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Words Fail Me: Foreign language anxiety crippling for some students, says scholar

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Elise has a rather sad and surprising story about why she got a biology degree rather than a degree in English. Turns out the university she attended required fewer foreign language credit hours for science than for English, and foreign language classes had always left Elise feeling like she was having a massive heart attack and needed to mainline Zoloft—so she chose science.

Elaine Horwitz
Dr. Elaine Horwitz is the author of “Becoming a Language Teacher: A Practical Guide to Language Learning and Teaching” (Allyn & Bacon, 2008).

Avoidance, at all costs, of rolling her r’s in front of 20 virtual strangers or mastering nasal vowels is how Elise came to be a sales representative at a pharmaceutical company rather than write the Great American Novel.

According to Dr. Elaine Horwitz, around one-third of university students can relate, to some degree, to Elise’s reaction. Horwitz, who is a foreign language education professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction at The University of Texas at Austin, is a pioneer in the study of students’ emotional responses to foreign language learning.

“When I started at The University of Texas at Austin back in the mid-1980s,” says Horwitz, “word somehow got around campus that I was interested in foreign language learning, and all of a sudden freshmen and sophomore students were finding me and telling me their stories about foreign language classes. It was amazing—I was hearing some of the same things over and over from students who were distraught—the theme seemed to be that no matter how much they studied, they still made C’s and experienced significant nervousness and dread about even attending class.

“These were sharp students who weren’t having difficulty in other classes and didn’t have poor study habits. I was fascinated because their academic performance had, it seemed, almost nothing to do with cognitive ability and everything to do with emotion. Foreign language teachers have known for a long time that students can feel apprehension about learning a new language, but no one had really pursued the idea that students’ aversion and difficulties constituted a distinct emotional response that was different from general anxiety.”

In almost 30 years of research on foreign language learning, Horwitz has discovered a number of facts that have helped teachers and students around the world, the most important being that foreign language anxiety is a distinct variable in the foreign language learning process and that it has specific, well-defined detrimental effects on learning.

According to Horwitz, “foreign language anxiety” is like math anxiety or test-taking anxiety in that it manifests only in specific situations. Individuals who have it may be very competent, calm and resilient in most other contexts.

Sample Questions from Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale

Students are to indicate whether they agree or disagree with the statements:

  1. I feel more tense and nervous in my language class than in my other classes.
  2. I keep thinking that the other students are better at languages than I am.
  3. It embarrasses me to volunteer answers in my language class.
  4. I would not be nervous speaking the foreign language with native speakers.
  5. I can feel my heart pounding when I'm going to be called on in language class.
  6. Language class moves so quickly I worry about getting left behind.

Students suffering from foreign language anxiety report feeling apprehension, worry and dread, sometimes to the extent that they must take several deep breaths to muster the courage to walk into a foreign language classroom. Faced with foreign language learning tasks, they may have extreme difficulty concentrating, become forgetful, sweat, tremble, have palpitations, experience sleep disturbances and exhibit avoidance behavior in the form of skipping class and putting off homework, class projects and studying.

Given students’ responses to the fear and anxiety, instructors may assume they lack motivation, feel the class is unimportant or simply don’t have the mental acuity to achieve even a rudimentary grasp of a second language.

To discover the real causes of the worry and dread, in 1983 Horwitz invited students in beginning foreign language classes at The University of Texas at Austin to participate in support groups for foreign language learners. The support groups consisted of 15 students each and offered students an opportunity to discuss their fears and concerns about language learning, as well as hear about effective language learning strategies and participate in anxiety management exercises.

Feedback gathered from the support groups contributed to the development of Horwitz’s Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale (FLCAS), a tool that’s used by foreign language instructors internationally to determine the scope and severity of a student’s foreign language anxiety.

“Since a number of students apparently were, and are, choosing courses, majors and even careers based on foreign language requirements,” says Horwitz, “I felt some urgency in determining what was causing the anxiety. Over the past 25 years or so, the FLCAS has shown us that students with debilitating foreign language anxiety can be identified and that they have several traits in common.

“At the most basic level, the students’ fears typically fall into the two broad categories of listening and speaking. Nervous, fearful language learners find it very hard to tell the difference between sounds and structures in statements presented in the target language and have a lot of difficulty grasping the content of target language messages. They report ‘knowing’ a particular grammar point but freezing and drawing a blank when they’re taking a test or doing an oral exercise in which they have to respond spontaneously.”

When my husband was in eighth grade he received a D in French. His teacher told him she'd pass him...but only if he promised never to speak French again. Dr. Elaine HorwitzStudents who experience foreign language anxiety typically feel “communication apprehension,” which is a type of shyness characterized by nervousness and fear when communicating with others. As Horwitz points out, if you feel apprehension about speaking in your native language to even a small group of people, that fear is going to be magnified tenfold when trying to speak a language you barely know to a large class while being evaluated by an instructor.

Students report feeling self-conscious about having to “perform” in front of others and say they become extremely anxious when they don’t understand every word presented in the language they’re trying to learn. According to Horwitz, the need to comprehend every bit of foreign language input in order not to feel anxious—and to understand the speaker’s target message—is another aspect of communication apprehension.

Anxious individuals also feel that other students are much better at learning the language than they are and express trepidation about being less competent than their peers. In order to avoid being laughed at by others or called on by the teacher, students report skipping class, over-studying or hiding in the last row in hopes of escaping humiliation. They see the foreign language classroom as a place where evaluation is uncomfortably frequent and any correction equals failure. Anxiety can be especially damaging to immigrants because their discomfort practicing English can seriously limit their opportunities in the US.

“Probably the most revealing statement made by anxious students is that they feel more tense and nervous in a foreign language class than in any of their other classes,” says Horwitz. “Since there’s a consistent negative correlation between anxiety and academic performance, it’s very important for students to get a handle on their fears and for teachers to be aware of this problem and make the classroom as non-threatening as possible.”

According to Horwitz, a fairly simple shift in beliefs can help some students feel more at ease in foreign language learning situations.

I've heard that the fear of public speaking ranks higher than fear of things like snakes and heights--I'd say fear of speaking in a foreign language class ranks higher than all of that. Sophomore university student who is taking his first French language classWhile studying foreign language learners, Horwitz found that around 40 percent of them believed they could—and should—be fluent in a foreign language after two years of courses. According to Horwitz, this goal is unrealistic and places undue pressure on the learner. Foreign language learners also may feel that it is not okay to make mistakes when speaking the new language—this too is unrealistic and will prohibit them from trying any speech or writing activity in which they may make an error.

“I’ve studied foreign language teachers as well as students,” says Horwitz, “and found that non-native foreign language instructors—in other words, a teacher of German whose first language is not German—report some of the very same fears and misgivings that students are relating!

They don’t make classes as conversational as they could because they’re scared of making mistakes, being wrong and looking foolish in front of the students.”

Another misconception Horwitz encounters is the conviction that there’s a perfect method of learning a foreign language and that if you find it the learning will become effortless. If one could stay in Italy for a summer and immerse oneself in Chianti and conversation, one’s speaking proficiency would be magnifico. Or if one had a teacher who was from Paris, one’s comprehension skills would, perforce, become trés bonnes. According to Horwitz this is no more true than the American myth that mastery of a foreign language is instantaneous and effortless in young children—and, conversely, that it’s nigh impossible for older adults to attain competence.

Horwitz recently has been interviewing adults who successfully mastered one foreign language and are learning yet another language, and she’s found that each person chose a different way to learn a new language. Also, rather than trying to be mistaken for natives in Tokyo or Stockholm, they’ve set the practical, attainable goal of being functional multi-linguals.

“The sad thing is that a lot of people are sort of missing the point when they take a foreign language,” says Horwitz. “They’re forgetting that it’s okay to simply have a goal of learning enough Spanish to greet a customer or enough French to comfortably order from menus while you’re in Provence.

“Too few people have fun with it—students dislike it so much they’re actually walking around depressed and it becomes, for at least one-third of them, a quality of life issue. When my husband was in eighth grade he received a D in French. His teacher told him she’d pass him…but only if he promised never to speak French again.”

BY Kay Randall

PHOTO of Dr. Horwitz: Christina Murrey

BANNER illustration: Guy Kingsbery

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