Part 3: Anxiety as a Travelling Companion

Part 3: Anxiety as a Travelling Companion

Last month we published New Insights into Language Anxiety edited by Christina Gkonou, Mark Daubney and Jean-Marc Dewaele. In the last of three posts, one from each of the editors, Mark discusses his personal experience of language anxiety and how we can learn to manage it.

Attempts to understand foreign language anxiety (FLA) often resort to the explanatory power of metaphor. Arnold and Brown (1999) liken the vulnerability and anxious efforts of learners endeavouring to express themselves in the target language to moving along in ‘a shaky linguistic vehicle’ (p.9). ‘A map of the terrain’, the title given to their overview of affective factors, in Arnold’s landmark publication, is a fitting one, evoking images of a fragile vehicle tentatively making its way across unchartered territory. In Young’s (1999) bespoke volume on how to reduce anxiety in pedagogical contexts, anxiety, on one page, is rendered in pictorial form as rocks falling towards a startled climber as he or she moves towards the summit of a mountain. In Jean-Marc Dewaele’s contribution to this blog, anxiety is likened to ‘snow’. All these are creative comparisons that allow us to think about anxiety from different perspectives, thereby aiding our understanding of this complex emotion.

Another metaphor that might shed further light on anxiety and its influence is to view language learning as a series of interconnected phases on an ongoing journey: stops made along the way to take in the wonderful views before us and to feel proud at the progress made; short breaks taken to catch a breather or to rest after difficult moments; longer breaks to consider one’s options and how to avoid the bad weather ahead or actively seek out sunnier climes; tough decisions to be taken on whether to choose a different route, abandon the journey altogether or to soldier on with determination, selecting other resources and drawing upon the help and good will of fellow travellers to better negotiate the landscape and the prevailing climatic conditions.

Whether we, as language learners, are able to transform our shaky vehicle into a sturdier means of transport capable of adapting to these phases of a journey, depends on a number of factors. Not the least of these is how learners (mis)manage their emotional reactions – including anxiety. Because anxiety can lead to a heightened sense of appreciation of the journey, but it can also bring about worry, resignation and a hive of buzzing self-doubts that may significantly hinder or bring our journey to a sudden halt.

It ‘depends’ because, like snow, anxiety is truly ‘slippery’. As a successful language learner, but someone who has experienced language anxiety, I am familiar with various phases of the language learning journey mentioned above. Indeed, my experience of anxiety first triggered my interest in research. Did my own students – future EFL teachers, no less – also have these perplexing, uncomfortable feelings – especially when speaking the target language? And if they did, how could I help them to overcome such discomfort? I set about trying to find out. A significant number of teachers did, indeed, experience FLA, so one myth that can be dispelled is that proficient learners cease to experience FLA. Nonetheless, it remains vital that learners starting out on their journeys receive informed support on how to guide their vehicles around emotional ‘potholes’.

To continue with metaphor, my experience of anxiety was, at times, like getting a flat tyre, literally a deflating experience that often punctured any sense I had of making any progress. There I was, left on the side of the road and waiting for help, while other cars zipped by. During other periods, however, anxiety seemed to be the key factor underlying my desire to improve. I was determined to patch up my own car and catch up with the others. It helped me to reflect on aspects of my own learning and teaching beliefs, and I came to realise, in a deeper sense, how language learning is much more than learning a new code with which to communicate.

At times like these, learners often need to verbalise both their positive and negative emotions, and they can benefit from relativizing their often exaggerated reactions to events with classmates and/or the teacher. Finding a sympathetic ear helps, but self-denial may be the first barrier to overcome. Learners can be reluctant to admit and talk about what they see as their own weaknesses. This is why it is important that teachers are aware of the emotional nature of language learning, and have strategies in their toolbox to help repair ‘faltering vehicles’.

Yet FLA is fascinating – precisely because it is slippery and complex. Talkative learners may be anxious, reluctant speakers may not be. While anxiety is a negative emotion, can it have positive as well as negative effects? The causes of anxiety are not singular or clearly identifiable, and the experience of anxiety leaves us unsure, dogged by uncertainty as to what exactly is coming our way and why. Unlike the falling rocks, which represent a clearly identified threat, and therefore more accurately capture fear, anxiety often leaves us scanning the road ahead, with a vague sense of foreboding. Anxiety likely arises from the realisation that our L2 means of transport is far less reliable in comparison with our solid and trusty L1 performer. It can leave us frustrated and feeling inadequate in public settings. This is why anxiety is often associated with speaking, but it may also arise when learners are listening, writing or reading.

These emotional experiences might be related to one’s own personality, the degree to which you have a healthy relationship with your classmates and/or teacher, whether the classroom activities capture your interest and make the learning experience an enjoyable one, or your levels of motivation and the way you see yourself as a language learner. Or, more likely, the dynamic interplay of all these and other factors.

Yet such complexity should not leave us despondent. The most memorable journeys are usually made up of emotional highs and lows. The former often embody the excitement and deep satisfaction of being able to communicate in an L2. Further, language learning is often punctuated with serendipitous events. For example, chance meetings with people – in or outside the classroom – can spur us on to improve our L2 skills. The lows provide for reflection, and can sow the seeds of resilience needed for the long haul. Looking back, these lows can be kept in perspective, and give us satisfaction that we dealt with these and kept on going. They also feed into our knowledge and experience of how to better prepare for the ongoing journey.

Getting our linguistic vehicle into shape, then, partly depends on how we deal with anxiety as a companion on our journey. At times, we may experience anxiety as a positive factor, with it keeping us on our toes as we try to achieve our objectives; at others, it may grip us as a negative force, scrambling our thoughts and making it more difficult to keep the car on the road. Its influence will wax and wane. Learning to manage this unpredictable companion in a way that bolsters our confidence and enables us to exert greater influence over how we feel and what direction to take is crucial for us to stay on the right track.

Mark Daubney

References

Arnold, J., & Brown, H.D. (1999). A map of the terrain. In Arnold, J. (ed.). Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-24.

Young, D. J. (ed.). (1999). Affect In Foreign Language And Second Language Learning: A Practical Guide To Creating A Low-Anxiety Classroom Atmosphere. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

For more information about this book, please see our website and check out Part 1 and Part 2 from Mark’s co-editors. If you found this interesting, you might also like Positive Psychology in SLA edited by Peter D. MacIntyre, Tammy Gregersen and Sarah Mercer.

Part 2: In Search of Peace of Mind: Anxiety and Language Education

Last month we published New Insights into Language Anxiety edited by Christina Gkonou, Mark Daubney and Jean-Marc Dewaele. In the second of three posts, one from each of the editors, Christina discusses her personal experience of language anxiety and the inspiration behind the book.

My own journey towards attempting to understand language anxiety and emotions began almost fifteen years ago when at school I read the works of Plato and his most famous student, Aristotle. Both suggested that emotions are largely controlled by our mind and are autonomous from physiology and the body. Aristotle in his treatise On the Soul introduced the notion of ‘catharsis’, which highlights the importance of undermining negative and unpleasant emotions, a process which would lead to the purification of the human psyche. Later on, in reading Sigmund Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, I came across the following inspirational quote: “There is no question that the problem of anxiety is a nodal point at which the most various and important questions converge, a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light on our whole mental existence”.

But what is language anxiety in particular? How best could we possibly theorise and conceptualise language anxiety? How pernicious could it be for learners and teachers? And how could it be mitigated in the best possible way to ensure academic achievement and personal well-being? My research along with my experience first as language learner, then as language teacher and currently as teacher trainer has offered me invaluable insights into these questions. I have come across students who are paralysed with anxiety, students who feign their true emotions such as anxiety (whilst also undertaking emotional labour in class), trainee teachers who are anxious about the lessons they will deliver thus facing nervous breakdowns in class, experienced teachers who develop their own strategies to deal specifically with highly anxious learners in their classes, and so forth. All these situations depict anxiety as a negative emotion; and it truly is a negative emotion which takes its toll on learners’ and teachers’ psychological well-being. However, we should not be painting a totally gloomy picture of language anxiety; although it is a negative emotion, there are individuals who after long-standing battles with anxiety, have managed to significantly control it and overcome it. Or according to the Aristotelian view on negative emotions and the recent upsurge of interest in positive psychology in SLA, they have managed to turn a negative situation and/or emotion into a positive one and reap the benefit of adopting a different mindset.

And now the big question emerges: So what? How could all this inform learning? Looking at the psychological dimension of our classrooms will help us to understand how we teach and how our students process information and learn. Emotional self-awareness and self-realisation are key factors in regulating anxiety. Learners should be given opportunities to discuss their anxieties in class, share their concerns with their classmates and the teacher and thus feel a stronger sense of community within their immediate academic setting. If learners (and individuals in general) realise that it is not just them who struggle emotion-wise but others are also emotionally challenged, they will most likely be relieved! They would also need to be told explicitly that anxiety can be overcome. As Jean-Marc Dewaele suggests, anxiety is like fresh snow: you can ski over it, it is soft so even if you fall you won’t get hurt, and if there are any icy patches along the way you might slip or you might find a way to avoid such obstacles. You will, however, manage to ski down the mountain in the end and in any case you won’t be expected to ski steep slopes right from the start!

Anxiety is a pervasive affliction but is often misunderstood. We should not be looking just at its biological dimension, but also bear in mind that it fluctuates and is largely context-bound and complex. All these points and many more are addressed in our recent anthology, New Insights into Language Anxiety, which we as editors started compiling at the international conference, Matters of the Mind: Psychology and Language Learning, held in Graz, Austria, in May 2014. We were lucky enough to meet all our illustrious contributors at the conference and discuss the book. We hope that our blog pieces will entice you to read the book and better understand language anxiety through the fresh perspective that the book takes.

Christina Gkonou, University of Essex

cgkono@essex.ac.uk

For more information about this book, please see our website and keep an eye out for part three from Christina’s co-editor, Mark Daubney. If you found this interesting, you might also like Positive Psychology in SLA edited by Peter D. MacIntyre, Tammy Gregersen and Sarah Mercer.