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.