Skip to main content

Foreign language anxiety: is it getting on your nerves?

These days, I walk two blocks to work every day.

Every day, I stop at the same café for the same drink on the way there. On my way back, I stop at the same dive bar. If I want to mix things up a little, I’ll embark on a two hundred fifty meter detour that takes me through a small gardened square. Like Sherlock Holmes Marie Kondoing his brain attic, I’ve managed to remove all the superfluous information and stripped this city down to its bare essentials. These two blocks are all I need: they’re where my world starts, and they’re where my world ends.

But a few years ago, living in a wider world, I traveled constantly. And I always went out of my way not to rely too much on my English. Maybe a little too far, most of my traveling companions would argue. I’d buy phrase books for every trip and carry them around with me like an idiot. I’d check out learn-a-language CDs from the local library (although I’ll confess I didn’t always listen to them). I even took Arabic classes before going on a tour of the Middle East.

Mind you, when I say “I took Arabic classes”… I started on my flight there.

Surprisingly, I didn’t learn Arabic on an overnight flight to Damascus. But I tried, and I tried to use as much of it as I could.

But why didn’t my travel companions feel similarly at ease in a new language?

Three words for you: Foreign Language Anxiety.

Foreign Language Anxiety: where does it come from?

Although it’s probably been around for as long as languages and the fear of screwing up, Foreign Language Anxiety is a recent-ish research topic. It was first studied by Elaine Horwitz in 1986, inspired by a student of French who compared her teacher to a “Martian Death Ray” (to which she responds: this is pretty common for teachers of foreign languages. To which I respond: wait what?).

The Horwitz papers break down FLA into three key components:

  1. Communication apprehension – anxiety in speaking or listening to another individual
  2. Fear of negative evaluation – being afraid you’ll be judged for a mistake
  3. Test anxiety – a kind of performance anxiety related to the fear of getting bad grades or failing altogether.

And what they discovered is that there is a relationship between Anxiety and Achievement: the more FLA you suffer from, the less likely you are to successfully learn or speak the language. (This may or may not be because you spend your whole class picturing your French teacher as a Martian Death Ray instead of listening to him explain the difference between Passé compose and Passé antérieur.)

Academics agree that these seem to be the main sources of Foreign Language Anxiety: being afraid you’ll be misunderstood is the big one, with being afraid you’ll be ridiculed trailing close behind.

There’s one other cause I find fascinating. It’s the idea that we’ve spent our whole adult lives carefully shaping our self-image (what the People Of Linkedin might call personal branding), and most things you do and say on a normal basis tend to reinforce it. However, not being fluent in a language is a big obstacle to present yourself in that light, and many foreign language speakers find that to be a source of stress, even if subconsciously.

Example: you are a Highly Regarded Academic® where you come from, but you’re invited to do a TED Talk and you’re afraid that your level of English won’t make you sound as clever as you want people to think you are. Or you’re recently-graduated-me, trying to impress a Parisian girl by reading one of Prevert’s poems in French, thinking with my very minimal grasp of the language that it was some kind of manifesto of the poet’s free-spiritedness. Only to be told that the poem was about a woman, and how lewd she was. Surprisingly enough, that evening did not end well.

How bad can it get?

(Is it just me or does this question make you 10x more anxious?)

Foreign Language Anxiety isn’t struggling to find the right words, or making the occasional mistake. That’s speaking a foreign language. It happens to everybody. (It happens to me even speaking my mother tongue.)

People who suffer from FLA can really suffer from it. Extreme cases can result in hands or legs shaking uncontrollably when speaking in a second language. Some people’s minds go completely blank, or they freeze and can’t think or act at all. Others find their voice level dropping to a point where it’s nearly inaudible.

There are other, subtler consequences too. People with FLA tend to speak in shorter sentences, and speak less than they normally do.

They find it much harder to learn the language. In her studies, Horwitz has explored how quick-learners and good students in every other area become poor students at their “target language.”

One scholar studied the ways FLA creates a counter-productive and downward spiral for students: they suffer from FLA, so they struggle with learning a language. As an instinctive reaction, 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.

Can you fix it?

The great news, if you suffer from Foreign Language Anxiety is that, yes, it can be fixed.

For people learning a second language formally, there are some shortcuts: find yourself a different teacher, one who doesn’t remind you of a Martian Death Ray and inspires you to love the language instead. In an award-winning study, Jiang Yan and Jean-Marc Dewaele found that great teachers can replace anxiety with enjoyment.

Or do a little soul-searching and try to understand what is the main cause of your FLA. Go back to the main sources of anxiety listed here and try to figure out which of them is short-circuiting your brain.

Is it a fear of underperforming in exams? Choose a learning method that doesn’t rely so much on tests to track progress, as many experts advise.

Are you too conscious in front of a group to speak up? Ditch large classes and take on 1-on-1 conversations. Build your confidence from that and go back to classes if you want (or have) to.

If you’re not actually taking classes, and are just looking for tips on how to lose that FLA, here’s the deal:

I’m going to have to say this, but you have to promise you won’t get mad at me for doing so.

I know this is like telling an angry person to calm down.

But really.

If you’re feeling anxious, and that’s screwing your ability to communicate in your second language up, you’ve got to relax a little.

Take David Doochin’s admittedly anecdotal example. The moment you start realizing that everybody makes mistakes speaking a second language, that you won’t be judged by most people around you if you do, and that it’s okay (even probably healthy) to not worry about your personal brand every now and then, you’ll be freer to practice. And the more you practice, the better you’ll get.

Listen, worst case scenario is you get featured in a mildly amusing twitter thread exactly about this kind of confusion. Or you accidentally threaten to execute world leaders in front of thousands of people.

And how bad could that be?

The post Foreign language anxiety: is it getting on your nerves? appeared first on Unbabel.