How to overcome your foreign language anxiety
Does this sound familiar?
Learning a foreign language is often exciting. With each expertly executed email, understood dubbed episode of FRIENDS without subtitles or new emoji of encouragement from your language-learning app, you can find your confidence well and truly boosted.
You’re on holiday in France. You head into a cafe for a coffee and some breakfast. Thinking back to your French lessons, you compile the necessary words into a sentence in your mind and run it over a few times. The queue shrinks, and you find yourself facing the barista. Without warning, your heart begins to thump and your palms dampen. He looks at you expectantly, and you engage your suddenly weak vocal cords and open your dry mouth, only to hear someone that sounds just like you say;
‘Sorry, do you speak English? That croissant there, please…’
Foreign Language Anxiety is real
We all have days when normal, day-to-day tasks appeal slightly less than usual. And getting started utilizing a new skill inevitably comes with trepidation. But if you’re one of the people who finds that the thought of using the language you’re learning induces a debilitating fear, it sounds like you suffer from foreign language anxiety.
Also known as xenoglossophobia (try saying that without faltering), a spell of foreign language anxiety does what it says on the tin; gives you The Fear when trying to use the language you’re learning. It doesn’t discriminate, and can rear its ugly head when speaking, reading or writing in your non-native language.
Luckily for you, help is at hand! We have compiled a list of what we consider to be the best advice on how to tackle your anxiety and come out the other side speaking without so much as a bead of fearful sweat forming at your relaxed brow. But first, a little more about what foreign language anxiety actually is.
What causes foreign language anxiety?
Anxiety when using another language is something that has been examined by psychologists in order to better understand the causes, patterns and potential solutions. Horwitz and Young (1991) were the first to conceptualize foreign language anxiety as a ‘unique type of anxiety specific to language learning’. They came up with two ways to identify foreign language anxiety:
1 – transfer approach – this is where the anxiety caused by speaking another language is really a manifestation of other anxieties you might have.
2 – unique approach – when the anxiety experienced when dealing with another language doesn’t correlate with any other type of anxiety.
However, during their research they noted that anxiety around language learning must be specific to language learning. Gardner (1985) argued that not all types of anxiety would influence second or foreign language learning, but “a construct of anxiety which is not general but instead is specific to the language acquisition context is related to second language achievement”. Researchers began to agree that the anxiety induced by learning a foreign language was specific to the experience of learning another language and needed to be researched as such.
Horwitz et al identify language learning anxiety as “a distinct complex construct of self-perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and behaviours related to classroom language learning arising from the uniqueness of language learning process”. So whether or not you experience anxiety generally, the specific experience of learning a language can induce anxiety in part because ‘no other fields of study implicate self-concept and self-expression to the same degree as foreign language study.’
Psychologists have also noted the struggle between the self language learners wanted to communicate and the one they were able to. This is also deemed an anxiety inducing factor – the fear of coming across as boring or stupid can prevent people from feeling at ease using another language. No one wants to be the dullard at the party…
Following their research, Horwitz et al developed a system to diagnose Foreign Language Anxiety known as the FLCAS.
How is foreign language anxiety diagnosed?
It is estimated that a third of all foreign-languages learners will experience this type of anxiety at some point. But how best to differentiate between the nerves brought on by pronouncing ‘oeuvre’ wrong for the seventeen-hundredth time in front of your French flatmate versus anxiety so severe that a simple ‘bonjour’ is beyond your reach?
Continuing their research, in 1986 Horwitz et al developed the Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety scale, referred to as the FLCAS. Although numerous psychologists have researched the causes, presentation and effects of this type of anxiety, this is currently the most commonly used tool for assessing FLA.
“The FLCAS is a 33-item individual self-report Likert scale that reflects three things: communication apprehension, test anxiety, fear of negative evaluation”
Communication apprehension: this is the feeling that you cannot express your thoughts and ideas adequately in your non-native language.
Test anxiety: this is the fear of poor evaluation, feedback or criticism, particularly in an academic setting.
Fear of negative evaluation: this is the fear of being judged by others, be it teachers, friends or strangers.
The 33-item self-report includes statements such as ‘I tremble when I know that I’m going to be called on in language class’, ‘I don’t understand why some people get so upset over foreign language classes’ and ‘The more I study for a language test, the more confused I get’. The FLCAS has been rigorously validated for internal reliability, test-retest reliability, and construct validity.
Depending on your score, you are able to assess whether your language nerves are something that will pass as you persevere, or a bigger issue that would do well to be addressed and managed.
How badly can foreign language anxiety impact second language learning?
Having anxiety about speaking a foreign language can hit at any stage of language level, even if you’re fluent. That said, it can inevitably have an impact on your progression.
It can make you feel discouraged, avoid situations where you might need to use the language or worse yet, give up overall. But the last thing you should do is give up! You already have the tools at hand to start using a foreign language. You just need to access them.
Don’t be this guy ^^
Ok fine, but how do you deal with Foreign Language Anxiety?
Foreign Language Anxiety really can affect anyone, no matter their age, level or experience with the language in question. At some point, everyone will feel a certain level of nerves when using a new language. Fear of looking foolish is to be expected. But when that fear is preventing you from progressing, it needs to be dealt with. Luckily, there are a few methods that can help end your anxiety for good.
1 – Seek one-on-one conversations
Find a friend! Speaking in front of a group can be daunting no matter what your language level. There’s little more humiliating than stopping midway through a story or sentence only to tail off as you watch your audience’s increasingly concerned, patronising expressions cement. But one way to reduce your nerves and gain control over the speed and direction of the conversation is to speak with only one person. This can give you the time you need to gather your thoughts and have a conversation that is more suited to your level. Online lessons are a great way to begin. Worst comes to worst, you can always cut the connection and claim dodgy internet…
2 – Embrace your mistakes as part of the journey
When learning a language, mistakes are inevitable. Can you really say you’re a language learner if you haven’t gone into a shop asking for a photo frame only to come out with a screwdriver you have no use for and a very red face? Mistakes are going to be made. This is the best time to channel your inner-Pollyanna and embrace them. Every mistake you make increases the likelihood of you remembering whatever grammar error, pronunciation fail or word-mixup you made and not repeating it. Do as Chumbawumba do; get knocked down, get back up again. (Learn how to use your new screwdriver).
3 – Take small steps
Reading and writing in a new language is a great start, but in order to speak with confidence you will benefit from incorporating small speaking exercises into your language learning routine. Try speaking in front of the mirror, ordering in restaurants or asking someone for directions to prepare you for longer conversations. Yes, it might feel a bit ridiculous to jabber away to your reflection, asking for directions to somewhere you already know how to get to or to feel disproportionately proud of yourself for asking for a coffee with sugar, but each small interaction can lead to a bigger one. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll finally be able to order that matcha-skinny-oat-no-foam-latte-with-a-caramel-drizzle you’ve had your eye on.
4 – Do some positive thinking
I think (I am good at languages) therefore I am (good at languages). Sometimes your understanding of a situation can be as inaccurate as mine of Descartes. A cognitive distortion is an illogical or negative thought that can leave you feeling stuck. Maybe you catastrophize, thinking that one mispronounced word means you should give up on the new language entirely. Maybe you’re a perfectionist more than you are a linguist and experience polarized thinking, assuming that if you’re not perfect at the new language you might as well not try. You might overgeneralise and think that one bad class means it’s all downhill, or jump to the conclusion that learning a language isn’t for you. Instead of berating yourself, focus on the positives. Maybe you pronounced one word wrong, but for every mistake there will be dozens of perfectly delivered words. Rather than a sign you should give up, one bad class can be an indicator that you need to realign your priorities and take some time to focus on grammar over vocabulary, for example.
5 – Practice practice practice
This might seem illogical advice for someone afraid of using a new language, but practice really does make confident when it comes to speaking in a new language. People don’t expect you to be perfect! I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but chances are your accent is a dead giveaway and the chances of you delivering dialogue that sounds native are slim. But the more you try, the closer you’ll get. No one is listening to you hoping you’ll fail (and if they are, prove them wrong, and then avoid the weirdo for the rest of time). Practice a little bit every day and in time your nerves will melt away and you’ll be chattering like a care-free bilingual.
As debilitating as this type of anxiety can be, there are numerous ways in which you can combat it at your own pace. Try your best not to become disheartened by nerves, and focus on the positives. Getting over your nerves is a slow process but it can be done and it is oh so worth it! By taking these steps, you will surely be conversing away breezily in no time.
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