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.
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.