1. The Effects of Foreign Language Anxiety

Have you experienced any of the following when learning or speaking a foreign language?

  • Discouraged about language learning
  • A loss of faith in your ability to succeed
  • A fear of participating in foreign language activities
  • A feeling of wanting to give up learning
  • Physical symptoms such as sweating, palpitations, and trembling
  • Difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, freezing, or going blank

Anxiety is found to have a detrimental effect on student’s performance in the classroom. Anxious students participate less, have poorer performance in speaking activities, are less able to self-edit and identify language errors, use avoidance strategies such as skipping class, are more likely to forget previously learned material, volunteer answers less frequently, and tend to be more passive in class.

Outside of the classroom, foreign language anxiety makes individuals quieter and less willing to communicate. This reluctance to communicate may have the side-effect of others perceiving them as less trustworthy, less competent, less socially or physically attractive, and lacking authority.

  1. What is Foreign Language Anxiety?

Foreign language anxiety is the feeling of unease, worry, nervousness and apprehension experienced in learning or using a second or foreign language. Foreign language anxiety (FLA) is a specific type of anxiety reaction that can affect both people that are already predisposed to anxiety in other situations, as well as people who are not characteristically anxious in other situations. Although all aspects of using and learning a foreign language can cause anxiety, speaking is the most common anxiety provoking activity in a foreign language.

Many researchers have tried to categorized FLA into different types, such as:

  1. Self-efficacy and appraisal anxiety.

Self-efficacy refers to is one’s own confidence that he or she would be able to handle or achieve the intended goals. Appraisal anxiety refers to fear of being judged by others.

  • State, trait, and situational anxiety.

State anxiety means a temporary response to external stressors. Trait anxiety refers to someone with a general predisposition to feeling anxious. And situational anxiety refers to anxiety caused only in connection to particular situations.

  • Situational anxiety in a classroom situation.

Specifically in the foreign language classroom we can further break down the types of anxiety into communication apprehensiontest anxiety and fear of negative evaluation. Communication apprehension is the anxiety experienced in speaking or listening to other individuals. Test-anxiety is a form of performance anxiety associated with the fear of doing badly or failing altogether. Fear of negative evaluation is the anxiety associated with the learner’s perception of how other observers (instructors, classmates or others) may negatively view their language ability.  

  1. Cause of Foreign Language Anxiety

Many factors can affect FLA, but research has found that it is most commonly related to intra-personal factors (meaning the learners’ personal characteristics, beliefs and attitudes) and inter-personal relationships with others (such as teachers, and other students).

Some of the most common causes for FLA mentioned in the research are:

  • Having erroneous beliefs about foreign language learning. For example, you convince yourself you’re not gifted at language learning, or that you haven’t achieved the progress or level you should have. It has also been observed that anxious learners tend to underestimate their actual language proficiency. Highly anxious learners have negative perception of both their language competence and their self-worth. Also, studies have concluded that some beliefs are derived from  unrealistic  conceptions  about  language  learning, for example learners’ great concern for speaking with a native accent or their belief that language learning is just memorization and translation.
  • Having negative experiences in a foreign language. For instance, being laughed at when mispronouncing a word or being reprimanded for making the same language error multiple times. The competitive nature of some classrooms can lead to anxiety because students tend to compare themselves to others, and low self-esteem causes  worry  and  fear  of  the negative responses or evaluation from the classmates.
  • Setting standards for your foreign language learning that are too high. For example, aiming for and expecting to achieve native like perfection. Studies have show that individuals with attitudes of perfectionism and closed-mindedness more often suffer from FLA.
  • Lack of confidence because of the teaching approach used. For example, a teacher who creates an overly competitive or shaming classroom environment. Studies also indicate that teachers’ perceptions play an important role in students’ FLA as the teacher is the person in the classroom who can regulate the atmosphere. The classroom that follows traditional learning styles, with its strictness and formality, is often a major source of stress.
  • Threatened self-identity. According to researchers, when our  internal beliefs are threatened by any external stimulus,  we activate  our defense  mechanisms  to  overcome such cognitive inconsistency, and foreign language learning inevitably requires learners to go through constant change or reconstruction. In a situation perceived as threatening and beyond one´s ability to deal with the threat, anxiety is a natural consequence. FLA researchers explain that language learning itself is a profoundly unsettling psychological proposition because it threatens learner’s self-concepts and world-concepts, which are rarely challenged when communicating in a native language. Speaking in a foreign language is often sensed as a threat to our self-concept, self-identity, and ego. Learners’ self-expression is limited by their imperfect command of a foreign language. Inability to present oneself according to one’s self-image can set a learner into a cycle of negative self-evaluation as language and the self are intimately bound.
  • Divided cognition. Language learning is a cognitive activity that relies on encoding, storage and retrieval processes in the brain. Anxiety can interfere with these processes by causing divided attention. Researches explain that when people divide their attention between task-related cognition and self-related or emotion-related cognition, cognitive performance is less efficient in all three stages of cognitive processing: input, processing, and output. Students often claim that they know and understand new grammar or vocabulary, but they tend to “forget” it when it comes to a test or oral exercise.
  • Low participation. One scholar studied the ways FLA creates a counter-productive, downward spiral for students. They suffer from FLA, so they’ll spend more time silent in class. Because they stay silent in class, their oral proficiency becomes worse and worse. And as their oral proficiency drops, the more they suffer from FLA.

IV. Pedagogical Strategies: What teachers can do to help

There are many things teachers can do in the classroom to help reduce FLA, for example setting realistic and achievable goals, building a relaxing classroom environment where students support each other, sharing language learning experiences and feelings, providing more chances to learners to use the language, and encouraging and praising learners often.

Teachers should also focus on boosting students’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the extent to which learners pursue learning a language because of desire and feel a sense of satisfaction completing associated activities. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is the extent to which learners associate learning with external rewards such as grades or praise. Intrinsic motivation and interest in foreign languages and cultures have been proved to be positive predictors of students’ performance in a foreign language, thus, enhancing learners’ interest in English and its culture is very important to promote their learning of the language. With a better knowledge of the language and its culture, the learners may not feel so foreign and strange when using the language. Strategies for this include: promoting students’ awareness of the importance of English, fostering their positive attitudes towards English, praising them, giving positive feedback, analyzing reasons for poor/good performance in English, fostering their intrinsic motivation in English by encouraging them to read English literary works, watching English films, and making friends with international students. With enhanced motivation to learn English, students may become more willing and active to use the language in various situations, which may in return result in lower anxiety in English learning.

In addition, teachers can focus on psychological aspects of student’s learning experience. The current trend of positive psychology aims to activate character strengths and self-regulated  learning  to  enhance professional and personal well-being. According to this approach, the five “elements of well-being” are: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. By creating fun, positive experiences in the classroom, in effect we are actually teaching students how to have a healthy attitude towards the target language and culture.

Teachers should also explicitly discuss learning strategies with their students. For example, students may not know that many researchers suggest successful language learners take risks and then analyze situations to determine whether their assumptions correct, and that successful learners usually display goal-oriented behaviors. Along with teaching strategies, teachers could have meta-discussions about the language learning process with their students. For example students may not be aware that it is common, as people acquire a second language, to develop a new style of thinking, feeling, and acting. In other words, they develop a new language identity.