Volume VII - 2002-03

The Influence of Affective Variables on EFL/ESL Learning and Teaching
     by Verónica de Andres

          Verónica de Andres is the director and founder of SEAL-Argentina (Society for Effective Affective Learning. Her latest development is a Self-Esteem Whole School Training Programme both in English and in Spanish. Her chapter
on self-esteem in EFL learning —Self-esteem in the Classroom — or The metamorphosis of butterflies —is
published by Cambridge University Press in the book Affect in Language Learning , edited by Jane Arnold.

     Becoming bilingual is a way of life. Your whole person is 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. Total commitment, total involvement , a total physical, intellectual, and emotional response is necessary to successfully send and receive messages in a second language. (Brown, 1994: 1)

      As Douglas Brown (1994)beautifully expressed it, the acquisition of a new language is a fascinating though colossal enterprise, encompassing a wide range of variables that may stem from neurological to psychological, cognitive and affective. In the early sixties, Benjamin Bloom (Krathwohl, Bloom and Masia, 1964)offered a comprehensive definition of two domains of learning: the cognitive and the affective. Brown (1994: 135)defined the affective domain as “the emotional side of human behaviour. ” By analogy, , the cognitive domain could be defined as the mental side of human behaviour. These seemingly clear-cut definitions for the two most important domains of learning, might suggest a division between cognition and affection, when indeed they are two sides of the same coin.

Cognitive Dominates

      The mounting interest in exploring the affective domain appears to be prompted by the conviction that cognitive factors, which seem to continue dominating education, are not the only ones that account for the learning process. In his book Emotional Intelligence , Daniel Goleman (1995)notes that the Western civilisation has overemphasised the importance of the rational functions of the mind to the detriment of the non-rational functions: intuition, emotions, feelings. Goleman 's viewpoint is consonant with Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology of the sixties, who stated that by focusing so extremely on the cognitive side we have limited ourselves.

Thus educating becomes a futile attempt to learn material that has no personal meaning.
Such learning involves the mind only. It is learning that takes place “from the neck up. ”
It does not involve feelings or personal meanings, it has no relevance for the whole person.
(Rogers, 1983: 19)

     Research has shown that cognition and affection are indeed inextricably linked. An extensive review of the latest brain-based research (Jensen, 1995)has clearly shown the critical links between emotions and cognition and has concluded that in a positive state of mind, the learner is able to learn and recall better. However, many puzzling questions about language and emotions remain unsolved; linguists still struggle to determine how language affects thought and how thought affects language. Yet what seems to be clear is that: “language is a way of life, it is as the foundation of our being, and as such interacts simultaneous with thoughts and feelings (Brown, 1994: 38).

Cognitive Issues

      Throughout the first 16 years of life, human cognition unfolds at great speed. During this period, some changes are more critical than others. As Piaget (1969)noted in his theory of intellectual development, children develop through successive stages: the sensori-motor from ages 0 to 2, the pre-operational from 2 to 7, and the operational from 7 to 16. A crucial moment of change seems to occur around the age of 11, when thinking shifts from concrete to abstract. This turning point is of paramount value for EFL/ESL teachers 101 as it highlights the importance of connecting teaching with concrete tasks and experience for children that have not reached puberty. In other words, children below 12 are not interested in the rules of the language, or in analysing grammar, but rather in games, songs, and activities that are meaningful to them. Furthermore, as Brown (1994: 59) observed “children do learn second languages well without the benefit-or hindrance-of formal operational thought!"

      Another cognitive issue highly important for EFL/ESL teachers is Ausubel 's (1964)construct of meaningful learning. His distinction between rote learning and meaningful learning is relevant to all ages. Ausubel posed that human beings have a need for meaning, and very little or no need for rote, mechanistic learning that is not connected to previous knowledge and experience. The implications of this concept for EFL/ESL teachers is, amongst others, that an excessive focus on rote activities, such as rote drills, rote dialogues, reciting rules, practising patterns, may hinder language learning if not presented in purposeful contexts (Brown, 1994).

Affective Issues

     In recent years the importance of affective issues has become a matter of debate and extensive research among language teachers, linguists and researchers; and some variables were found as having a high impact on success in EFL/ESL learning. Defining the affective variables is elusive, thus an overview of the ones considered to be influenced by the teacher 's attitude will be briefly described below.


Dr Stanley Coopersmith (1967: 4-5), defined self-esteem as:

…a personal judgement of worthiness that is expressed in attitudes that the individual holds
towards himself, …and indicates the extent to which the individual believes in himself to be
capable, significant and worthy.

     Research has shown that a student who feels good about himself is more likely to succeed. Holly (1987) compiled a summary of many studies and pointed out that most indicated that self-esteem is the result rather than the cause of academic achievement. In addition, Dr Martin Covington (1989)from the University of California carried out an extensive review of the research on the relationship between self-esteem and achievement, concluding that “self-esteem can be modified through direct instruction and that such instruction can lead to achievement gains. ”This statement is consistent with the experience of the writer, who has conducted two research projects (Andres, 1993, 1996)in the area of self-esteem, and the findings have led her to conclude that self-esteem can be modified and enhanced in the foreign language classroom, and that significant gains can be observed in the area of EFL/ESL learning. This point is considered to be of the utmost importance in the classroom: as teachers we can exert an influence both on the performance and well-being of our students. As Brown (1994)says, good teachers succeed “because they give optimal attention to linguistic goals and to the personhood of their students. ”


     Inhibition is closely related to self-esteem: the weaker the self-esteem; the stronger the inhibition to protect the weak ego. Ehrman (1993)suggests that students with thick, perfectionist boundaries find language learning more difficult than those learners with thin boundaries who favour attitudes of openness and the tolerance of ambiguity. As Brown (1994)noted, language learning implies a great deal of self-exposure as it necessarily involves making mistakes. Due to the defence mechanisms outlined above, these mistakes can be experienced as threats to the self. It can be argued that the students arrive at the classroom with those defences already built and that little can be done to remove them. However, classroom experience shows that the teacher 's attitude towards mistakes can reinforce these barriers creating, in the long run, learning blocks, or the self-fulfilling prophecy: “I can't do it. I 'm not good at it. ” In short, , this produces in the learner a deep-seated fear of inadequacy and deficiency. Fortunately, we are witnessing that a growing number of language teachers are becoming increasingly aware that focusing on students' strengths rather than weaknesses is a powerful way to break down learning blocks and overcome inhibition.


     Brown (1994)defined motivation as an inner drive, impulse, emotion or desire that moves people to a particular action. Similarly, some psychologists define motivation in terms of needs or drives. In his famous “Pyramid of Needs ”, Maslow (1970) presented his theory of motivation as a hierarchy of needs, which stem from basic physiological needs (air, food, shelter)to higher needs of safety, belonging, self-esteem, and the need for self-actualisation. Maslow (1970)claimed that the last need placed at top of his “Pyramid ” can only be achieved if all other needs are fulfilled.

     A number of studies conducted in the field of EFL/ESL learning have shown that motivation is crucial to successful EFL/ESL learning. 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 favoured in the classroom. 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.


     As learners we have all encountered this feeling, which is no doubt closely linked with self-esteem and inhibition. Any task that involves a certain degree of challenge can expose the learner to feelings of self-doubt, uneasiness or fear. Behind these emotions lies the question: shall I succeed? As second language learning is a highly demanding task, it is very likely to raise anxiety in the learner. Anxiety can be considered a negative factor in language learning, and several teaching methodologies in modern approaches indicate that anxiety should be kept as low as possible.

     Brown (1994)makes the distinction between trait anxiety —the permanent predisposition to be anxious —and state anxiety as the feeling that is experienced in relation to some particular situation. Many studies (e. g. Horwitz et al. 1986; MacIntyre and Gardner 1991; Young 1991; Phillips 1992)conducted on state anxiety indicate that foreign language anxiety can have a negative effect on the language learning process. Conversely, Bailey (1983, in Brown, 1994)notes that a certain concern or anxiety is a positive factor. This kind of anxiety is described as facilitating the learning process. In her actual classroom experience, the writer has witnessed that just as tasks without a certain amount of challenge can undermine the learner 's interest, assignments without balance and enough support can be disheartening as they can submerge the learner into a state of emotional dullness or paralysis. In sum, a certain degree of concern, anticipation and curiosity can be useful and even necessary to achieve, but too much anxiety can have an inhibiting effect and impede the process of successful language learning.

Affective Variables in EFL/ESL Language Teaching and Learning

     The interest in affective variables in language learning is reflected in some modern teaching stances aimed at reducing anxiety and inhibitions and enhancing the learner 's motivation and self-esteem. These approaches could be identified within the so-called humanistic education. In her book Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Classroom , Gertrude Moskovitz (1978, cited in Stevick, 1996: 24-25) states that:

Humanistic education is related to a concern for personal development, self-acceptance, and
acceptance by others, in other words making students be more human. Humanistic education takes into consideration that learning is affected by how students feel about themselves. It is
concerned with educating the whole person —the intellectual and the emotional dimensions.

     Examples of these innovative humanistic approaches to language teaching are: Curran 's Community Language Learning (Curran, 1976); Gattegno 's Silent Way (Gattegno, 1972); Lozanov 's Suggestopedia (1979)and Terrell 's Natural Approach (Terrell, 1977). The latter is firmly rooted on The Monitor Model , the theory of language acquisition proposed by Stephen Krashen (1981 and 1985). Krashen posed that a low affective filter is necessary for acquisition to take place. The affective filter is a mental block, caused by affective factors: high anxiety, low self-esteem, low-motivation.


     If language is communication, EFL/ESL learning and teaching should be aimed at establishing meaningful communication in the classroom, and the first requirement towards this end is an affective affirmation of the student. Perhaps there is a need for further research to determine the effects of different approaches and methods; yet what is needed, is an awareness that a focus on the subject matter of learning, is no longer enough to develop the ultimate aim of education: love of learning. The writer has presented her ideas not as a proponent of any one approach but as an advocate of an integration of the affective and cognitive domains in education. If we want our students to develop their inherent potential to learn, the affective variables such as anxiety, motivation, self-esteem and inhibition can no longer be denied, the inner needs of the learners can no longer be neglected. Our students are our finest teachers. We can learn from them much more than we can teach and indeed, what we need to remember is that:

…every learner requires first and foremost: to be noticed, to be attended to, to be valued, to
be affirmed. Out of that attention and affirmation grow the confidence and, yes, the courage
to learn: if the teacher dares to teach, that is, to attend to and care for the learners, then the
learners in their turn can dare to learn.
(Whitaker, 1995)


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