Have you noticed that people are becoming more anxious around you? Are you getting the same sense from your learners? Can you do something to help them? In this blogpost, Michelle talks about how student anxiety seems to getting more common in the language classroom, she then discusses how your learners might feel, whilst offering up some suggestions about what can be done to reduce such anxiety.
ELT is so diverse around the world! And that goes for the contexts, ages and countries in which we teach and also for qualification requirements for teachers. Some of us need to hold bachelor’s degrees, some don’t; some have postgraduate studies, some don’t; some have certificate training qualifications from CELTA, Trinity and the like, some don’t; some may have a mix of any of the above … and yet we are all part of the ELT family. But something that a number (I dare say ‘most’) of us have in common – apart from teaching English – is probably our unawareness about anxiety in the language classroom. I am sure we have all heard of it and maybe even seen it, but don’t know what exactly it is, nor what to do about it. Read on to find out more about the causes of anxiety in the language classroom and what I think can be done to reduce it.
Anxiety in Foreign Language learning
Anxiety is possibly the most important factor that obstructs and limits the process of learning a language commonly leading the learner to quit learning the given language. We cannot deny that there is a great vulnerability in learning a foreign language particularly when dong it in adulthood. It can be frightening to try to express ourselves in a language we do not control as our mother tongue, and we might feel limited in our expression, possibly sounding like babies and so having our identity self-threatened in various ways.
Anxiety is associated with negative feelings such as discomfort, ridicule and failure, frustration, apprehension, and anticipatory tension which is generally caused when a learner has to use the target language orally. To Horwitz (2001) foreign language anxiety is responsible for the uncomfortable experience in language classes and, from such concept, the authors have developed a test that measures the level of anxiety in students. Correlational data between anxiety in foreign language and final learning product indicate a consistent correlation, however moderate, between anxiety and learning. Horwitz goes on to define anxiety as a subjective feeling of tension, apprehension, nervous condition and worry associated with triggering the autonomic nervous system.
A specific type of anxiety
The anxiety in foreign language learning is considered a type of specific anxiety, and it is believed to be responsible for generating negative emotional reactions, discomfort and blocking during tasks. Foreign language learning anxiety has been frequently linked to aspects of oral use, although studies have attempted to identify and diagnose different types of anxiety resulting from the development of other skills. So, if we see anxiety as fear or apprehension that occurs when a student has to use their second language (L2), or even their third language (L3) for some, this anxiety is related to the performance in the target language learning, not being a general type of anxiety.
The correlation between anxiety and negative performance is related to evaluation, oral performance and self-confidence. Anxiety is also associated with low proficiency and self-esteem. Did you know that often unrealistic beliefs regarding the goal to be achieved and the time required to achieve it in learning a foreign language can lead to anxiety disorders, negativeness and debilitation? It even gets a bit darker as interactions with teachers can also generate anxiety, particularly when involving the correction of errors and exposure to the public of their performance in the classroom.
Young (1990, 1999) argued that when students are asked to deliver their thoughts or ideas in a foreign language in which they have limited competence, their performance can be very threatening to their self-image and can even challenge an individual’s self-concept as a competent communicator which might lead to reticence, self-consciousness, fear or even panic.
What to do: create an environment of acceptance and appreciation
So far, I’m aware I’ve made it seem pretty gloomy but don’t worry, there is a way to turn the tide … Whereas certainly not every learner will feel anxious or even develop more serious anxiety, it is important to be aware of the fact that some of your learners maybe feeling anxious, and that we (as teachers) can, in fact, be part of this negative process and might be contributing (unintentionally) to a learner’s feeling of anxiety. So, to break this pattern, the more we can do to understand anxiety in language education, the less likely we are to cause unintentional harm.
There is a growing body of research that strongly argues that the teacher is responsible for fostering an environment of acceptance, reciprocal appreciation cooperation, and mutual support that encourages self-confidence of learners, thereby decreasing affective variables that block learning and the development of oral skills as anxiety, inhibition and low self-esteem. This all sounds good, but how can we do all that? Here are a few guidelines to try:
- Give your learners the benefit of doubt. Don’t judge them if they don’t want to speak, for example. Instead, (I know it’s extra work) come up with alternative speaking practices such as working with gapped video transcripts where students can interact with the video.
- Create a non-judgmental culture and explain that no accent should be laughed at.
- Discuss with the group and individually about their oral correction preferences.
- Understand that even in a great class, your learners do not need to necessarily be smiling and talking all the time.
- I know it is challenging, but normalise silence during periods of class time. There is a lot going on in terms of cognitive process in your learner’ minds, it’s okay to take time to think.
- Create mechanisms that can inform your class routine. For example, if students place their pencil cases on the desk, it means they don’t want to participate orally.
- If technology is available, create a back channel so students can join the discussion even if they don’t want to speak.
- Allow activities to be carried out outside the classroom far from peer-pressure and teacher pressure.
- Remind students that their intellect is not being judged when learning another language. Speaking English does not equate to being more or less smart.
- Give yourself a break! Trying to do all these things at once will leave you exhausted. Remember, teachers do the best they can.
Horwitz, E. (2001). ‘Language anxiety and achievement’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 21.
Young, D. (1990). ‘An Investigation of Students' Perspectives on Anxiety and Speaking’. Foreign Language Annals, 23 (6:539).
Young, D. (1999). ‘Creating a Low-Anxiety Classroom Environment: What Does Language Anxiety Research Suggest?’ The Modern Language Journal, 426–437.