I was out running errands and happened to pass by a pharmacy so I popped in to buy some band-aids. In little pharmacies in rural China, band-aids are the kind of thing that are kept behind the counter, so I approached the employees to ask them to get me some.
The weirdest thing happened, though. Before they even had a chance to greet me, I realized that I had completely forgotten how to say “band-aid” in Mandarin.
Normally, forgetting a word is a pretty small obstacle for me. I can think of other ways to say it, or explain what something looks like. The other person can generally guess what I mean and we can move forward with nothing but a small hiccup in the conversational flow.
So, I really had no reason to be worried that I couldn’t remember the word. But for some reason, when the girl asked me, “What is it that you need?” I was incredibly flustered and embarrassed. I was scrambling to remember the right word and amazed that I had forgotten such a simple thing.
“Um, I ummm…” I muttered in response. The employees looked at each other and I feared they were thinking things like, Uh-oh, how in the world are we going to communicate with this foreigner? Do any of us know any English words? Seeing them give each other those looks made me more discombobulated, making it even harder for me to think clearly.
Come on, come on, come on! I urged myself, willing my brain to pull out the right vocabulary item. All I could think of was “beng dai,” but I couldn’t remember if that was the right term. Isn’t that the word for fabric bandage, like what you wrap around a sprained ankle? Maybe it means something else altogether, but it just happens to sound like the English brand name “Band-Aid”? Why can’t I remember?
Even though I wasn’t sure, I went with it.
“Beng dai. I would like to buy beng dai,” I finally spit out. This was met with blank stares. Great. Who knows what I had just asked them to sell to me.
“Well, can you tell me what you use it for?” the employee asked.
Really, this is just about the absolute best I could have hoped for. Rather than just giving up on me, she was helping me along. Unfortunately, I was still feeling flustered. It felt like there was a brick wall blocking my Mandarin vocabulary and grammar.
“Um, well, um, when you get hurt, you put it on,” I said, finally managing to do my part in the negotiation of meaning. I mimed sticking a pretend band-aid to an imaginary wound on my forearm.
“Do you mean chuang kou tie?” she asked as she turned and pulled a large box of band-aids from the shelf behind her. How had I not seen the box before? I could have just pointed at it and saved myself the embarrassment of stumbling through this conversation.
“Yes!” I said, relieved, “Yes, chuang kou tie. Sorry. I wasn’t sure what they were called in Mandarin.”
She started pulling band-aids out of the box. “How many? They’re two mao each.”
“Uh, ten. I’d like ten.” I started digging in my purse for the cash, and my addled brain had me pull out a twenty kuai bill. (One mao is one-tenth of a kuai, so I would need 20 kuai only if I was buying 100 band-aids. Which I wasn’t.)
She looked at the money, and I looked at her looking at the money, and I thought, wait, what’s 2 mao times 10?
I was immediately back to being confused and flustered.
“Um, you said…you said…how much?” I spluttered. Somehow, I could not figure out how much the total should be. My brain was so shut down that it could not perform a second-grade math problem.
“Two kuai,” she said, rescuing me again. I pulled out two kuai and put the twenty away sheepishly.
My bumbling language in the pharmacy is the perfect example of the affective filter in play. Stephen Krashen first coined the term in the 1970s, using it to explain why things like pressure, stress, and negative emotions can have a substantial effect on one’s language ability. As a linguist and as someone who has to function in another language, let me tell you: it’s a real thing.
If you’ve been living overseas for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced this already. You might do just fine in class or at work in a foreign language, but you go to buy bananas and BAM! you plummet down to beginner-level grammar for some odd reason. Or you have spoken the language comfortably for years but then you have to introduce yourself in front of a big group of people and WHAM! you can barely put together a sentence.
Why does this happen? There are certain situations or even particular people who make us (usually unintentionally) feel nervous, stressed, or inferior, and that is precisely when the affective filter will shoot right up. A higher affective filter means lower comprehension and production in language. And that results in us looking like idiots.
This is why my Chinese can sound beautiful and eloquent when I speak with some people, but when I speak with others, I sound like a babbling dunce.
There’s this one neighbor, in fact, who raises my affective filter like none other. When I start talking to her, my Chinese deteriorates into a puddle of choppy preschool-level utterances. I still have not figured out why. She is a really sweet older lady who has been very kind to our family, but when I see her, it’s like my brain shuts off. And of course, after it happened the first few times, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts: “Oh, there’s Min Ayi. I’m sure to trip over my own tongue when I try to say hi to her.” Classic affective filter, folks. It can be a nasty beast.
Some people have a perpetually higher affective filter than others, perhaps because of temperament or maybe because of some bad experience early on in their language learning. Some learners just face those out-of-the-blue spikes that render them tongue-tied.
No matter what our situations are, as expats, it’s good to be aware of what the affective filter is and what we can do to mitigate its effects. Loads of ESL/ELL teaching websites have ideas for teachers to help lower their students’ affective filters, and that is a good place to start learning.
Here are a few suggested sites to get you going:
- Multilingual Mania has an example of someone facing an ongoing struggle with a high affective filter: The Curious Case of the Affective Filter
- For the more academic types, here’s a great little table of Krashen’s 6 Hypotheses plus how they play out in language learning.
- ELD Strategies has a good, brief description of the affective filter. (My favorite part: “However, for many people the affective filter will skyrocket. These people will sweat, become nervous and will be astonished at the incoherent comments that may come out of their mouth…” Yes, yes, and more yes.)
- FluentU has a very useful explanation of what bad affective filter situations vs good “affective filter” situations look like. Although it’s aimed at ESL teachers, it is helpful for language learners as well.
After the band-aid incident, I went into a bakery, where I talked with the employees beautifully and even got a compliment on how good my Chinese was. Maybe they knew I needed a little boost in my language self-confidence after the thrashing next door. It’s times like that that help keep the affective filter down and the language level up.
Can you relate to my language fumble? Share your story (so I don’t feel alone). Any wisdom or sites that you have found helpful when it comes to language?