Affectivity and language learning: positive affect and attributional style

It is undeniable that affective variables such as beliefs or motivation and attributional style influence the educational process, but it is in foreign language learning where they play a key role. In this article we will analyse how affective and attributional variables are related to the learning of Spanish as a second language.

María Vaíllo, María Brígido and Nuria Camuñas.
Key words
Affectivity, attributional style, ELE
Recommended reading
Ortega, Lourdes (2005). Methodology, epistemology, and ethics in instructed SLA research: an introduction, The Modern Language Journal, 89, 317-327.
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“Success [in language learning] depends less on materials, techniques, and linguistic analysis, and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom”.

This well-known statement by Stevick (1980: 4) suggests that, in language learning, what happens at two levels is crucial: within people (intrapersonal variables of the learner) and between people (interpersonal variables between learners). After all, learning is a social act that we share with other individuals, and language is directly related to our own identity.

According to some psycholinguists (Krashen and Terrel 1983; Lightbown and Spada 2013; Norris 2001; Santana, García and Escalera 2016), affectivity is a fundamental emotional element in language learning. Among the affective variables that have often been studied as mediators of learning, motivation, beliefs and attitudes stand out. Research indicates that we learn any content better when we have positive beliefs about the subjects we study and our own ability, positive attitudes (a positive attitude allows the open-mindedness necessary for processing information) and intrinsic motivation. But other possible variables are affective structure and attributional style.

What do we mean by affective structure?

According to Watson, Clark and Tellegen (1988) there are two types of affect: positive and negative affect. Positive affect “reflects the degree to which a person feels enthusiastic, active or alert to the life around them” (Sanmartín, Vicent, González, García-Fernández and Inglés 2016: 144). Different studies have tried to analyse the relationship between this dimension and learning, as a way to understand it from the learners’ point of view and to highlight elements that would help to enhance it. It seems that being in a positive affective state (when we feel encouraged and active about things that happen to us) not only makes us learn more, but also has an impact on our brain. Betzel, Satterthwaite, Gold and Bassett (2016) have studied the relationship between neural network flexibility and affectivity, showing that positive affect portends a more neuronally flexible brain, which in turn is related to cognitive flexibility. Positive affect also has other benefits for learning. It seems to promote certain contextual variables associated with school success, such as engagement in school. King, McInerney, Ganotice and Villarosa (2015) found a correlation between positive affect and academic engagement: students who had higher levels of positive affect showed lower levels of disaffection towards school and were more engaged. Moreover, when positive or negative affect was induced by having participants relate a personal event that made them feel “happy and positive” or “sad and negative”, similar results were obtained: those who were induced to be in a state of positive affect reported higher levels of school engagement than those who were subjected to the opposite states, who showed higher levels of disaffection.

Try and recall memories from your school years: you will probably confirm that some of the remembered episodes are events strongly linked to intense emotional experiences (positive or negative).

Attributional style and its influence on learning

Attributional theory studies the causes that people perceive as determining their achievements or failures. Following the typical example, a student can say they failed me, or I failed the exam, i.e. they can place the causes of their performance outside themselves (external attribution), or inside themselves (internal attribution).

For Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale (1978) attributions, as well as internal-external, can be stable-unstable and global-specific. A negative attributional style would be one in which the person tends to explain failures on the basis of internal causes (inherent to the subject), stable (that are maintained over time) and global (that affect other areas of the subject’s life, not a specific domain or situation).

Weiner (1986) proposed four sets of attributions: ability, effort, luck, and task difficulty.

Attributional style is subject to change, so learners can establish control over their learning process through the technique of reattributional training.

The type of attributions we relate to our successes or failures are fundamental, as they affect our expectations (Palomino 2013) and, through them, our performance (Miñano and Castejón 2011). In turn, the attribution of failure or success to stable causes (the difficulty of the task or skill) affects future expectations of success more than attribution to unstable causes (luck, effort); while if the attribution is made to internal causes (personality, ability) it will also affect self-esteem.

Williams and Burden (1999) conducted a qualitative study with the aim of understanding the attributions of individuals according to their personal profile. This profile was obtained through a questionnaire in which participants were asked to discuss, among other topics, the reasons for their failures and the factors they control during foreign language learning. They conclude that people tend to externalise the reasons for their failures, possibly as a means of protecting or safeguarding their self-esteem, and to internalise the reasons for success, in order to reinforce their self-esteem.

Williams, Burden, Poulet and Maun (2004) investigated what students attributed their achievements and failures in learning a foreign language to, estimating also differences in age, gender, perceived success and the specific language they were studying. Their results differ from those found by Weiner (1986), as among the wide range of attributions students used (effort, ability, interest, teacher contribution) to explain their performance, luck did not play a role. Moreover, boys seemed to attribute doing better to their own effort, while girls attributed their failures more to lack of effort than boys did.

In short, affective and attributional processes are a fundamental tool for enhancing second language learning. A more precise knowledge of how these variables function will allow us to design environments that take into account the intra- and interpersonal emotional aspects that help to improve performance in foreign language learning, beyond the cognitive aspects. As Vasquez and Martínez put it: “The educational system predetermines the functions that both the teacher and the student will have to assume in the interpersonal contacts taking place in the school environment” (1996: 60).

Teachers, in their daily work, should be concerned about the management of the personal and social environment; sharing feelings, experiences, attitudes and values will be beneficial in the personal and social development of each individual and will have a positive impact on their learning.


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