No Place for Fear in Language Learning: How to Bust the Affective Filter

If you are a member of that rare breed of ESL instructors that is immensely interested in the intricacies and mechanics of language (even more, perhaps, than in the actual instruction of it), you may have come across a few theories by a linguist called Stephen Krashen. Krashen revolutionized the way we theorize about language acquisition in many ways. One of his most interesting ideas ( not his originally, but he all-but institutionalized it) is the concept of the Affective Filter. In his hugely influential paper “Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition”, he talks about the Affective Filter Hypothesis as “the relationship between affective variables and the process of second language acquisition by positing that acquirers vary with respect to the strength or level of their Affective Filters. Those whose attitudes are not optimal for second language acquisition will not only tend to seek less input, but they will also have a high or strong Affective Filter – even if they understand the message, the input will not reach the part of the brain responsible for language acquisition, or the language acquisition device. Those with attitudes more conducive to second language acquisition will not only seek and obtain more input, they will also have a lower or weaker filter. They will be more open to the input, and it will strike ‘deeper’ “.

For those of you decidedly not a member of that aforementioned breed, wise Mr. Krashen here is talking about how, when your students are not having fun, and are not planning to have any fun any time soon, they will not be acquiring much in the way of language from you. We could argue this until the cows come home, you and I, and I do understand intimately the subjectivity of the elusive “fun” factor, but the fact remains that there are invisible and destructive linguistic walls around most of your students, and your job (if you haven’t noticed) is to pick at them until they crumble to nothingness. That’s the goal, at least. As a self-proclaimed language geek and Linguistics major, I do try to keep the voices of Krashen and Chomsky around in order to, at the very least, make my teaching hours educational for me, but try is the operative word here, and fancy theories tend to mean very little when your class of second graders resembles one of  those arcade games where you hit the beaver with the flimsy plastic hammer but it keeps jumping out of a different hole. So, I have compiled a list of Affective Filter busting techniques that I have found to be helpful in actual practice, that are not “play more games”, and I’d like to think Krashen would be proud of my resourcefulness:

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This one doesn’t take much effort, for me at least, and yet it is akin to actual gold in my affective filter busting arsenal. For kids who are anxious about this English thing to the point of dread; kids who are taught by their entire culture that making mistakes equals doom, to hear their English teacher fumbling over what is ridiculously easy to them, is a game-changer. If you tell them how you order kimbap (juseyo kimbap), call yourself “no” and them “na”, they will a) like you all the more for being a wild phenomenon called “human that makes mistakes without dying of shame” and b) be a lot more willing to make mistakes (a.k.a try) in your classroom. We, as aliens in this foreign land, are perfect examples of who they might be, should they ever travel abroad, and our willingness to try should inspire them.

Be the student sometimes (and let them be the teacher)

I don’t know your life, but if you’re an ESL teacher who values your own sanity, I’m sure you sometimes play games in your classroom. Even these, however, have off days, where students just aren’t having fun no matter how fantastic and awe-inspiring your activities are. My favorite tool, on these awful days, is to tun around the dynamic. If you are, let’s say, playing a touch game where you shout out a word and they rush to touch it, elect a student (a good one, at first) to play you, while you take their spot within their team/ pair. It’ll take a little coaching for them to get it right (no-one can do what you do, right?), but once they get it right, not only is everyone more into the activity at hand (because they want to be teacher next), but the student playing teacher is getting an invaluable amount of practice at speaking English authoritatively.

The other side of that coin, and the effect of this so immense it surprises me every single time, is the fact that you will, for a while at least, be on the very same level as your students. The goal is winning, and all of a sudden, you are right there with them, trying your darndest to get it right and to not lose. This is oh-so fun in teams, but life-changing in pairs. If you (because of a teacher-student switch, or an uneven amount of students) make yourself the partner of even one your worst students, and take the game seriously to the point of ridiculousness, you will have won yourself an ally for life. I have seen this happen countless times, and am still not entirely clear on the mechanics of it, but trust me here. Ally. For. Life.

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The scene: It’s a book-heavy day. There is writing and reading to be done, and there really is no way around it. There is no space for games (or anything resembling them) in today’s lesson plan, and your boredom is rivaled only by the overt dissatisfaction of your yawning, sighing students. You have goals though, and not quite enough time, and so everyone soldiers forth. Then Ji Ho in the back, troublesome but well-meaning Ji Ho, somehow worms his way out of whatever it is he’s meant to be doing, in the service of telling you something, in Korean, that seems (going by his exasperation and refusal to let it go) to be of vital importance. What do you do? Do you resist, do you shout? Do you punish a little student for trying to figure out how to say something important (to him, at least) in English?

You don’t do any of that. You breathe, and you take him seriously. You use your phone’s translator to teach him (and yourself) the words neither of you know, and then appreciatively ‘aaah’ as the story of Ji Ho’s grandmother’s dog being missing forms itself. You might lose control of your class, who almost-certainly will gather around the translator as though it is some sort of religious relic. That’s okay. Is any of this pertinent to the text book, to the test? Certainly not. Is it absolutely conducive to accessibility of English in Ji Ho’s mind? Absolutely. All of our situations vary, this I understand, but if you have the freedom to shape the way your classes go, I believe whole-heartedly in the benefit of real-life, practical English usage over the stagnant, theoretical nature of textbooks. “But Ji Ho won’t remember anything Google Translate taught the two of you!” you say, snorting. Maybe not. Probably not. He will remember, however, being taken seriously, and that language barriers are not insurmountable, and that trumps a smooth-flowing textbook lesson any day.

And, lastly: take yourself way less seriously


Those of us who have been doing this for a while and are intimately acquainted with the sometimes vicious, often uncontrollable nature of sweet-looking students, might find it difficult to let go of the in-control teacher persona. We’ve seen how it goes when we give a finger and they take the whole hand, we know the bitter taste of a well-meaning game day turning into a human zoo, and all of that makes us think of being friends with our students as a lovely but unattainable ideal. Like unicorns, or ripe avocados in Korea. I’m here to say though, that there is a balance to be found between teacher and friend, even if it takes immense amounts of time, even if the balance is often imperfect. Hi-five your students in the halls. Stick out your tongue at them when you win rock paper scissors. Draw funny pictures in sketch quiz. Finish the book work quickly and play nunchi game – not stand and watch nunchi game, play nunchi game. Little acts of companionship like that all add up and transform you, little by little, into an approachable human being in their minds, and approachability – more than a sort of fear-induced respect – is what you should be striving for if you are looking to foster a culture of language learning among your budding learners, and have a lovely time doing it.

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