I wrote this article over a decade ago, but the ideas presented are just as relevant today.
In the time I taught English language learners, I was daily intrigued by the differences in their backgrounds, their stories, and their learning behaviors as they struggled to master the vagaries of our language.
Along with their material belongings, many of these children brought emotional baggage with them to their new schools. A child’s emotional state can impact the manner and speed with which s/he learns a new language. Researchers in language acquisition call this factor the “affective filter.” The filter can be loosely meshed and let in a lot of new information, or it can be almost a solid wall of resistance and shut out communication.
The concept of the affective filter originated with Stephen Krashen, an expert in language acquisition. It is one of five hypotheses Krashen developed about the process of language acquisition. (The other four are acquisition-learning, monitor, natural order and input) The affective filter addresses the socio-emotional variables that impact language learners. According to Krashen, the most important affective variables that encourage new language acquisition are: low anxiety learning environment, student motivation to learn the language, self-confidence, and self-esteem.
Learners of a new language may not only lack motivation, they may also be downright resistant. I experienced this first-hand when I lived in Israel. The summer after I finished sixth grade, my parents sold our home in Los Angeles and took me to Israel with the intention of emigrating. For almost half a year we lived on the outskirts of Tel Aviv and I attended the local public school, where all classes were taught in Hebrew.
My parents found a tutor who tried to teach me Hebrew. Six months is plenty of time to pick up the basic functional communication skills of a new language, especially if you’re young. But I was uprooted, pubescent, lonely, and sullen. My affective filter was on high and I determinedly learned as little Hebrew as possible.
Fast forward thirty years to the summers when I worked with high school age migrant students. One boy from Colombia was a continual behavior problem. From his writing, we learned how angry he was at being taken from his home, and how desperately he missed his grandparents and friends. He was passionate about his country. The longing he had for his home was heartrending. And yet, amidst all this turmoil, he was supposed to learn English.
Another time, a classroom teacher and I met with the parents of one of my ENL students. This little kindergartener refused to speak in school, in English or Spanish. Our inspired principal arranged for the parents to record their daughter at home. In her own house, the little girl rattled on in both languages, teaching her younger sister all the stories and songs from school—in English.
During the conference, the child’s mother said that, a few days before, her daughter had asked her, “ Mami, should I talk like you or should I talk like my teacher?”
What amazing discrimination for a five-year-old! We teachers could only wonder at the way this child chose to deal with her conflicting loyalties. How to choose between her mother, and mother tongue, or her new teacher and English? Silence was her answer to the problem. Her affective filter was tuned to let everything in and nothing out unless she was safe at home.
Teachers who interact with ENL students need to be aware of the power of the affective filter. Emotional issues can strongly influence the rate of English acquisition. Cultural conflicts can impact students’ learning as well. Children can find themselves caught between the traditional or religious practices of their family and the freer American lifestyle of their peers.
A child who seems unresponsive, lazy, slow, or sleepy may be showing just the tip of the iceberg. If we have ever traveled in another country, we know how tiring it is to keep trying to decipher the speech. Eventually we may shut down in self-protection, just to get some rest.
It’s up to the teaching adults to inform themselves about each child’s country, culture, and customs. Were they willing or reluctant immigrants? How did they come to our country, and whom did they leave behind? The more teachers can help to lower that affective filter, the more comfortable the child will feel when tackling our rather complicated English language.
I suppose I saw the ENL students as being a little more fragile than our homegrown kids. Sometimes enormous sacrifices are made so that these children can take advantage of the opportunities offered in this great country of ours. Families often endure long and painful separations, not to mention stressful living conditions. Listening to their stories, I was constantly reminded that this kind of fortitude and aspiration is what built the United States.