Emotions in Language Learning: How do they matter?

Does it matter how you are feeling when you are trying to learn another language?  If you are nervous, can you learn just as well as when you are relaxed?  Does the teacher's response to your feelings make a difference?  I think most of us would guess that yes, emotions matter and we have to be aware of them in the language learning classroom - in any classroom for that matter!  I want to share with you what I learned from an article written by Merrill Swain (2011) about the relationship between language learning and emotions.  


Swain argues that we are lagging in our research on how emotions play a role in language learning compared to our research on cognition and language learning.  The most familiar theory, perhaps, is Krashen's (1985) affective filter which basically says if the learners are anxious and experiencing negative emotions they will understand less or have a high affective filter but if their emotions are positive and relaxed, they will have a low affective filter and be able to understand and process more.  However, Swain argues that the relationship is much more complex than this and states: "Language learning is not just a cognitive struggle, it is a cognitive and emotional struggle" (p. 11). Beyond doing more research on language learning and emotions, Swain makes 5 recommendations based on what we know thus far: 

1) Because emotions are part of what our students tell us, we need to listen carefully to them to learn more about their emotional processes in learning; 2) listen to clues about students' emotions about learning for teachable moments to intervene and support learning; 3) encourage students who are experiencing moments of conflict to talk or write about those negative feelings or conflicts in order to help them problem solve; 4) because emotions are seen as inferior to cognition but are inseparable, consciously plan for times for students to talk about their feelings about language learning; 5) teach students to express their feelings and emotions in their second language.

Reference:  Swain, M. (28 November 2011). The inseparability of cognition and emotion in second language learning.  Language Teaching, pp. 11-13. doi:10.1017/S026144481100048.

Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen
Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen


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