Tongue-Tied? Blame Your Affective Filter

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.

tongue-tied-blame-your-affective-filter-takingroute-net-language-expatlife-2So, 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?

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Emily Steele Jackson was born and raised in the U.S., though she's spent much of her adult life traveling and living overseas. Wherever she travels, she tries to pick up some of the local language, and learns to cook at least one local dish. She has lived in China with her husband and two kids since 2005, and records their adventures at

22 thoughts on “Tongue-Tied? Blame Your Affective Filter

  1. After celebrating many birthdays in this country and giving MANY birthday greetings, one day I suddenly forgot the word for “birthday.” So instead, during this particular “affective filter” moment, I kept saying “the date I was born.” Finally, the girl I was talking to said, “you mean, your birthday?” Ahh yes. That’s the word.

    I’m sure my language fumble had nothing to do with a volunteer team being in town, one of my children coming down with the super contagious HFMD, the AC in our bedroom breaking, and the fact that the girl I was having a conversation with (on the phone, mind you) speaks REALLY fast in the language. Cue eye roll.

  2. I have experienced this before and it’s so frustrating! And embarrassing. It’s good to know there’s a reason for it – and even a name!

    • It makes it seem more normal and even scientific when it has a name, right? It’s also good to know that it happens to everyone. In fact, when you think about it, most of us become much less articulate even in our native languages if we are tired and stressed. It just seems to happen more easily when speaking other languages, at least in my experience.

  3. I had this happen with the vegetable lady at gate 1 the day before Chinese New Year when there were tons of people and everyone was buying lots of food since she would be closed down for ten days. I couldn’t believe that the vast amount of vegetables I was buying was only 60 kuai and I thought she was asking for over 200. I got flustered and couldn’t figure out what she was saying. Despite later good conversations she still completely believes I cannot speak at all and so she does not speak to me any more but only answers questions. 🙁

    • Oh no! That is disheartening to think that one bad incident got you tagged in her mind as a foreigner who doesn’t speak Mandarin well. But at least you got a good deal on vegetables. 🙂

  4. This is my life! A few weeks ago I was trying to buy a gift certificate and suddenly that was the only Korean word in my vocabulary. I walked up to a lady working in the store and said “gift certificate!” She stared for a couple seconds while I tried so hard to think of other words to form a sentence. Finally she asked me if I needed to buy one or spend one. So crazy how our brains work!

    • It is crazy! I’m glad the lady offered a helpful question to get you back on track. It’s so weird when your mind goes blank like that, especially when you KNOW you’ve got the language ability but it’s just not there at that moment.

  5. So glad to not be alone in this and now I have a name for it!

    I joke that between my husband and I, we have one foreign language brain! I have more grammar and fluency because I talk more to people on the street or vendors, market people, etc. Yet, he can remember nouns and verbs when I forget. So if we are together and I get stumped speaking to a local, he’ll ask “what word?” and IF I can think of the English word, he will feed it to me and I can continue.

    I’m sure it is pretty comical to the native I’m speaking to . . . OR they just think I’m a dunce!! 😉

    • Sounds like you guys are a great match for each other! 😉 And I was laughing when you said “IF I can think of the English word…” So true. It’s not just the other language that leaves our brains. Sometimes, our native language disappears, too!

  6. I had an experience like that this week. The drivers here in Mali are generally very nice and calm, but this one guy started yelling and gesticulating, and he was acting like he wanted me to pull over. That seemed dangerous, and I hoped he would just go on his way. A policeman finally waved me over, and it turned out that the guy in the car was an off duty police who was trying to pull me over, and he told the other police that I “refused to stop.” We were right by one of the police stations, and we all went there and got out to talk. The one guy was yelling and yelling and I had no idea what he was saying. (I think he was talking Bambara or another language that I don’t know.) I repeatedly explained in French- or attempted to explain- that he wasn’t in uniform & I had no way of knowing he was police. Except it was more like- “I’m really sorry, BUT he’s not wearing his blue clothes…” I couldn’t remember things like uniform in French at that point.

    Anyway, everything ended fine. They had me go inside until that guy left, then I came back out and just gave them my name and phone number (and turned down 1 *mostly joking* marriage proposal.) I couldn’t even remember how to read my phone number after saying the French equivalent of eight thirty instead of 83, I just gave the guy my phone to read the number. He couldn’t without his reading glasses, so we passed it off to one of the other guys standing and watching the show. Fun times.

    I do find that I do much better in Bambara with my language teacher, then can’t form a coherent sentence at the market. Last week, I gave myself the assignment of coming up with things like “My name is… I’m from…” and other information. I had her go over it all with me. That should help!

    • I’m not surprised you were so flustered in that situation! I’m glad it worked out okay (and that you didn’t get married off). And it’s a great story to illustrate how language evaporates in a stressful situation. Best wishes with the Bambara learning!

    • When that happens, it generally has more to do with how our brains “store” non-native languages (maybe a future post?) but when we’re especially tired, stressed, etc. it probably makes it happen more often. That has definitely happened to me before. My Spanish now comes out with tones and then deteriorates into Mandarin halfway through the utterance. Aiya!

  7. Thank you! Like others have said, it does help to have a name for this.

    I find that now, after all these years, my comprehension isn’t affected–I can always understand–but there are plenty of times when I can’t say what I want to, or I sound like an idiot.

    • I’m glad it helps, Phyllis! And thanks for bringing up that point. I’m guessing that is true for a lot of people. You can still understand everything, it’s just that the words are not there (or are all wrong) when you try to respond.

  8. Agree w/Kristy who commented before me. This phenomenon is a real thing and it’s great to know it’s not just me!

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