Overcoming Language Anxiety

June 29, 2007

The symptoms are familiar: a lack of confidence, a reluctance to speak, even insomnia in some cases. What appears to be a kind of anxiety attack or extreme phobia could become debilitating for a student's well-being, let alone participation grade.

But this particular ailment isn't listed in the DSM-IV.

What sounds like a case of chronic stage fright could be occurring on college campuses every day, according to a growing but contested body of research about foreign language classes.

It's called "language anxiety." The reasons people disagree about it are clear: students might not be aware of their problem, for example, and the number of factors that affect learning could cloud researchers' analyses. And who hasn't felt a little nervous learning a foreign tongue?

But scholars like Elaine Horwitz, a professor of foreign language education at the University of Texas at Austin, believe there's a definite connection between what they've identified as language anxiety and performance in the classroom. Originally, when Horwitz began doing research in the virtually nonexistent field in 1986, she focused on extreme cases. But she found that the problems students described were more widespread, if milder.

"I did identify a small number of people who were just amazingly freaked out -- how academic is that? -- by their language class. But the real surprising thing was that I started finding that there was a reasonably large minority, and the number, about a third, keeps coming up," Horwitz said.

When she started teaching at the University of Texas, Horwitz gained a reputation for being receptive to students with problems in language classes -- especially those in the midst of the required four semesters of foreign language instruction for undergraduates. At that time, in the early 1980s, there was some interest in anxiety among students learning math and science. So it was startling when she began to meet students having the same problems with their Spanish or French classes.

"They were sleepless, they were unable to do anything else in their life but pay attention to this class. They were studying absolutely full-time and they were getting C’s," she said.

That doesn't mean the phenomenon is new, of course. But Horwitz speculates that in the '80s, with an increased push for a focus on spoken language skills, as opposed to reading and writing, the problem may have become more acute.

Dolly Jesusita Young, a researcher at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who studied under Horwitz in Austin, said she is also noticing a growing problem. "We see students who have gone to the learning disabilities center, or whatever the university calls that department or that unit. Students increasingly may have problems and they will be tested for some type of disability. That is more common, so we’re finding that there are more students than in the past with learning disabilities."

And the issue, more likely than not, tends to manifest itself among students who are taking language as a graduation requirement, because those who major in foreign languages or take the classes as electives more likely have a natural interest or inclination toward language acquisition.

"This tends to be more of a problem at colleges and universities with a blanket language requirement," said Michael E. Geisler, dean of language schools and schools abroad at Middlebury College, in an e-mail. "Where this is the case (and needless to say I think a blanket language requirement is generally a good idea!), some provisions are usually made for a few students whose fear of foreign languages reaches such a level of intensity that some special accommodation needs to be made for them. ..."

The Americans

Everyone's heard the stereotype that Americans can't learn foreign languages. To be sure, American students begin learning them later than their peers in Europe and Asia. But Horwitz has pointed out that language anxiety, as she has measured it, doesn't confine itself to the United States.

While about a third of American students exhibit some form of the anxiety, she said, the European percentage is lower -- 28 to 30 percent -- which might justify a bit of that Old World snobbery. But in Asia, she said, there are actually more students with the problem, in the neighborhood of 40 to 43 percent.

Horwitz, who recently returned from a trip to Hong Kong where she was engaging with the issue of its native Cantonese speakers' anxiety when learning Mandarin, said she sees a cultural component to the problem.

In America, meanwhile, learning difficult languages (like Chinese) calls into question one's own perceptions about his or her language abilities -- and how hard it is to acquire a second tongue. Cornelius C. Kubler, the Stanfield Professor of Asian Studies at Williams College and a member of the Modern Language Association's Association of Departments of Foreign Languages executive committee, said part of the problem is a self-fulfilling prophecy that can transform students' perceptions into reality.

"I don’t want to overgeneralize, [but] a lot of people literally believe that Americans can’t learn languages," Kubler said, a belief that he said could lead to "a lack of confidence that they cannot learn this language."

At the same time, Horwitz said, students are led to believe that it's easier to learn a new language than it actually is -- which can make the difficulties of the process that much harder to cope with. In one study, she found that 40 percent of undergraduates in French, Spanish and German classes at the University of Texas thought they could become fluent with an hour of study a day for two years or less.

"And I kind of understand that," she said. "Why else would we have a two-year language requirement if you didn’t become fluent in two years?"

The Research, and Its Reach

The basic finding Horwitz cites to back her claims about language anxiety is a series of studies she conducted with colleagues -- appearing in journals such as TESOL Quarterly, published by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, and The Modern Language Journal -- establishing a negative correlation between anxiety and achievement in language classes. The higher students' ratings of anxiety (as indicated by a self-reported, standardized scale), the lower their test scores or final grades tended to be. The results, she said, suggested that about 25 percent of the variance in students' achievement in foreign language classes could be accounted for by their level of language anxiety.

Of course, everyone can experience anxiety, but Horwitz said she believes there is a "range" of responses to a language learning environment. "I think that there’s some amount of inherent anxiety in language learning, because A, it’s just difficult, time-consuming and complicated, and B, I think that for some people it’s a threat to our self-concept. We can’t be ourselves when we speak the language. We have to be limited just to whatever it is that we can say.

"I use an analogy of when you have a bad haircut, you walk around going … 'My hair will grow out, and I’ll be myself again.'"

And anxiety isn't confined to low-performing students, either. "We see anxiety in highly advanced students, highly successful students who we’d presume to have high levels of aptitude as well," Horwitz said, implying that the problem doesn't necessarily manifest itself only in students who aren't as good at languages or simply aren't studying enough.

Several language experts contacted for this article had never heard of language anxiety as a research topic, while others had but weren't familiar with the studies. "I have never run into this as a topic," said Thomas E. Blair, chairman of the foreign language department at the City College of San Francisco and a member of the ADFL's executive committee, in an e-mail. "I oversee a department with 250 language courses in 10 languages. I can't say I've had it brought up by a faculty member."

"It’s kind of a slow and steady wins the race kind of field. It’s not the hottest topic in second language acquisition going on now," Horwitz conceded. "I would say that in some cases, there’s maybe more interest in some other countries than here."

Still, the research has generated at least enough interest to attract critics. Richard Sparks, a professor of education at the College of Mount St. Joseph, has been one of the most prominent in questioning -- in The Modern Language Journal and elsewhere -- whether language anxiety is a separate phenomenon at all.

"There is little or no empirical evidence that there is an anxiety unique to foreign language learning," he said in an e-mail. "Thus, we do not know whether it might be an impediment to learning."

According to Sparks, the best way to predict how well a student will learn a new language is that student's ability in his or her native language, a factor that he said is left out of many studies focusing on anxiety.

Still, Horwitz has doubts about some of the criticisms. For one, she said, there are language instructors exhibiting the same kind of anxiety.

"I can have a little bit of anxiety myself when I speak in front of an audience, so I think there was some personal interest," said Young, who tends to take more of a synthesis approach to the issue. She said that the root of the problem could be a combination of lowered proficiency in students' native languages -- a la Sparks -- and a perceived difficulty with languages, even if it isn't true.

"This is a psychological phenomenon that is way too complex to say, 'it’s only this,'" Young said.

Of course, getting over the self-esteem issues implied by perceived doubts requires more practice and participation, but that's exactly what language anxiety blocks students from doing. "What it affects is their willingness to participate in class, which may ultimately affect their performance," she added.

So how do language instructors get through to students who are anxious in their classes? Horwitz, Young and others have offered some suggestions, although Horwitz said none of them have been systemically tested yet.

Some of them -- like not insulting your students -- are blindingly obvious, yet perhaps still necessary. "Some language anxiety is a result of what teachers do. I’ve had people in my office who’ve had language teachers make fun of them in class. They weren’t anxious to begin with, but they developed this anxiety."

On the other hand, there are some other practical guidelines, which mostly involve instilling more confidence in students. Kubler said that non-native-speaking role models can be an important part of building students' self-esteem.

"Sometimes, for these super-hard languages that involve truly foreign cultures, most of the time you want most of the instructors to be native speakers. However, it can occasionally be useful to have a non-native … to come into your class, your students, and serve as a role model of what a non-Chinese person, in this case, can achieve, can prove to students what can be done," he said. "Years ago, as a student … I found that kind of role model occasionally to be inspiring."

At the end of the day, anxiety can be marshaled into a positive force. And if that's done, students' uncertainty can become a catalyst to learn even more. "My experience in the classroom has been that discomfort, in the most general sense, is a necessary aspect of language learning, both in the classroom and out," said Downing A. Thomas, the chairman of the Department of French and Italian at the University of Iowa. "It is even to be encouraged, both in terms of coming into contact with that which is perceived as foreign or strange and in terms of getting up the nerve to speak when one has an accent or cannot follow strict textbook grammar when speaking. This is when real learning can take place.

"The trick is to convince the students that discomfort is a good thing."

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