Part 1: Foreign Language Anxiety is Like Fresh Snow

Part 1: Foreign Language Anxiety is Like Fresh Snow

This month we published New Insights into Language Anxiety edited by Christina Gkonou, Mark Daubney and Jean-Marc Dewaele. In the first of three posts, one from each of the editors, Jean-Marc introduces his theory on language anxiety being like fresh snow.

You may have noticed them: foreign language students hunched behind the broad backs of their comrades, avoiding eye contact with the teacher in order not to be picked to say something in front of everybody and reluctantly whispering their response to a teacher’s question when cornered. No questionnaire is needed to identify these students as suffering from Foreign Language Anxiety (FLA).

This complex phenomenon has been linked to a range of higher order personality traits (mainly Neuroticism-Emotional Stability, Introversion-Extraversion or Social Initiative, and – to a lesser extent – also Psychoticism, Conscientiousness, Openmindedness, Cultural Empathy) and a number of lower-order personality traits or psychological dimensions (Trait Emotional Intelligence, Perfectionism, Trait anxiety, Unwillingness to communicate, Risk-taking, Sociability and Self-efficacy) (Dewaele, 2017). These factors interact with a range of sociobiographical and situational variables and cause FLA in reading, writing, listening and – especially – speaking the foreign language (FL). It is important for teachers and students to realise that FLA is not a massive, granite-like, unmovable object blocking the path to communication in the FL. I’d rather compare it to a thick layer of fresh snow.

It is possible to dig through the snow, to ski over it and some comfort can be drawn from the knowledge that it will melt after a while. This turns the teacher into a (metaphorical) FL ski instructor for anxious students. Yes, the snow is slippery and there can be icy patches but there are techniques to avoid obstacles, to accelerate or to brake and to reach one’s destination unharmed. Everybody falls over at some point along the way, but the snow is soft and there is little risk of breaking a limb at low speed. The instructor and peers will help those whose skis got entangled and ended up looking at the cumuli in the blue sky. Back on their feet and feeling the rush of fresh pine-scented air, discovering the breath-taking mountain views, the memories of the fall will fade quickly. Finally, reaching the destination with the rest of the group will be exhilarating and the sense of achievement will boost self-confidence for future runs.

In other words, a FL teacher can create a classroom atmosphere where mutual trust exists between teachers and students and between the students themselves. Good teaching combined with respect, humour and kindness can create a strong sense of solidarity among students, which will be a potent antidote against FLA.

Dewaele et al. (2017) found that FL teachers’ behaviour had relatively little influence on British secondary school students’ average levels of FLA but that it was strongly linked to students’ FL enjoyment. FL students who enjoy themselves are thus more likely to overcome their fears, just like the beginner on ski slopes. Those still experiencing FLA can be cajoled into more active participation in FL tasks they can handle. The first slopes should not be too steep and too anxiety-provoking. These anxious students will learn that it is possible to control their FLA to the point that is ceases to have a debilitating influence on their performance.

Jean-Marc Dewaele

References

Dewaele, J.-M. (2017) Psychological dimensions and foreign language anxiety. In S. Loewen & M. Sato (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition. London: Routledge, pp. 433-450.

Dewaele, J.-M., Witney, J., Saito, K. & Dewaele, L. (2017) Foreign language enjoyment and anxiety in the FL classroom: The effect of teacher and learner variables. Language Teaching Research DOI: 10.1177/1362168817692161

Positive Psychology in SLAGkonou, C., Daubney, M. & Dewaele, J.-M. (eds.) (2017) New Insights into Language Anxiety: Theory, Research and Educational Implications. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

For more information about this book, please see our website and keep an eye out for parts two and three from Jean-Marc’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.