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Humanising Language Teaching
September 04

Major Article

Attending to Adult Learners: Affective Domain in the ESL Classroom


Eva Bernat
Macquarie University, Australia

  1. Introduction
  2. Cognition or Affect?
  3. The Adult Leaner
  4. Conclusion
  5. Reference

1. Introduction

It has been said, that the process of education is one of the most important and complex of all human endeavors. A popular notion is that education is carried out by one person - a teacher, standing in front of a class and transmitting information to a group of learners who are 'empty vessels', and willing and able to absorb it. Similarly, language learning is not an abstract exercise in memorizing vocabulary words and applying grammatical rules. Such views simplify what is a highly complex process involving an intricate interplay between the learning process itself, the teacher's intentions and actions, the individual personalities of the learners, their culture, reservoirs of background experiences, perceptions and beliefs, the learning environment, and a host of other factors. In other words, various cognitive and affective processes play an important and integral role in the language learning context.

2. Cognition or Affect?

While cognition and the theory of knowledge has been the interest of educationists and researchers since Plato provided the basis for what is referred to as 'epistemology', the interest in affective factors in learning came much later. It was first reflected in the writing of Dewey, Montessori, and Vygotsky in the first part of this century, and gained importance with the growth of humanistic psychology in the 1960's. The work of C.R. Rogers has become increasingly relevant to a discipline that recognizes the importance of affect on the learning situation and sees each learner as an individual "…in a continually changing world of which he is the center" (Rogers 1951:483), reacting to events as they are experienced and perceived: "this perceptual field is, for the individual, reality" (Rogers 1951:484).

As a result, many of the major developments in language teaching in the past years have, in some way, related to the need to acknowledge affect in language learning. Methods such as Suggestopedia (aims to reduce anxiety by creating a non-threatening environment), Silent Way (the learner must take responsibility), Community Language Learning (the group must decide what to learn), and Total Physical Response (aims to engage the learner physically, putting the learner under no pressure and allowing to speak when ready) take into account the affective side of the language learning in quite a central manner. Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) has also had a major influence on language teaching many areas (materials, teaching methods, syllabus design) and it too, has incorporated affect. Similarly, the Natural Approach takes affect into consideration in a prominent way. Using one of the five hypotheses in Krashen's Monitor Model' - the affective filter - influenced the design of many of the Natural Approach classroom activities designed to minimize stress.

Although affective contributions are central to second language learning Johnson (1994:439-452) argues that overall "the field of second language education lags behind mainstream education research in that it has neglected to focus adequate attention to the affective dimension of second language learning". Horwitz (2001) gives further support and states that to discuss foreign language learning without considering the emotional reactions of the learner to language learning was and remains a serious oversight. Horwitz continues, that with the possible exception of writing, foreign language learning demands a level of personal engagement unlike that of any other subject-matter studied in academic settings.

Rejecting the cognitive-centeredness of previous language learning research, foreign and second language educators are currently beginning to recognize the importance of the learner's role in the both the cognitive and affective domain in the language learning process. Consequently, there has been a greater understanding and appreciation of affective variables, and - as Hilgard (1963:267 cited in Arnold 1999) noted long ago - "purely cognitive theories of learning will be rejected unless a role is assigned to affectivity". Moreover, Schumann's (1998) neurobiological model derives from an examination of second language acquisition from a neurobiological perspective. A recent book, The Neurobiology of Affect in Language, offers a summary of the author's theory. According to Schumann, affect is seen as central to the understanding of L2 attainment/achievement, and the author argues that second language acquisition is emotionally driven and emotion underlies most, if not all cognition! In similar vain, Damasio (1994) has articulated that even on the neurobiological level emotions are part of reason, and Oatley & Jenkins (1996:122) affirm that "emotions are not extras - they are the very center of human life".

It is important to note that note that the affective side of learning is not in opposition to the cognitive side; and that the affective component contributes to at least as much and often more to language learning than the cognitive skills (Stern 1983:386). When both a used together, the learning process can be constructed on a firmer foundation. Neither is more important, and neither can be separated from each other. Early proponents of such integration (Brown 1971; Castillo 1973) stressed the need to unite to cognitive and affective domains in order to educate the 'whole person'. In the late 1970's and 1980's foreign and second language teacher trainers and writers expressed similar concerns. Stevick, Rinvolucri, Moskowitz, Galyean, among other representatives of Humanistic Language Teaching, were searching for ways to enrich language learning by incorporating aspects of the affective dimension of the learner.

In terms of pedagogical implications, Oxford & Ehrman (1993:188) argue that teachers of second and foreign language learners should learn to identify and comprehend significant individual affective differences in their students; and point out, "many excellent teachers have learned to do some of this intuitively, but explicit understanding of individual-difference dimensions can enhance the work of all teachers". While attention to affect may not provide the solution to all learning problems or diminish the importance of cognitive aspects of the learning process, it can be very beneficial for language teachers to choose to focus at times on affective questions/factors. In countering allegations that these matters are not part of teachers' obligations, she refers to Underhill (1989:252) who estimates that "teachers who claim it is not their job to take these phenomena into account may miss out on some of the most essential ingredients in the management of successful learning". Furthermore, Horwitz & Young (1989) believe that, although the level of achievement for the majority of language students in typical academic settings is disappointingly low, and language teachers cannot change the incoming cognitive abilities of students, the student's native language, or the overall socio-cultural context of language learning and their communities, the affective domain stands out as an exceptional opportunity for the improvement of language instruction. The authors conclude that, it is within the power of language teachers to address the affective concerns of their students, and, that it is essential to do so.

3. he Adult Learner

Having established the paramount importance of the affective or emotional side of the cognitive learning process, the question remains - how can language teachers address the affective or emotional domain of their adult ESL learners' in their classroom in practical terms? No matter what their background, adult learners often share certain characteristics that affect the process of learning another language and set them apart from younger ESL learners. Teachers need to not only recognize but also acknowledge in class that adults:

- have a lot of experience to draw on. Adults have amassed a wealth of valuable experience, which they bring to their classrooms. It is vital to recognize and openly acknowledge this experience and draw on it as a resource. In a language classroom this may include socio-cultural knowledge, as well as linguistic knowledge. Learners like to make comparisons of L1 and L2 and 'test' the various hypotheses which they have built in their minds. Teachers, who present themselves as the only useful resource of knowledge and the ultimate authority in every lesson, will find resistance from the adult learners.

- adults have strongly established learning styles/preferences. Not all language teaching methodologies & strategies will suit all learners. The 'one size fits all' approach may cause resistance if learners are pushed into radical change. As adult educators, language teachers are in the business of causing change, but they need to make sure that it is done without producing hostility and resistance. One form of enquiry is to identify - through classroom-based enquiry - learners' attitudes and beliefs about second language acquisition. Research has shown that the lack of understanding of ESL learners' preconceived beliefs about how languages are learned can have negative pedagogical implications (Horwitz 1987).

- adults are proud of their independence. One of the chief features of childhood is dependence. Adults, on the other hand, are proud of their independence. If anyone treats their adult learners as if they were not fully independent, they are attacking their pride in themselves. ESL teachers of adults have to keep this in mind, recognize and use their independence by suggesting, for example, that learners accept responsibility for their own learning, including after-class tasks.

- adults have strong feelings about the learning situation. Almost every adult has been to school. For some it was a positive experience, for others it was depressing and demoralizing. Some may believe that they will not be successful learners based on their past experiences; others may feel anxious about not knowing what to expect from a new learning environment. Teachers need to boost their learners' confidence and remove the threats at the onset of a course.

- adults have many preoccupations. When adults come to a course, they bring with them tension, anxiety, personal problems and much more. Furthermore, immigrants may face many other personal challenges, such as lack of job, inability to land a job equal in status to the one held in their country of origin, lack of personal support system provided by family and friends, and responsibility for an extended family, to name a few. Therefore, when they arrive to the classroom, they should be greeted with some relaxing music, a warm greeting and a smile. They need to relax and be made feel welcomed. During the lesson, teachers should use visuals, build a lot of participation, and include many varied and fun activities to maintain learners' attention.

- adults have firmly established attitudes. The way we behave, speak and think depends on our attitudes to life. For example, if an adult believes that ESL classes are 'a waste of time', their behavior during class will reflect that attitude. Sometimes attitudes have to be changed before any permanent learning can take place. It is not easy to change attitudes, and sometimes the only way to persuade people to make such basic changes is to show them that the new ways of behaving are more productive than the old. This is something learners will need to discover for themselves.

- adults have selective filters. We all have a filtering mechanism that allows us to screen out things that are distressing or unpleasant - or just boring. It is quite possible to sit through a lecture, or a sermon, and not really hear a word. In other words, adults hear what they want to hear. They pay attention to whatever is relevant, interesting or stimulating. They attend to sources of information that matter, the rest is filtered out. Teachers need to understand that the information that is obviously related to the needs of the group will be most effective in gaining and holding its attention.

- adults have a specific purpose for learning. Most of the time, adults attend courses because they have a specific need. Migrants learners often attend ESL courses to increase their employment opportunities and to be able to participate within their community independently. The best language teachers will be the ones that satisfy the learners' needs and point out their immediacy of application.

- adults are more strongly motivated by internal pressures than external rewards. In second language teaching, studies have shown (Gardner 1985) that integratively motivated learners (who desire to identify with the culture or community that speaks the language) will do better than instrumentally motivated learners (whose drive to learn derives from the desire to acquire another language for money, career, or power). This does not mean that adults do not respond to incentives such as higher salaries or better jobs, but factors such as higher self-esteem and greater job satisfaction are likely to be much more important to most adult learners.

Finally, there are also a number of anxieties adult ESL learners bring with them to learning activities. Anxiety is a significant aspect of the affective state of the language learner and one which needs to be taken into account. For example:

- adults are afraid that they might lose their dignity. No one likes to look foolish. People want to present themselves as being in control - in command of the situation, dignified, responsible, competent. When language learners take part in classroom activities, there is a chance that they might expose a weakness or reveal a fault. Teachers of adults have to shelter their students against the possibility of humiliation, ensure everyone is treated with respect, and set an example of tolerance and good humor.

- adults worry about the learning demands made on them. Many adult learners are very uncertain about themselves. They often feel that they are certain to fail. They doubt their ability to complete the tasks involved in a course. Language teachers have to be certain that everything is explained to the adults they teach. The learning objectives should be plainly stated. The tasks should be described clearly, and the participants should be given an opportunity to set their own standards. They have to understand that the idea of failure has no place in adult education. The emphasis will always be on personal improvement.

- adults feel anxious about having the use of their first language banished. Allwright and Bailey (1991) point to the possibility that banishing the use of the first language in the classroom diminishes learners as human beings because it deprives them of their normal means of communication. In this study, learners reported that one of their major worries is that when forced to use the language they are learning they constantly feel that they are representing themselves badly, showing only some of their real personality, only some of their real intelligence. ESL teachers should realize that allowing or attempting to ban the first language carry both costs and benefits in terms of language and the management of the learning process. Those teachers who decide to allow the use of the first language will have to exercise judgment as to the extent to which it will be allowed and the functions and purposes for which it will be used.

4. Conclusion

As outlined, the affective domain plays a significant role in the language learning classroom. Learners, particularly adults, often find themselves in a learning context for the first time since leaving formal schooling, have a number of characteristics which make them unique. They have some well established ideas and preferences about their learning, a plethora of experience to draw on, as well as some fears and anxieties which can impact on their engagement in, commitment to, and achievement of L2. ESL teachers need to develop a sensitive awareness of these factors and incorporate knowledge thereof into their teaching practice.


Allwright, D. & Bailey, K. (1991).Focus on Learning in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Arnold, J. (Ed.)(1999).Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Damasio, A. (1994).Descartes' errors: Emotion, reason and the human brain. New York: Avon
Gardner, R.C. (1985).Social Psychology and Second Language Learning: The Role of Attitudes and Motivation. London: Edward Arnold
Horwitz, E. (1987).Surveying Student Beliefs About Language Learning. In A.L. Wenden & J. Robin (Eds), Learners Strategies in Language Learning. London: Prentice Hall
Horwitz, E.K. & Young D.(Eds.) 1989.Language Anxiety: From Theory and Research to Classroom Implications. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall
Johnson K 1994.The emerging beliefs and instructional practices of pre-service English as a Second Language teachers. Teaching Education, 10:4, 439-452
Oatley, K. & Jenkins, J. (1996).Understanding emotions, Cambridge. MA: Blackwell
Oxford, R.L. & Ehrman, M. (1993).Second language research on individual differences. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 13, 188-205
Schumann, J.H. (1997).The Neurobiology of Affect in Language. The Neurobiology of Affect in Language
Stern, H.H. (1983).concepts of language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Underhill, A. (1989).Process in humanistic education. ELT Journal, 43:4, 250-260

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