Affective Variables and Second Language Acquisition

Becoming bilingual is a way of life. Your whole person in affected as you struggle to reach beyond the confines of your first language and into a new language, a new culture, a new way of thinking, feeling and acting” (Brown, 1994). According to Douglas Brown and not only the learning of a foreign language is a process that requires a lot of energy and dedication, and which at the same time comprises a series of psychological, intellectual and emotional variables.

In 1964, Benjamin Bloom expressed his belief that there are two domains of learning: the cognitive and the affective. Unfortunately affective variables have not been thoroughly studied in the various researches and papers having as subject the process of second language acquisition and learning. Empathy, aggression, anxiety, imitation, inhibition, introversion and extroversion are affective variables that have only been slightly tackled by specialists in the domain of SLA (Brown, 2006).

The vast experience of lots of SLA teachers clearly indicates that the students’ attitudes and opinions influence the success or the failure of the teaching process. The troublesome questions for teachers and researchers as well are what affective variables influence language acquisition and how influential each is (Chastain, 2006). It has been suggested that affective variables might play a more important part than intellectual maturation when it comes to problems associated with second language acquisition.

It is rather difficult to give an accurate definition of affect and affective variables. Brown (1987) stated that affect refers to emotion or feeling while Dickinson (1987) described it as being concerned with the learner’s attitude towards the target language and its users. Arnold (1999) defines affect as “aspects of emotion, feeling, mood or attitude which condition behavior”.

From the point of view of language teaching, affect represents the total components of foreign-language instruction that can influence the emotional attitude towards the process of learning a foreign language and towards using it. It also refers to the foreign language atmosphere in general and to the success of the learning and teaching process (Apelt and Koering, 1997).

Emotions have the capacity to influence the process language acquisition. „Affective factors” are not related directly to intelligence or empirical knowledge. They include acculturation, personality, beliefs, identity, inhibition, emotion, age and motivation (Yokochi, 2003).

In the last decade or so there has been increased interest in the role of affective factors in the learning of second languages (Grootenboer, 2004). Schumann (1998) argues that emotion filters all learning and cognition. Unfortunately, there is no clear definition of the affective domain in the educational literature (McLeod & McLeod, 2002). The term affective factor refers to the emotional factors that have the power to influence the process of learning and teaching as well. Their influence upon the educational process can be either positive or negative.

The negative factors are known under the name of affective filters and they play an important part in second language acquisition theories. For example it is claimed that anxiety and sadness might be a hindrance to English learning (Xu and Huang, 2010). Dulay and Burt (1977) claim that students with high affective filter will lower their intake while students with low affective filter allow more input into their language acquisition device.

A learner’s attitude to English, to the teacher and to the group influences the progress and the successful acquisition of the target language. The effect of negative factors can be diminished with the help of activities designed for building up a positive group dynamic. Moreover, students can choose their activities according to their age, hobbies and interests.

According to Xu and Huang (2010), the emotions that affect language acquisition can be classified in personality factors and factors related to the relationship extant between the teacher and the students. The personality factors include motivation, self-esteem, anxiety and inhibition. The other category includes empathy, classroom transactions and cross-cultural processes.

Arnold (2000) claims that self-esteem is extremely important for both cognitive and affective processes. When studying the oral production of language, Kitano (2001), discovered that there is a profound connection between the perceived self-esteem and the extent of foreign language anxiety. Thus, individuals with a lower self-esteem found it more difficult to express themselves by using the target language than the individuals that had a higher opinion about themselves. Research has highlighted that a student who feels good about himself has higher chances of success. Holly (1987) realized a summary of many studies and research in the domain and drew the conclusion that self-esteem is the result rather than the cause of academic achievement. Dr. Martin Covington (1989) from the University of California claims that: “self-esteem can be modified through direct instruction and that such instruction can lead to achievement gains”.

The results of Mei and Xiaoli’s research (2004), pointed out that the students’ level of anxiety have a negative impact upon language proficiency and their speaking performances. There is an assumption that positive second language attitudes and feelings may lead to successful second language achievement (Grootenboer, 2003a). The relationship between affective factors and learning is not simple and linear but complex and convoluted.

Age is also considered to be a very important affective factor in process of learning a foreign language (Archibald, 2005). Research done in the educational domain shows that there is no linear pattern of learning among learners belonging to the same age group. They learn differently according to variables like learning opportunities, motivation, individual differences and learning styles. It is a common assumption that young learners learn easier and quicker a second language in comparison to adults and even teenagers (Ellis, 2008; Larsen-Freeman, 2008; Mayberry & Lock, 2003).

Teachers of second languages must take into consideration that their students come from various backgrounds, have different needs and styles of learning. The social and the cultural context might also affect students, especially younger ones.

The studies that have been carried out in the domain of foreign language acquisition point out the importance of the affective factors in the process of learning a new language. Recent empirical research has offered us important information about the interaction of societal and individual variables and the influence they have upon motivation and success. Teachers and researchers can no longer afford to ignore the social and psychological influence of the affective factors.

A superior understanding of the role of the affect might help teachers to better manipulate and handle the learning environment, the teaching strategies and their own attitude and behavior. It has been pointed out that positive emotions and feelings promote learning while negative ones like anxiety are a major obstacle that has to be overcome in order to prevent failure.

Self-esteem is an important factor in the process of foreign language acquisition. Students that have powerful personalities are in most cases better language learners. This does not mean that an introvert cannot manage to master a foreign language. On the contrary shy people have their strengths too. Students’ beliefs and attitudes towards the target language are also very important despite the fact that these beliefs might change with the passage of time. Attitudes and beliefs have the power to either promote or inhibit proficiency in the target language.

Motivation is one of the most important affective factors in the process of acquiring a foreign language. It is a very complex phenomenon that can be defined in accordance with two elements: the student’s communicative needs and their attitudes towards the target language culture.

Motivation can be influenced by several factors such as: the learner’s effort, desire and satisfaction derived from the learning situation. The elements that influence motivation can change with age and level of proficiency. Motivation is thought to be one of the main causes of success or failure in foreign language acquisition. External factors such as parental pressure, lack of identification with the target language, society’s expectations and impressions on the difficulty of the target language can reduce motivation and generate a negative attitude.

The work done by researchers in the domain of foreign language acquisition points out that affective factors play in key role in the mastery of a target language and therefore they can no longer be ignored when planning a lesson or preparing the materials for the next foreign language class.


prof. Andreea Fundeanu

Școala Gimnazială Nr. 1 Voluntari (Ilfov) , România
Profil iTeach:

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