Part V – The Affective Filter Hypothesis

Out of all of Krashen’s hypotheses, the Affective Filter hypothesis seems to get the least attention. Yet this is the one that really resonates with me.

Basically, it says that a “filter” can affect how well we acquire comprehensible input. Basically, input reaches your brain, which in turn leads to language acquisition. But a filter gets in the way and affects how much of the input reaches your brain.

(For an explanation of this series on the second language acquisition theories of Stephen Krashen, see this post. Also, I went straight to the horse’s mouth and got the information from “Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition,” which is freely available on Krashen’s website.)


The Affective Filter

What kind of stuff acts as a filter? A few things:

  • Motivation
  • Self-confidence
  • Anxiety

…and probably other things as well, but we’ll focus on these.


The research indicates that motivated, confident, low-anxiety students learn languages better. So obviously you want to remove any negative filters so that you’re more receptive to picking up the language.

You want to keep your motivation high. That’s all you–that’s something that no one else can do for you. But here are some tips. When I’m losing language learning motivation due to boredom, I change my routine. When I lose motivation due to frustration, I remind myself how much progress I’ve already made. When I lose motivation for some other reason, I remember why I wanted to learn the language in the first place.

You also want to be confident. And you should be. If you’re reading this, you’ve already proven that you can learn a language. There is literally no reason to believe you can’t learn another one.

You also have to remove anxiety as much as possible. Relax. Let yourself make mistakes. If your teacher corrects every mistake you make, either take it in stride or get a new teacher. You’re supposed to make mistakes. You’re supposed to say things wrong and then make gentle adjustments. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be perfect, especially when you’re first starting out.

My Take

I’ve expressed some doubts about Krashen’s theories, so I guess I’m not sure whether the filter really acts as a filter the way it’s described (as shown in the graphic above). But one of the things I like about the affective filter hypothesis is that you can insert this filter into the language-learning model of your choice.

The filters exist. Environmental factors–both internal and external–can affect how well you do in your language learning.

Castle Himeji Sakura – Himeji, Japan
Image Source

In language school, I saw people overcome lack of raw language talent with effort. They just kept grinding until they got it. This required motivation, as well as enough confidence in themselves not to give up.

Furthermore, I’ve never picked up any skill–language, driving a car, lifting weights, whatever–when my performance was being nitpicked by a well-meaning teacher or coach. That kind of mentality is absolutely not conducive to skill development because it causes anxiety, which makes you lock up and keeps you from doing  your best.

Wrapping Up

This is the last article in my series on Krashen’s theories. In the end, I guess I’m not convinced that language learning is as straightforward as Krashen describes it. But I think it would be wrong to dismiss his ideas entirely. As I said in the introduction, I believe he’s more right than he is wrong.

If you want three takeaways on what I think about all this:

  1. Language is subconscious – Whether you want to call this acquired competence, as Krashen does, or long-term memory as some others do, your ability to understand and speak a language requires you to be able to effortlessly recall information that’s tucked away in your brain. This takes time and it’s why most people can’t cram a language into their brain in a couple months.
  2. Comprehensible input will improve your language abilities – You can’t go wrong with listening to and reading lots and lots of texts in your foreign language. This is the bulk of my language learning, in fact.
  3. Your attitude will help you or hurt you – If you go into your studies unmotivated, not confident, and anxious, those feelings will act as a filter, and your ability to learn the language will suffer. Instead, go in every day fired up.

The important thing to remember with all this is that it’s theory. It’s Krashen’s take on things, based on his years and years of experience as a researcher an educator. The best advice I can give you is to try some of his techniques out, and if they work for you, awesome. If they don’t, try something else.