in front of my fluent parents. I know I am a great teacher…but will they think so after I butcher the language in front of them??? LOL. I plan on telling them of my nervousness and plow ahead.

If anyone knows of more resources that address this issue, I would love to hear about it.

multilingualmania October 26, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Yes, just plow ahead! That’s the only thing that we can do to increase our confidence. The more we try, the more we practice. And the more we practice, the better we get. Thanks for stopping by!

Sam December 2, 2012 at 1:19 pm

This is great topic!
I have been a Spanish teacher for a long time (K-12, Adults). I’m very passionate about second language acquisition. Some of Krashen’s Language acquisiton theories has influenced the way I feel today. I’m glad to have found this article related to the affective filter. I agree that we all have it within ourselves, yet I still feel that many teachers of the forein laguages even today don’t know much about this (maybe because they don’t read, are ignorant or simply choose to ignore the SLA research). I’ve seen how Spanish teachers want to impose their language in English speakers (claiming that speaking to their students 90-100% of the time in Spanish only) will help these students aquire the second language faster or become fluent. I’m not implying they are wrong. Our goal as FL teachers should be to get our students to their next level of L2 proficiency…
Why I’m sayin’ is that the above might me true for the 1% whose affective filter is always high (by nature/the stronger always survive: Darwin’s theory of evolution)). But what happens with the other 99% (always the majority) whose affective filter tend to be low no matter how much we speak the second language or how many approaches or variety of activities we use every day in our classrooms? Well this is what I have done and continue to do(inspite of my critics):
Since I know these students affective filter is low (by nature), I consiously break the rules (I even go against Krashen’s theory of natural approach). What I do, that seems to work with these 99%, is use their first language (English) to lower their affective filter, which have resulted on these students being more opened to making mistakes and taking risks in the second language. I have noticed that these students also tend to like learning Spanish more and seem more happy in my class. You know, for me, that’s what matters!
Hey, I know I might get some more of you to hate me for advocationg the use of the students first language in class (whenever is necessary). But before you reply, think about these questions:
1. If bilingual education (based on Krashen’s theory) calls for the use of students first language to help them acquire English, why wouldn’t us use our students’ first language (English) to lure them to acquire Spanish/French/German, etc?
2. Why wouldn’t we respect our American students’ language, culture and experiences the same way bilingual education asks us to respect those of our immigrants students? Why do we continue to believe that forcing our students to speak Spanish/German/French… ONLY will make them become fluent in those languages?
3. If using the second language 90-100% is the way to go, and works, think about this: How many students enroll in our foreign language classes every year? Thousands, right? Of those thousands, how any end up in an AP class? And how many FL AP classes are offered in our schools every year? In my school, only 1 of each language taught, which has 10 students or less.
4. If these language acquisition experts are so right, why is it they haven’t created their own language schools and have become multimillionares themselves? Maybe because acquiring a second language is more difficult than what they and us claim to be?
I know the above questions might sound silly to many, but they and many more are the ones that have kept my love for teaching a foreign language alive…
I also know that the more I question myself on these issues, the closer to understanding my students language learning/acquisition I become…
While I continue to find answers for my questions, I’ll continue to be mindfull of my students affective filter, and will do anything that might be necessary to tend to each of my students linguistic needs–for they are the MOST IMPORTANT part of my profession…

Jmarie December 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Re-reading this posts, especially the very thorough last one, brought another thought to me — why do we feel we must dissemble most of the time? Appear better or more polished than the truth, which is of course the truth of the moment, not some kind of immortal, immutable truth?

Our momentary truth may be that we can’t think of a word. That we are put off by someone’s belligerent attitude. That we are very concerned for a student. That we are native speakers, not native speakers, speakers of a certain dialect. If all that was okay with us, we could concentrate on what we want to say — surely that is quite as important as our image in the moment!

Best to you all in your bravery, mistakes, and laughter – J

Sammy bouqfa February 3, 2016 at 4:15 pm

To speak another different language, you should love to learn. If you have been forced to study a language just because it is a requirement in your degree you will end up for getting it as soon as you get your credit. But if you study a language because of the culture, logistics, history – whatever reason- you will master it forever. I study fresh as second language since the elementary school but I never like for some political reasons. My writing in fresh is very good as well as my reading but my spoken is very strong. The opposite in English which is not my mother tongue language and I didn’t start studying it in early age but I am better in English then French. That is why I am concluding that you have to build a bridge with other language.

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