A Look at Emotions in the Language Classroom

May 2024

A long, long time ago in our earliest days as a publication, we covered the topic of Emotion in our May 2018 issue. However, a subject as complex as emotion can’t be fully covered in a single issue! Let’s take a fresh look at the role of emotion in the classroom and its impact on student learning. 

“[W]e have already evolved complex and powerful systems for detecting and prioritizing that which is vital. They are the emotions, and they deserve to be at the top of your pedagogical tool kit.” – Sarah Rose Cavanagh

Cover photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.

APA reference for this issue:

(author). (2024). (article title, sentence case). MindBrainEd Think Tanks:A Look at Emotion in the Language Classroom, 10(5), (pages).

Watch before you read...

In this Think Tank we’re revisiting emotion, which we first covered in 2018 in one of our earliest issues. In the Main video, Lisa Feldman Barrett explains how emotions emerge and what we can do to influence them. In the More video, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang describes the important role emotions play in learning and the implications for educators. Then, Heather Kretschmer gets the ball rolling by reflecting on key takeaways from our Main and More videos.

In the Think Tank, Curtis Kelly delves into emotions and learning. Next, Kate Piatkowski examines how we regulate emotions and provides concrete tips for teachers and students. Finally, Amanda Gillis-Furutaka explores the link between profanity and emotions and the reasons people use swear words.

In the Plus section, we spotlight Think Tank editor, Julia Daley.

Our Thoughts on Emotions

Emotions: Our Gateway into Learning Heather Kretschmer

Reflecting back on my early days of teaching, I was focused on what my students needed to do to achieve certain goals in the target language. What schemata would they need to activate? What vocabulary would they need? Grammar? Speech acts? And so forth. 

Certainly, skills development is a key part of course content in language classes. But it became obvious fairly quickly that my students wouldn’t necessarily encounter the situations I envisioned. Take for example a unit on “Welcoming Visitors” designed for a group of employees working at the same company. Maybe this is a small subsidiary that rarely gets visitors, so some of these employees have not yet had the opportunity to welcome visitors in English. Is it still useful for this group to practice welcoming visitors in English? After all, company employees taking part in a professional development language course are very busy individuals who don’t have a lot of time to devote to learning the language. They may see the relevance of knowing how to welcome visitors in English in an abstract way, but without an immediate need, it may be hard for them to muster the energy to learn and practice useful language.

Think Tank Articles

The Hidden Role of Emotion in Language Learning Curtis Kelly

Emotion in the classroom. We are dancing around it all the time. I remember at least a hundred teachers gleefully stating that their students love their class (which means they love them). I remember a teacher trainer who advised us not to smile in the first two weeks in order to make our students scared of us. I remember Dick Day talking about the benefits of extensive reading and adding, almost as an afterthought, “and it is pleasurable too, and that keeps students reading.” (I saw the pleasure as a cause of learning, not an extra.) I remember the joy I felt when one of my students said I was their favorite teacher, and dismay when another teacher said that it is not our job is not to make them like us. I remember a low-spirited high school student whose head was drooped down almost to the desktop the entire class, probably because, somewhere along the line, English study had demolished his self-esteem. And I remember saying to my lackadaisical women’s college students, half in jest: “If you don’t do your homework, you’ll fail the test. If you fail the test you won’t pass this course. If you don’t pass this course, you won’t be able to graduate. If you can’t graduate, you won’t get a decent job, you can’t get married, and your life will be miserable.” And let’s not forget the way we elicit emotion with these six words: “This will be on the test.”

Regulating Emotions: What they are and What You Can Do to be More in Control Kate Piatkowski

When I heard of this issue’s topic, I was immediately reminded of a time before I was a teacher, when I was working in retail. If you have also worked retail or in the food industry, then you will remember working with customers who were lovely, and customers who were let’s say… difficult. Especially with understanding coupons. In those situations with difficult customers, how were you emotionally? For me, I learned to suppress the emotions I was feeling in the moment. After suppressing negative experiences with customers many times, it got to me and my job became increasingly difficult to manage. The thing is, I carried this particular strategy with me to the teaching position I have now. There are days where I have challenges in my personal life, but I cannot and will not take those emotions into my classroom. Other days, there are particular classes that don’t go well, but I have to carry on and suppress what I am feeling during that class. The act of suppressing your emotions is actually one of the two common emotional regulation responses, and I think many people have had some kind of experience with it. However, as we saw with my story above, suppressing emotions  is not a particularly good strategy to have. So, allow me to go over the details of emotional regulation, how it affects teachers and students, and a few better strategies that may help in regulating emotions in the future.

Profanity and Emotion are Inextricably Entwined – Let Me Show You How Amanda Gillis-Furutaka

First, a little background to this topic, because it is rarely addressed in academic circles or even among friends. Profanities are generally understood to be taboo words and expressions that shock, offend, and hurt. Of course, profanity is expressed not only through words. We use obscene gestures and sign languages have profane signs (Bergen, 2016). These words and gestures express the strongest human emotions. For example, we use them when we feel angry, afraid, surprised, amused, thrilled, and passionate. Profanity can also be used to inflict emotional pain, provoke violent responses, shape minds, and affect judgement. Unsurprisingly, governments, religious leaders, and education boards have often tried to regulate or ban profanity … but it persists.

Think Tank Plus

Editor Spotlight: Julia Think Tank Team

Editors’ note: We thought this would be a good time to tell you who we are. Not counting our inner stable contributors, this magazine has a staff of seven, living all over the world, who gather at Think Tank Towers in Waikiki every month to produce this magazine. The MindBrainEd Think Tanks are not funded, nor are the contributors or editors paid, so they produce this magazine out of love for language teachers and students.

Call for Contributions: Ideas and Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Going Deeper

Tara Hridel’s Brilliant Innovations Using Emotion

From: Curtis Kelly

Not long before working on this issue, I met a high school science teacher in Portland, Oregon who makes her science classes super fun for her students. For example, to study food chains and “animal forensics,” she brings in road kills to have her class calculate the approximate date of death based on decay and vermin. 

I thought one of her ideas was particularly innovative. Almost every high school teacher in America struggles with students using cellphones in class, but not Tara. If she ever catches a student handling a cellphone, she just takes it and puts it in a terrarium in her classroom, where the student can fetch it after class. But here is the catch. The terrarium is filled with huge Malaysian cockroaches (she bought them on Amazon), and the student has to reach in and take the phone themselves! Holding one of those creatures is an option for getting the phone back too.

A terrarium with hissing cockroaches. Inside are three confiscated smartphones stacked on top of each other. One of the roaches is perched on top of the phones.
A high school student standing next to the cockroach terrarium. One hand is making a fist pump, and the other is holding his successfully-rescued phone.
A high school student is holding one of the hissing cockroaches in her open hand with a smile on her face.
A high school student is carefully holding a hissing cockroach on his jacket sleeve, which is pulled over his hand.
A high school student is covering her mouth in shock with one hand, while the other, open and holding a cockroach, is stretched out far away from her body.

Dr. Immordino-Yang: How Emotions & Social Factors Impact Learning

In this nearly three-hour long podcast episode, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Andrew Huberman discuss the role of emotions and social interactions in learning and personal growth. They talk about what changes need to be made in education to give students a safe space to wrestle with complex issues. Here’s one intriguing idea Immordino-Yang elaborated on: 

So whatever you’re having emotion about is what you’re thinking about. And whatever you’re thinking about, you could hope to learn about. Remember something from, right? Understand differently. So the key question for educators is […] what are people’s emotions about in this space? (1:18:28)

And Now for Something Completely Different

Adding Emotion to Math

One might think we can’t add emotion to math, but this teacher does it in a masterful way.

Abigail Baird discusses how connecting math to the real world helps students to be more engaged and emotionally involved.

The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan      Curtis H. Kelly      Julia Daley       Afon (Mohammad) Khari

Heather Kretschmer       Matt Ehlers        Marc Helgesen         Nicky De Proost



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