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Affective Filter And Second Language Acquisition

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3057 words Published: 16th May 2017

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As the number of ELL students increases on campuses across the nation, there is a growing need for educators to somehow increase their awareness about the process of second language acquisition, and different ways to promote students’ learning and acquisition of a new language. ELL students usually experience stress and anxiety as they are very much aware of their lack of proficiency in English. This often interferes with their learning and acquisition of a new language. In recent years the importance of affective filter has become a matter of debate and extensive research among language teachers, linguists and researchers. The major purpose of this paper is therefore, to address the implications and importance that affective filter has on the language acquisition of especially English Language Learners (ELLs).

Overview of Krashen’s Theory of Language Acquisition

Krashen’s theory of second language acquisition has had a great impact in the field of education, especially that of acquiring and learning a new language. Based on internal psychological factors, his theory holds that humans have an innate ability to learn language (Krashen, 1982). According to Krashen, a second language is most successfully acquired when the conditions are similar to those present in first language acquisition: that is, when the focus of instruction is on meaning rather than on form; when the language input is at or just above the proficiency of the learner; and when there is sufficient opportunity to engage in meaningful use of that language in a relatively anxiety-free environment. He emphasized the importance of providing learners with comprehensible input in a risk-free environment. Krashen also maintained that low stress situations provide the greatest opportunity for learners to improve their language competency.


Krashen’s theory of second language acquisition consists of five interrelated hypotheses which reflect an understanding of both linguistics and of psychology: The Acquisition-Learning hypothesis, the Monitor hypothesis, the Natural Order hypothesis, the Input Hypothesis, and the Affective Filter Hypothesis. Despite of the significance of all of these hypotheses in language learning and acquisition, this paper prioritizes the last, but also one of the most important hypotheses in the process of language learning and acquisition, the Affective Filter Hypothesis. Rosenthal (1996) found that although Duley and Burt were among the first to refer to the relationship between the affective delimiters and L2 acquisition, it was Krashen who championed the connection.

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In Krashen’s work, the affective filter hypothesis explains the role of affective factors in the process of language acquisition (2003). It suggests that emotional variables can hinder comprehensible input from reaching the part of the brain responsible for acquiring language. Krashen (1981) postulated that an affective filter exists that can increase or decrease the intake of the comprehensible input. He found that a high level of stress and anxiety creates a filter that impedes learning, blocks the intake, and reduces L2 acquisition. When the filter is up, input can’t reach those parts of the brain where acquisition occurs. Many language learners realize that the reason they have trouble is because they are nervous or embarrassed and simply can’t concentrate. In other words, the input is filtered out. Krashen also concluded that a low affective filter on the other side facilitates learning and promotes second language acquisition.

The Affective Filter hypothesis embodies Krashen’s view that a number of ‘affective variables’ play a facilitative, but non-causal, role in second language acquisition (2003). These


variables include: motivation, self-confidence and anxiety. According to him, it is easier for a learner to acquire a language when he/she is not tense, angry, anxious, and bored. Krashen claimed that learners with high motivation, self-confidence, a good self-image, and a low level of anxiety are better equipped for success in second language acquisition. Low motivation, low self-esteem, and debilitating anxiety can combine to ‘raise’ the affective filter and form a ‘mental block’ that prevents comprehensible input from being used for acquisition. In other words, when the filter is ‘up’ it impedes language acquisition. On the other hand, positive affect is necessary, but not sufficient on its own, for acquisition to take place. Therefore, educators need to provide an environment that reduces stress and anxiety and also increases the ELL students’ motivation and self-esteem. This, according to Krashen, provides opportunities for language acquisition to occur more efficiently and quickly among the learners (2003).

The Motivation Variable

A number of studies conducted in the field of ESL learning show that motivation is crucial to successful ESL learning (Andres, 2003). Within a school system the amount of motivation that children bring into the classroom with them is highly variable. It depends both on age and on family background factors. In-school factors also influence motivation. Crookes and Schmidt (1991) argued that intrinsic motivation, the one that stems from the interest in the activity itself independent from extrinsic reward, should be favored in the classroom. According to them, teachers can foster intrinsic motivation by posing reasonable challenging tasks to students, basing them on the perceptions of learner’s needs and providing for plenty of variety in classroom activities.


Conversely, Fontana (1988) argued that there are occasions when students ‘ intrinsic motivation is insufficient and recourse has to be made to motivation of an extrinsic tangible nature. Thus, it seems that balance should be kept between both stances, understanding that extrinsic motivation may be valid, useful and even necessary, but if overused, in the long run it can be detrimental to students ‘ autonomy.

Teachers’ own behaviour can either positively or negatively influence the learner’s desire and willingness to learn and continue learning the language. Based on his instructional design model for motivation, Keller (1979) suggested four different ways to help teachers increase the motivation of all students, especially of ELL learners: stimulating interest in the topic; creating relevance to students’ lives; developing an expectancy of success, and producing satisfaction in the outcome through intrinsic/extrinsic rewards. Clearly defined tasks, which are both interesting and sufficiently challenging, are also of the utmost importance. Furthermore, concerning curriculum and instruction, the importance of authentic, communicative tasks and assignments cannot be emphasized enough.

Research by Oxford and Shearin (1996) also supports the critical role of educators in enhancing the motivation of ELL students. According to them, teachers can help shape students’ beliefs about success and failure in L2 learning. They found that teachers can help students improve motivation by showing that L2 learning can be an exciting mental challenge, a career enhancer, a vehicle to cultural awareness and friendship, and a key to world peace. In addition, teachers can make the L2 classroom a welcoming, positive place where psychological needs are met and where language anxiety is kept to a minimum. Most importantly, educators can urge


students to develop their own intrinsic rewards through positive self-talk, guided self-evaluation, and mastery of specific goals, rather than comparison with other students. Teachers can thus promote a sense of greater self-efficacy, increasing motivation to continue learning a new language and master the academic content as well.

In the ELL classroom is vitally important that the curriculum and instructional strategies used are comprehensible. If language learners cannot comprehend the language input they receive, often they will become frustrated and “check-out”, no longer putting effort into the language learning process. This frustration, if not addressed early on, becomes overwhelming and discouraging to students and, as Duff (2001) reports, “frustration and failure may lead to higher than average drop-out rates among immigrant students in high school, especially those whose home-country education or L1 literacy skills are limited” (p.105). Therefore, teachers must make a concerted effort during instruction to assure that language input is comprehensible to ELLs. This certainly increases their motivation to learn the new language and also the academic content. Helpful suggestions for making input comprehensible include pre-teaching vocabulary, providing study guides, and graphic organizers etc. With these tools, teachers provide students with the scaffolding necessary to motivate, and challenge students, but not frustrate them to the point of overwhelming or discouraging.

In addition to providing students with comprehensible input, teachers must provide students with opportunities to experience success. In order for students to be motivated in continuing the language learning process, they must have enough self-efficacy, or confidence, to know that they are capable. One way to help meet this affective need in students through


curriculum and instruction is by planning activities in which students can experience success. As

students effectively use learning strategies; there is a close association with the individual’s self-efficacy (Zimmerman, 1990). Although these activities may not be necessarily ‘easy’, they must be tasks that students have tools and resources to complete with a sense of accomplishment. In addition to these types of tasks, students also experience success when they have choices over texts, activities, small grouping, topics, etc (Townsend and Fu, 2001). As students experience academic success and connections to their own knowledge and abilities, their self-efficacy and motivation to learn increases. With this affective need met, students are validated and more willing to take on new challenges in the language learning process.

Ellis (1994) acknowledged McNamara’s views that communication itself is also an important motivation – “learners acquire motivation from the need to express themselves and from the pleasure that they feel when they achieve this” (p.516). Consequently, classes that provide opportunities for communication are going to have a more positive effect than those that do not. Interest increases as the learners are made responsible for their learning activities especially during interactive, flexible cooperative activities.

Research supports two important claims regarding cooperative group work, particularly in the ELL classroom. First, minority students’ academic achievement increases with the use of cooperative learning activities (Aronson & Gonzalez, 1998). Second, regarding the social and emotional needs of the learner, cooperative learning increases self-esteem and student motivation Slavin, 1985) and helps them develop empathy (Aronson & Bridgemen, 1979). Cummins (1986) and Holt (1993) also emphasized the role of cooperative learning in maximizing the acquisition of English, its comprehensible input, and empowering students to use the language, hear it, and


model it for each other in a non-threatening environment.

According to Stewart (2010), positive feedback, praise, and a sense of belonging can also

be empowering for students who lack confidence in the subject matter. By giving them such feedback, ELL students may be motivated to put forth more effort, which will produce a higher quality of work, greater self-confidence, greater learning and then even more deserved positive feedback in a continuous loop. Last but not least, another factor that triggers the motivation of ELL students is the aspect of fun. Lin (2008) demonstrates the importance of fun in the classroom to lower the affective filter in her study with Taiwanese English as a Foreign Language students. She describes these activities as “joyful and motivation-stirring” and “relaxing pedagogies” (p. 126). Perhaps one of the most effective ways to lower the affective filter is to embrace the fun that I believe is inherent in second language learning.

The Self-confidence variable

The affective and emotional needs of students are deeply personal and influence language learning and academic achievement. The second variable that affects the affective filter and influences the process of language acquisition is self-confidence. Without some belief in oneself and one’s abilities, it is easy to become anxious, frustrated, and discouraged. Work by Brown (1977) and Krashen (1981) reveals that traits related to self-confidence such as lack of anxiety, outgoing personality, and self-esteem are predictive of second language learning. The more confidence a student has about his abilities, the easier it is to participate in language learning activities, eventually leading to further language learning success. Conversely, when students lack self-confidence they tend to become overly anxious. This can have detrimental affects on

language learning success as described by Gopaul-McNicol and Thomas-Presswood (1998):


“A high anxiety level interferes with learning a second language because it not only impairs memory but it also decreases the learner’s willingness to take risks and practice the new

language” (p. 68). In addition, as anxiety increases frustration tolerance decreases; this causes students to become much more susceptible to giving up or quitting.

It is very critical that students have a positive attitude towards themselves in the form of self-confidence/esteem, as previously discussed. This is an important affective need for all students, but particularly so for ELLs whose cultural identity is changing (Canadian Teachers’ Federation, 1989). While ELLs themselves need to have positive attitudes toward themselves, their culture, and second language, they also need to experience a positive social environment, which promotes acceptance, a sense of belonging, and community.

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According to Kristmanson (2003), it is very important for teachers to encourage and support students at all times, but especially when they are struggling or lacking confidence in certain areas, such as speaking a new language. For example, demonstrating interest and involvement in the children, getting to know them, their lives, their families, and capitalizing on the rich cultural knowledge and experiences their students bring to classroom increases their overall self-esteem and makes learning more meaningful. Finally, creating an atmosphere in which students are not afraid to make mistakes and are encouraged to take risks promotes their self-confidence. Lastly, praise also helps teachers build students’ confidence.

Anxiety Variable

Krashen (1981) states that “low anxiety relates to success in second language acquisition” (p. 56). ELL students are often very nervous about their first class in English. Everything is

new to them – the language, the building, the classroom, the culture of the classroom. Therefore,


it is very important to establish a welcoming classroom environment and thoroughly explain

procedures and assignments to lower students’ anxiety levels. Avoiding tension-causing strategies such as surprise quizzes, overly competitive activities, putting students in front of their peers with no warning or chance for preparation, and correcting errors in a negative, accusatory fashion reduces the tension, nervousness, and affective filter of ELL students.

Anxiety should be of a low level, and should be attached to the need to communicate, rather than to personality factors, or the fear of appearing ridiculous. Error correction must also be constructive and tailored to students’ individual needs. Examples of ways to gently and effectively correct students’ errors include reflecting their statements back to them, extending, and elaborating on statements. It is also important that error correction focus on mistakes that impede communication (‘global errors’), rather than more minor grammatical errors (‘local errors’). Recognizing the ELL students’ language proficiencies, differentiating instruction, materials, and assessment tools to meet their diverse needs certainly promotes language acquisition in a positive low- affective filter classroom.

In conclusion, Krashen’s insistence on the importance of providing ELL learners with comprehensible input in a risk-free environment sends an important message to all teachers. As educators, we can make a significant difference in motivation, in anxiety levels and in the self image of our students. It is indeed our responsibility to establish a classroom environment that

promotes camaraderie, makes every member feel welcome, wanted, validated and most

importantly promotes their chances of acquiring and learning a new language in a positive, low-stress environment. This particular type of environment will certainly reduce our students’ affective filter, inspire them to learn the new language, and be successful in school.



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