Part 3: Anxiety as a Travelling Companion

5 May 2017

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

3 May 2017

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. 


Part 1: Foreign Language Anxiety is Like Fresh Snow

27 April 2017

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. 


The Power of the Nonverbal in Communication – Part 2

24 March 2017

In the second of a two-part blog post, the authors of our recently published title, Optimizing Language Learners’ Nonverbal Behavior, Tammy Gregersen and Peter D. MacIntyre discuss the innovative use of videos to accompany their book.

Even the thought of it is ironic – to write a book about nonverbal communication. Although it obviously is possible, there is something extraordinary about describing nonverbal actions using printed words on a page, so when we set out to do this project for Multilingual Matters, we wanted to add a visual dimension to the printed words. In our 2014 book, Capitalizing on Language Learner Individuality, we wrote about technological modifications to various classroom activities to make them more accessible to teachers and students who are using modern technologies, and also to increase the value of the book to readers. We wanted to do the same with Optimizing Language Learners’ Nonverbal Behavior.

With respect to the book on nonverbal communication, after much discussion we settled on the idea of adding a 68-video library to the book. Multilingual Matters agreed to host the videos on their website. The University of Northern Iowa provided a grant to fund video production and we were fortunate to find an outstanding producer in Blake Lybbert and two musical wonder groups, “Amelia and Melina” and “John June Year”. They gave us permission to use their original music to provide a cool background vibe. Tammy asked students, family and friends to volunteer to demonstrate a variety of nonverbal actions to better capture the nature of nonverbal communication and as viewers, to be able to watch them. We are certain the audience will sense the fun that everyone had in participating! We did not see this sort of video in any other nonverbal text and thought it was an interesting innovation that would better capture the essence of our topic.

But then it hit us – could the e-book version possibly link to the videos? If possible, a reader could be reading the book on a computer, tablet or similar device, then click the video to watch the demonstration, and seamlessly continue reading. This allowed us to have both movement and sound inside the e-book.

When the publisher sent us the draft e-book it was more than impressive.  It is absolutely amazing to be reading about a specific nonverbal action and then watch it move in full colour, with sound, and an added narration for explanation. This unique approach sets the book apart from other texts in the market. We are thrilled with the result and hope that readers will be able to check out the e-book version of the text to see for themselves what is possible to do these days in a text about nonverbal communication.

For more information about this book, please see our website. All the videos that accompany the book can be found on our YouTube channel. If you found this interesting, you might like the other books Tammy and Peter have published with us, Capitalizing on Language Learners’ Individuality and Positive Psychology in SLA (co-edited with Sarah Mercer).

 


The Power of the Nonverbal in Communication – Part 1

14 March 2017

This month we published Optimizing Language Learners’ Nonverbal Behavior by Tammy Gregersen and Peter D. MacIntyre. In the first of a two-part blog post, Tammy and Peter explain what inspired them to write a book about nonverbal communication.

Optimizing Language Learners’ Nonverbal BehaviorReaders may ask themselves why two people who have dedicated much of their academic careers to language-related issues would suddenly write a book on communicating without language – or at least making meaning through means that accompany the verbal. In the paragraphs that follow, we tell our stories…

Tammy’s saga:

Long before I ever read literature on Emotional or Interpersonal Intelligence, I anecdotally surmised that those individuals who had “people smarts” simply were those people who could read others’ nonverbals. They could make the initial acquaintance of a person and within milliseconds of their interaction, these people-savvy folks were able to pick up the other’s vibes and effectively act accordingly. Whether through conscious inspection or subconscious osmosis, I knew in my gut that such mind-and-body-language readers were gifted with the instantaneous interpretation of the bombardment of nonverbal cues that characterize all human interaction. I was hooked, and my curiosity about this phenomenon propelled me to investigate it further.

But now I get ahead of myself…my nonverbal intrigue actually started long before I could even process the simplest of thoughts. It began with my relationship with my dad – which means within hours of being born. If you read the Dedication Page of Optimizing Language Learners’ Nonverbal Behavior, I used this opportunity to honor my father. It says in part, “To my father, F. Neal Gregersen, who, had it not been for his characteristic silence, I would never have understood the awesome power of nonverbal communication.” You see, my dad is a man of very few words, so if one wants to have a verbal conversation, it often turns into a monologue. However, one would be gravely mistaken to think that he doesn’t communicate. Although he doesn’t often use language, those of us who know him well only need to see the smallest change in his demeanor to know exactly what he is thinking. As I was growing up, his only means of discipline was what the five of us kids deemed, “The Look”.  Whenever we were the recipients of it, we immediately shaped up. Hence, I understood early in my life the immense power of nonverbal cues and I wanted to know more. That was then and this is now….

Peter’s journey:

It was my first semester at university, one of our assignments was to do a review of a research paper. I chose a paper by Professor Nancy Henley on ways in which nonverbal communication relates to interpersonal power – the doctor touches the patient and not the other way around because the doctor is in a position of power. It was nothing short of a revelation! Other examples in Henley’s work brought to light the complexity of everyday communication. At the time I was taking courses in Psychology and Interpersonal Communication, and Henley’s work forged such a fascinating bridge between the disciplines, I’ve been hooked ever since. It is powerful to realize that I was a full and active participant in a process that had never been explained overtly, but I knew the rules – everybody knows the rules. I wondered, how is that possible?

I am sure many readers of this blog have had a similar experience in doing research on a topic – a process that is right in front of you is explained in a new way. But there is something unique about nonverbal communication, it is so ubiquitous and so effective in conveying information, yet it seems so natural. When we then add the idea of language and culture into the mix, and that sometimes people in different places have different ways of doing things, nonverbal communication becomes all the more interesting.

Like Tammy, I am dedicating this book to people who taught me a lot about nonverbal communication, my teachers and especially my mother. Unlike Tammy’s dad, my mom had no trouble with verbal communication, but for her the message was all in the tone of voice. I can vividly recall when I said that I didn’t want to do some chore, she would say “never mind.” By conventional definition, the words said I was off the hook but the unmistakable tone meant I had better get to it.

We hope that people will enjoy reading the book as much as we did writing it. Please be sure to check out the videos that demonstrate nonverbal concepts. Videos are embedded in the ebook and available on the web for the printed book. The videos were great fun to produce and add a unique dimension to this book – more on that in another blog entry…

Capitalizing on Language Learners' IndividualityPositive Psychology in SLAFor more information about this book, please see our website. The videos that accompany the book can be found on our YouTube channel. If you found this interesting, you might like the other books Tammy and Peter have published with us, Capitalizing on Language Learners’ Individuality and Positive Psychology in SLA (co-edited with Sarah Mercer). Watch this space for Part 2…


Positive Psychology in SLA

21 April 2016

This week we have published Positive Psychology in SLA edited by Peter D. MacIntyre, Tammy Gregersen and Sarah Mercer. In this post, the editors tell us a bit more about how the book came together.

Positive Psychology in SLAWe are proud of this book, and very pleased to see it in print. We think that the book will appeal to a variety of audiences, especially teachers and researchers. From a macro-perspective, the book opens up a treasure chest full of gold coins, concepts that language teachers and researcher will eagerly engage with – from grit and perseverance, to developing social capital through language, to new ways to look at the self.

This is not a pop psychology book. There are novel and well-defined concepts, rigorous research methods, and specific positive psychology activities that have received research support.

When one thinks about the concerns of teachers and learners, there are many good reasons to take a serious look at what makes people thrive and flourish in educational settings. Of course we still need to understand the way negative experiences such as anxiety can disrupt learning processes, but we also need to know how positive emotions such as enjoyment can promote and foster successful learning. The positive dimensions of learners have been somewhat neglected and under-researched in SLA, and this collection opens up a whole new area for reflection and empirical study of that which goes well. The authors have taken account of both the positive and negative, but are emphasizing the positive, drawing it into the conversation in a thoughtful way.

From a researcher’s perspective, a notable dimension of the collection is the mixed methods that appear in the chapters. It reminds us that right now Psychology itself  is facing something of a replication problem, where it is being argued that results of foundational studies are not able to be duplicated. In this respect, the applications of Positive Psychology in SLA are already well ahead of Psychology itself in that they embrace a more eclectic mixture of methods. The diversity of methods will allow us to avoid some of the replication problems that arise with strict reliance on a limited range of methods, and help to better contextualize the empirical results.

Another aspect of the collection that stands out for us is the blend we have been able to include of theoretical, empirical and practical papers. We have been privileged to work with a great collection of authors, researchers and teachers, who shared their thinking, research and real-world practical experiences, ensuring that the collection has far-reaching implications. With authors from around the globe, the collection includes a broad range of content relevant to practitioners and researchers in many different places.

When we started thinking about this collection, we did not know how many people might be interested and willing to contribute. We have been thrilled with the response. As it turns out, the volume seems to have hit a sweet spot for several authors. All of us are enthusiastic about the future potential of Positive Psychology in SLA, and ways in which we can understand, study and facilitate the flourishing of language learners and teachers.

If you would like to contact us about the book we can be reached by email:
Peter MacIntyre, peter_macintyre@cbu.ca
Tammy Gregersen, tammy.gregersen@uni.edu
Sarah Mercer, sarah.mercer@uni-graz.at

Gregersen-MercerIf you found this interesting, you might like to find out more on our website or take a look at the editors’ other books: Capitalizing on Language Learners’ Individuality edited by Tammy Gregersen and Peter D. MacIntyre and Multiple Perspectives on the Self in SLA edited by Sarah Mercer and Marion Williams.


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