By Tarun Patel
Anxiety in Language Learning
by Melahat Amir Jahansouz Shahi, Iran
Anxiety is one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome in learning a new foreign language. Learners are afraid of making mistakes, of looking and sounding foolish, of being vulnerable. They like feeling smart, worthy of admiration, respected for their skills and knowledge, knowing their true personality is coming through. That can be hard to do in a foreign language, especially in the beginning. Moreover, as it is statistically demonstrated, anxiety can be a determining factor in test performance of students. Due to the apparent importance of this factor in language learning, it seems relevant to focus on this element more. This article is an attempt to provide some of the underlying points in this regard, discussing its effects on different facets of language learning, and offer some important tips for the learners to overcome the problems arising from it.
It has been observed that some students in English classrooms experience anxiety. This psychological state-anxiety has been investigated by many linguists and psychologists in recent years. Anxiety has been regarded as one of the most important affective factors that influence language learning.
Much research (e.g./Aida, 1994; Bailey, 1983; Crookal and Oxford, 1991; Ely, 1986; Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope, 1986; Horwitz & Young, 1991; Ganschow & Sparks, 1996; Krashen, l985b; MacIntyre, 1995; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1988, 1989, 1991; 1994; Muchnick & Wolfe, 1982; Price, 1988, 1991; Schlesinger, 1995; Trylong, 1987; von Wörde, 1998; Young, 1990, 1991, l992) has consistently revealed that anxiety can impede foreign language production and achievement. Language anxiety is experienced by learners of both foreign and second language and poses potential problems “because it can interfere with the acquisition, retention and production of the new language” (MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991, p. 86)
The issue of anxiety in L2 learning has been widely recognized for its significant impact on the L2 learners. This is especially so in the various socio-cultural contexts in which they are required to express themselves in a language of which they have little command (Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope, 1986; MacIntyre, 1999; Young, 1991). Although language anxiety is sometimes viewed as a helpful “energizer” for approach such complex tasks as L2 learning, the potentially harmful effects of anxiety, often called “debilitating anxiety” (Brown, 1994), cannot be easily dismissed in the context of L2 teaching.
The primary goal of this research was to identify those factors, as perceived by students that may contribute to anxiety, and those factors that may reduce anxiety in an attempt to understand more fully the role that anxiety may play in learning a foreign or second language.
Definition of Anxiety
As we all know, anxiety is a negative way to present human feelings. When we are anxious, we feel nervous, worried, and fearful. We struggle, shake, perspire, and our hearts beat quickly. When we are learning a foreign language, most of people have language anxiety. Anxiety is a kind of troubled feeling in the mind. It is a subjective feeling of tension, apprehension, nervousness, and worry associated with an arousal of the automatic nervous system (Horwitz, 1986)..Consideration of psychological aspects of learning is important in the study of anxiety, as can be seen in Scovel’s reference to an emotional state of “apprehension, a vague fear that is only indirectly associated with an object” (1978), and in Horwitz et al‘s (1986) “subjective feeling of tension, apprehension, nervousness, and worry associated with an arousal of the autonomic nervous system.” Such psychological definitions most commonly refer to a “transitory emotional state or condition characterised by feelings of tension and apprehension and heightened autonomic nervous system activity” (Spielberger 1983), a state which can have both negative and positive effects, and which motivates and facilitates as well as disrupting and inhibiting cognitive actions such as learning.
Language anxiety, a type of anxiety specifically associated with L2 learning contexts, can arise from many kinds of sources, according to the learners’ individually unique frame of reference (Skehan, 1989; Young, 1991). The language classroom setting, for instance, naturally presents itself as an anxiety-provoking situation to some learners, as it often involves constant evaluations from others as well as from the learner him/herself. In such an environment, chances of being evaluated might serve as a reminder of the learner’s current L2 competence in comparison to others’ or idealized images of him/herself as a successful language learner (Eharman, 1996). As Horwitz et al. (1986) clearly note, “any performance in the L2 is likely to challenge an individual’s self-concept as a competent communicator and lead to reticence, self-consciousness, fear, or even panic” (p. 128).
According to Horwitz et al. (1986), language anxiety, a distinct phenomenon particular to language learning, comprises three componential sources, especially in relation to various kinds of L2 activities that the learners perform in the classroom:
1) communication apprehension, 2) test anxiety, and 3) fear of negative evaluation. Communication apprehension, which generally refers to a type of anxiety experienced in interpersonal communicative settings (McCroskey, 1987), is relevant to second/foreign language learning contexts. Especially in the language classroom where the learners have little control of the communicative situation and their performance is constantly monitored by both their teacher and peers (Horwitz et al., 1986), communication apprehension seems to be augmented in relation to the learner’s negative self-perceptions caused by the inability to understand others and make oneself understood (MacIntyre & Gardner, 1989, 1991c).
Such feelings of apprehension that second/foreign language communicative contexts induce often accompany fear of negative evaluation from others. Watson and Friend (1969) characterize it as “apprehension about others’ evaluations, avoidance of evaluative situations, and the expectations that others would evaluate oneself negatively”(p. 448). As Gardner and MacIntyre (1993) also note, such feelings of apprehension can be characterized by “derogatory self-related cognition, feelings of apprehension, and physiological responses such as increased heart rate”. Even in small group discussions, for instance, some learners might feel anxious for fear of negative evaluation from their peers, possibly resulting in being quiet and reticent, contrary to their initial intention to participate. Such psychological dilemmas of L2 learners between willingness to speak up in the classroom and fear of losing their self-esteem in front of others seems to be a ubiquitous phenomenon in second/foreign language classroom settings (Bailey, 1983; Cohen & Norst, 1989).
Another conflict within L2 learners, which may attribute to their unrealistic expectations or beliefs on language learning and achievement, can often be instantiated as frustration or anger toward their own poor performance on language tests. Although many students are afraid of tests in general, those who are required to take them in a foreign/second language might feel more pressure, challenged by the fact that they need to recall and coordinate many grammar points at the same time during the limited test period. As a result, they may put down the wrong answer or simply “freeze up” due to nervousness, even if they know the correct answer (Price, 1991; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1994).
According to Tobias (1979, 1980, 1986), anxiety may work as a mental block to cognitive performance at all three cognitive stages: Input, Processing, and Output. In other words, anxiety arousal, which is typically associated with self-deprecating thoughts, fear of failure, or worry over performance procedures, may compete for cognitive resources that normal cognitive processing will demand. Because the capacity for information processing is limited, when combined with anxiety related self-thoughts, the mental processing is naturally overloaded to the extent that language performance is impaired (Eysenck, 1979). Moreover, even superior students who are excessively concerned about their performance may become so anxious that they attempt to compensate by studying even harder (e.g., in the form of “over-studying,” as stated by Horwitz et al., 1986) because their compulsive efforts do not lead to their intended performance.
Many students experience some level of anxiety before, during or after an exam. When anxiety affects exam performance it has become a problem and it can be a powerful motivator. However, some student experience test-related anxiety to such a degree that it can lead to poor performance and interfere with their learning. These students suffer from test anxiety also called examination anxiety.
Anxiety is described as an uncomfortable emotional state in which one perceives danger, feels powerless and experiences tension in preparation for an expected danger. It is generally classified into three types: Trait, state and situation-specific anxiety.
- Trait anxiety, a more permanent disposition to be anxious, is viewed as an aspect of personality.
- State anxiety is an apprehension that is experienced at a particular moment in time as a response to a definite situation.
- Lastly, situation-specific anxiety is related to apprehension aroused at specific situations and events (Ellis, 1994).
Language anxiety is an effective factor that affects achievement in L2 (Gardner, 1985). It is a distinct complex of self-perceptions, beliefs, feelings and behaviors related to classroom language learning arising from the uniqueness of language learning process (Horwitz et al., 1986). Depending on the synthesis of research context on L2 anxiety, Gardner and MacIntyre (1993) describes it as the apprehension experienced when a situation requires the use of L2 with which the individual is not fully proficient. Thus, L2 anxiety is described as a situation-specific anxiety. It has three varieties: Communicative apprehension, fear of negative evaluation, and test anxiety.
- Communicative apprehension occurs when learners have immature communication skills although they have mature ideas and thoughts. It is a fear about real communication with others.
- Fear of negative evaluation occurs when L2 learners feel that they are not able to make the proper social impression. It is an apprehension about others’ evaluation, avoidance of evaluative situations, and the expectation.
- Test anxiety is an apprehension over academic evaluation. It is a fear of failing in test situations and an unpleasant experience held consciously or unconsciously by learners in many situations. It is a type of anxiety concerning apprehension over academic evaluation which comes from a fear of failure (Horwitz and Young, 1991).
There are some factors that have an influence on students’ reactions to language tests. These are perceptions of test validity, time limit, test techniques, test format, length, testing environment and clarity of test instructions (Young, 1999). Test validity is one of significant factors that provoke test anxiety. Young (1991) found that students experience anxiety if the test involves content that was not taught in class. Similarly, Horwitz and Young (1991) noted that tests in the lack of face validity led to higher anxiety and a negative attitude toward instruction. Furthermore, Madsen (in Young, 1999) investigated the effects of anxiety on ESL tests and found that high anxiety producing tests were also perceived by students as less valid.
Time limit is another factor that increases test anxiety and decreases performance. In a study conducted by Ohata (2005), learners sometimes felt pressured to think that they had to organize their ideas in a short period of time. Using an inappropriate test technique is one of the reasons that cause test anxiety. As Young (1991) reported, students felt anxious when they had studied hours for a test and then they found that question types with which they had no experience. In the study, it found that learners experienced anxiety with a particular test format. In addition to the anxiety provoking factors mentioned above, learners’ capacity, task difficulty, the fear of getting bad grades, and lack of preparation for a test are the other factors that make learners worried.
Potential Sources of Language Anxiety
In relation to the performance anxieties mentioned above, Young (1991) also offers an extensive list of the potential sources of language anxiety. She discusses the six potential sources of language anxiety, some of which are associated with the learner, some with the teacher, and others with the instructional practice. She argues that language anxiety can arise from:
- personal and interpersonal anxieties;
- learner beliefs about language learning;
- instructor beliefs about language teaching;
- instructor-learner actions;
- classroom procedures; and
- language testing.
Although there are overlaps with the three performance anxieties, some of these six categories are worth examining here, because they are addressing still other critical issues that may underlie or affect the formation of student anxiety:
- socio-psychological issues of language anxiety,
- learner/instructor beliefs on language learning and teaching, and
- Instructor-learner interactions/ classroom procedures.
What are the causes of test anxiety?
Test anxiety can develop for a number of reasons:
- There may be some prior negative experience with test taking that serves as the activating event.
- Students who have experienced, or have a fear of, blanking out on tests or the inability to perform in testing situations can develop anticipatory anxiety. Worrying about how anxiety may affect oneself can be as debilitating as the anxiety itself. This kind of anxiety can build as the testing situation approaches, and can interfere with a student’s ability to prepare adequately.
- Lack of preparation can contribute to test anxiety. Poor time management, poor study habits, and lack of organization can lead to a student feeling overwhelmed. Students who are forced to cram at the last minute tend to feel less confident about the material covered than those who have been able to follow a structured plan for studying. Being able to anticipate what the exam will cover, and knowing all the information has been covered during the study sessions, can help students to enter the testing situation with a more positive attitude.
- Test anxiety may also have a genetic component.
- Lack of confidence, fear of failure, and other negative thought processes may also contribute to test anxiety. The pressure to perform well on exams is a great motivator unless it is so extreme that it becomes irrational.
- Perfectionism, low self-esteem, and feelings of unworthiness provide unreasonable goals to achieve through testing situations. When a student’s self-esteem is too closely tied to the outcome of any one academic task, the results can be devastating. In these situations, students may actually spend more time worrying about the test than actually studying for it.
What can be done to alleviate the effects of anxiety?
A. In the Classroom:
Is the classroom a safe and secure place for learning or is the teacher’s approach to teaching the language causing us to feel anxious?
In humanistic psychology, the role of individual differences in creating personal meaning is emphasized. Thus, emotions, attitudes, motivations, interest, needs, and beliefs of learners are considered as influential factors in language learning. In doing so, the teacher is responsible for creating a feeling of security and trust among the learners, and he/she is always there to create a supportive environment in which learners can discover their own problems and gradually remove them.
Teachers therefore play a significant role in the amount of anxiety students experience. If your teacher is making you unduly nervous, excuse yourself from his or her class and study with a tutor. If you are easily anxious, you need teachers who are more like friends helping you to learn and less like authority figures goading you to perform.
This avoids ‘defensive learning’ where the student, in order to avoid humiliation and embarrassment, hides behind defense mechanisms for protection of their self-esteem. So, the ‘natural child’ in us – creative, spontaneous, curious, free of fear – is therefore allowed to emerge freely and openly, not being under the parental gaze of the critical teacher. Instead, it rests in an accepting warmth and understanding where defensive learning is unnecessary.
B. In the Community
In order to try to alleviate the effects of anxiety, we can:
1. Avoid embarrassing situations and try to have a contact with local people.
2. Try to go outside to find people with whom we can practice the language.
3. Find safe and secure places for practicing language where it is okay to make mistake, where we won’t be humiliated or embarrassed.
Anxious language learners have a great fear of public embarrassment – making a fool of themselves in front of other people. So they need to find the right persons, some friendly native speakers with a gentle, empathetic personality where, in a safe and secure environment, they can do what so desperately want to do to improve their language. We also need to adjust our expectations as to how soon we ought to be mastering the language. We are all going to make mistakes, and we need to see that errors are a useful source of information about the language. So try not to feel so bad when you don’t get it right the first time.
One of the ways to decrease the level of anxiety is to build confidence. Here are some tips that may help:
- Developing good study habits and strategies;
- Managing time (dealing with procrastination, distractions, laziness);
- Organizing material to be studied and learned (Take a step by step approach to build a strategy and not get overwhelmed);
- Outside pressures: success/failure consequences (grades, graduation), peer pressure, competitiveness, etc.
- Reviewing your past performance on tests to improve and learn from experience.
Test preparation to reduce anxiety:
- Approach the exam with confidence;
- Use whatever strategies you can to personalize success: visualization, logic, talking to your self, practice, team work, journaling, etc. View the exam as an opportunity to show how much you’ve studied and to receive a reward for the studying you’ve done.
- Be prepared!
Learn your material thoroughly and organize what materials you will need for the test. Use a checklist.
- Choose a comfortable location for taking the test with good lighting and minimal distractions.
- Allow yourself plenty of time, especially to do things you need to do before the test and still get there a little early.
- Avoid thinking; you need to cram just before.
- Strive for a relaxed state of concentration;
Avoid speaking with any fellow students who have not prepared, who express negativity, who will distract your preparation
- A program of exercise is said to sharpen the mind
- Get a good night’s sleep the night before the exam
- Don’t go to the exam with an empty stomach;
Fresh fruits and vegetables are often recommended to reduce stress.
Stressful foods can include processed foods, artificial sweeteners, carbonated soft drinks, chocolate, eggs, fried foods, junk foods, pork, red meat, sugar, white flour products, chips and similar snack foods, foods containing preservatives or heavy spices.
- Take a small snack, or some other nourishment to help take your mind off of your anxiety. Avoid high sugar content (candy) which may aggravate your condition.
- Do tell yourself that you will do your best on the test, and that will be enough.
During the test:
- Read the directions carefully;
- Budget your test taking time;
- Change positions to help you relax;
- If you go blank, skip the question and go on;
- If you’re taking an essay test and you go blank on the whole test, pick a question and start writing. It may trigger the answer in your mind;
- Don’t panic when students start handing in their papers. There’s no reward for being the first done.
If you find yourself tensing and getting anxious during the test:
- Relax; you are in control. Take slow, deep breaths;
- Don’t think about the fear; Pause: think about the next step and keep on task, step by step;
- Use positive reinforcement for yourself: Acknowledge that you have done, and are doing, your best;
- Expect some anxiety; it’s a reminder that you want to do your best and can provide energy; just keep it manageable.
- Realize that anxiety can be a “habit” and that it takes practice to use it as a tool to succeed.
After the test, review how you did:
- List what worked, and hold onto these strategies; It does not matter how small the items are: they are building blocks to success.
- List what did not work for improvement.
- Celebrate that you are on the road to overcoming this obstacle.
Before you Begin:
1. Preview the test before you answer anything. This gets you thinking about the material. Make sure to note the point value of each question. This will give you some ideas on budgeting your time.
2. Quickly calculate how much time you should allow for each section according to the point value.
3. Do a mind dump. Using what you saw in the preview, make notes of anything you think you might forget. Write down things that you used in learning the material that might help you remember. Outline your answers to discussion questions.
Taking a Test:
1. Read the directions. (Can more than one answer be correct? Are you penalized for guessing? …). Never assume that you know what the directions say.
2. Answer the easy questions first. This will give you the confidence and momentum to get through the rest of the test. You are sure these answers are correct. Try not to spend too much time on one question.
3. Go back to the difficult questions. While looking over the test and doing the easy questions, your subconscious mind will have been working on the answers to the hardest ones. Also, later items on the test might give you useful or needed information for earlier items.
4. Answer all questions (unless you are penalized for wrong answers).
5. Ask the instructor to explain any items that are not clear. Do not ask for the answer, but phrase your question in a way that shows the instructor that you have the information but are not sure what the question is asking for.
6. Try to answer the questions from the instructor’s point of view. Try to remember what the instructor emphasized and felt was important.
7. Use the margin to help you figure out if the question does not seem clear or if the answer seems ambiguous.
8. Circle key words in difficult questions. This will force you to focus on the central point.
9. Express difficult questions in your own words. Rephrasing can make it clear to you, but be sure you don’t change the meaning of the question.
10. Use all of the time allotted for the test. If you have extra time, cover up your answers and actually rework the question.
This study corroborates that anxiety can negatively affect the language learning and reducing anxiety seems to increase language acquisition, retention, and learner motivation. Therefore, it is suggested that awareness of language anxiety be heightened and taken seriously by teachers and students alike. Language teachers should acknowledge students’ fears and find ways to evaluate students without inducing high levels of anxiety. Good communication and feedback before and after tests is beneficial to decrease test anxiety of learners. Good communication between teachers and learners allows learners to express their feelings and comments. Teachers have to find ways such as assignments, group works, and projects to confirm and compare their students’ performance, knowledge and skills. As a result, L2 teachers who are in the center of test anxiety provoking issues also have the key role to decrease the level of test anxiety of L2 learners.
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