When speaking another language, you’ve probably had a moment when you froze up and couldn’t remember what you were trying to say. Even if you memorized all your vocabulary and have constantly practiced, you still had trouble expressing what you wanted to communicate. No matter if you’re a novice speaker or an expert, Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety has probably affected you at some point. In addition to feeling anxious about speaking, you may also feel frustrated or embarrassed that you couldn’t perfectly explain what you mean. As uncomfortable as this phenomenon is, it’s a normal part of language learning!
In this article we are going to explore just what exactly Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety is, why it happens, and what we can do to over come it. As a language teacher, I wondered why some of my students feared speaking activities or felt uncomfortable talking in the target language even though we had sufficient practice in class. For my Master’s thesis last year, I wrote a research paper all about the Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety of Teenagers in the Classroom. Since this blog also focuses on language learning, I thought I would revisit the subject and share some of the insight from my research with my readers.
*Disclaimer: This is not an academic research article, but a blog post that does refer to research. Its purpose is simply to inform and entertain. However, I have decided to include Modern Language Association style parenthetical in-text citations in order to appropriately credit the research referenced. In addition, everyone’s experience speaking another language is different so the content of this post may not apply to your situation.*
What is Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety?
The Role of Emotions in Language Learning
Before defining what Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety is, we need to take a closer look at the role emotions play in language learning to understand the context in which anxiety manifests.
Positive and Negative Emotions
The interpretation of one’s own emotions also has an impact on their language learning. For example, positive emotions tend to expand a learner’s repertoire of thoughts and actions that help create personal resources. Negative emotion, on the other hand tends to restrict concentration and potential behaviors (Gregersen et al., 575).
I’ll use two real-life examples to demonstrate how positive and negative emotions can affect language learning. After I first learned French, I went on an informal exchange over the summer and visited France with a French family. I didn’t speak much French then, but I still tried practicing out in public when I had the chance. The few times I tried practicing, I was complimented on my accent! One shopkeeper even told me my “merci beaucoup” was “très joli.” Because of this early praise from native speakers, I felt confident in my speaking and enjoyed that part of French class.
Now, I’m beginning to learn Spanish and I am facing some Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety. On my trip to Spain last Fall I tried to order food in Spanish, but would get flustered and often revert back to English. More recently, when my language teacher asked me a question about what we use colors for, I didn’t know how to express myself in Spanish because of my limited vocabulary. I felt stupid when I just said “no sé” and shook my head and my Spanish teacher said “para describir,” which was what I was thinking in my head, but in English. My lack of knowledge and vocabulary in Spanish make learning a new language hard, but I just have to remind myself that these feelings are normal for beginners.
Emotion and Cognition in Language Learning.
Because language learning is a cognitive process, we also need to look at the role of emotion and cognition. According to Arnold, (Attention to Affect, 3), emotions and learning are linked and in order to learn, the brain needs meaningful experiences. Emotions are one way to engage language in a meaningful way. Hormonal changes that are triggered by emotions incite cognitive and physiological changes that either aid or prevent learning. Therefore, emotion is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather a state that is heavily linked to emotion and is consequently an important element to consider in language learning.
One example I can think of when creating meaningful experiences through language learning is talking about one’s likes and dislikes – a classic topic for beginning language learners. When I talk about likes and dislikes with my students I try to be relatable and talk about what generally interests them like what shows they have been watching on Netflix. Because we are talking about something fun and interesting to them, they feel more at ease when speaking and learning new vocabulary.
Definition of Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety:
Now that we have explored the role of emotions in language learning, we can take a closer look at Anxiety in Language Learning. Anxiety can be defined as “the subjective feeling of tension, apprehension, nervousness, and worry associated with an arousal of the autonomic nervous system,” (Horwitz et al., 125). Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety is a type of anxiety that is “specific” to the situation of speaking another language. In the rest of this article, we will take a look at its causes and ways to fight it.
What are the Causes of Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety?
The research of Young (426) suggests six possible sources for Foreign Language Anxiety:
- Personal and Impersonal Anxiety
- Learners’ beliefs about the Foreign Language
- Beliefs of Language Teachers
- Student-Teacher Interactions
- Classroom Procedures
- Language Testing
Because this article is more general and not specifically classroom-oriented, we will just take a look at the first two sources.
Foreign Language Anxiety and Self-Esteem
Self-esteem plays a role in learning because positive self-esteem is necessary for success. When one doesn’t have self confidence, that person will think that they lack ability and therefore will refuse to make the effort that is necessary when learning a new language (Arnold, Comment les facteurs affectifs 415). This is why language teachers must support the self-esteem of their students. If learning a language on your own, you may also want to find ways to boost your own self-confidence in language learning.
Another element that blocks learners’ motivation is making mistakes. Arnold explains that errors can threaten our egos and that we can become critical of our own mistakes (Affect in Language Learning 11). This indicates that language teachers should be conscious of the way they correct their students as well as the mindset they promote about the role of errors in learning. As learners, we also need to be aware of our own attitudes towards mistakes. If we think that we shouldn’t speak if we are wrong or aren’t sure how to say something, we are preventing our own learning. If we view mistakes as a normal part of language learning, then we will be less likely to feel anxious about messing up when speaking.
Language Learning Beliefs
In addition to beliefs about their own language learning abilities, beliefs about the target language and culture have an influence on the students’ affectivity. For example if a learner thinks that Japanese is a “difficult” language to learn, that belief will prevent the learner from thinking that learning Japanese is feasible. That belief will then influence the student’s motivation to try and participate, preventing further the learning of that language.
Feelings that accompany anxiety like worry can augment that anxiety. Arnold also adds that negative beliefs about oneself are problematic because a large part of one’s cognitive energies are spent nurturing concerns about lack of ability or worth (Comment les facteurs affectifs 415). If you are worried about how unsure you are speaking the target language, you won’t be focused on the language itself and won’t learn. Luckily there are strategies you can use to overcome this lack of self-confidence while speaking a foreign language.
What are some ways to overcome Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety?
As a Language Learner:
These are some strategies you can do as a language learner to help you feel at ease when speaking:
- Practice Frequently – This one seems like a no-brainer, but the more you practice, the more you will be at ease while speaking. If you don’t have enough opportunities to speak in-class try out a language tandem or find a language exchange event near you!
- Mindfulness – Practice mindfulness when learning a language so you can be aware of your own thoughts and feelings. Take time to self-reflect and self-evaluate to understand yourself and what helps you learn.
- Look at Mistakes as Learning Opportunities – If you don’t take the risk and try, you’ll never know if you were right or not! I love this TED talk about developing a growth mindset.
- Realize that not everyone is judging you when you speak: Talk about your speaking anxiety with other learners because they probably have had similar experiences! Realizing that this happens to every learner can make you feel less embarrassed.
As a Teacher:
Here are some strategies I try to incorporate in my own classroom to help students feel more comfortable and confident when speaking in the target language:
- Encourage mistakes making rather than discouraging them.
- Create a judgement free zone in class.
- Provide students with plenty of opportunities to speak in class that will not be formally evaluated.
- Find out what motivates/interests students and use that as a topic for conversation.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article! There is so much more research I didn’t talk about in this post, but I hope you enjoyed this little introduction to the topic. Let me know if you’ve ever experienced Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety and if you were able to find a way to overcome it!
ARNOLD, Jane, Affect in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
ARNOLD, Jane, « Comment les facteurs affectifs influencent-ils l’apprentissage
d’une langue étrangère ? », Ela. Etudes de linguistique appliquée 2006/4 (n
144), p. 407-425
ARNOLD, Jane. 2011. Attention to Affect in Language Learning. Anglistik.
International Journal of English Studies, 22/1,11-22.
GREGERSEN, Tammy, et al. “The Motion of Emotion: Idiodynamic Case Studies of Learners’ Foreign Language Anxiety.” The Modern Language Journal, vol. 98, no. 2, 2014, pp. 574–588., http://www.jstor.org/stable/43649903.
HORWITZ, Elaine K. , HORWITZ, Michael B. et COPE, Joann “Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety” The Modern Language Journal, Vol. 70, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), pp. 125-132
YOUNG, Dolly Jesuia. “Creating a Low-Anxiety Classroom Environment : What does Language Anxiety Suggest ?” The Modern Language Journal, 75, iv, 1991.