A certain degree of anxiety is familiar to all of us. According to the NHS, anxiety is described as “a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe”. Currently, it is finding its way into pedagogy, and in language learning in particular. The presence of foreign language anxiety, or FLA, is a major indicator of discomfort when using a second language both in and out of the classroom.
The educator’s role is crucial in realizing the importance of this phenomenon: firstly, teachers can misunderstand slower language acquisition as inborn incapacity to learn languages, or, secondly, as students’ laziness or rebellion. Language learning may be anxiety-provoking, and educators are the first to witness it and help students. Let’s take a closer look at how we can do it.
FLA’s invasion of classrooms
How come there’s a definite type of anxiety related to learning languages? In fact, this definite type is also divided into several categories, which were examined by scientists.
A trait anxiety feeling means that students experience stress constantly without external triggers.
On the other hand, state anxiety is associated with potentially stressful extrinsic factors: it may include situations where students are forced to speak by their environment, teachers, or peers. This list may be continued with the risk of negative evaluation—students fear of failing or lower performance while being level-tested, cognitive tension—student ideas, strategies, and thinking differ from those of other students and/or teachers and affective tension, which represents quarrelsome situations between students and/or teachers.
From one researcher to another, they all have different causes. Among them are:
—students’ level, course activities, and quality of instructions;
—learners’ age, learning style, and psychological characteristics;
—inherent language ability;
—disorders of physical, psychological, and social nature (increased heartbeat, embarrassment, poor memory, helplessness).
When you look at these causes of different FLA disorders, you may no longer see it as something exotic or purely scientific. It is our daily grind. Regardless of their language level or age, all students join our classes to learn how to express themselves better now and in the future, and it is up to us to guide them gently and efficiently. The impact of anxiety on language proficiency may be significant, and in the case of young learners, it can be especially troubling: from a negative learning experience in childhood, anxiety becomes more difficult to overcome as young learners grow up. Our first step in assisting them is to examine the specifics of children as language learners.
FLA in young learners
Predictably, age plays the biggest role in defining young language learners: although kids may be thought to be more adept at learning L2, they still encounter challenges. Yes, starting to learn a language when one is younger doesn’t mean learning it better. Plus, the amount of communication experience they have limits situations within which they can explore their emotions, recognize and manage them. At the same time, peer pressure comes into play, thus increasing the FLA: by the age of 7, students realize that they will be evaluated not just by their educators, but by other learners in a group as well. And so the challenge of fitting in academically begins.
Here is a hypothetical situation: a teacher is holding a class of 6-7-year-olds. During this discussion, a few students get embarrassed when being asked about their preferences, and prefer to keep silent. When answering, those who are uncertain about the correctness of the grammar lower their voices considerably. In this case, what went wrong? Many factors (or, to put it better, adversities) may lead to such an unsatisfying and troublesome outcome.
- The balance between L1 and L2 is important but should be established carefully since the lack of level-graded lexis and high expectations may seriously demotivate young learners.
- Instruction types: young learners may have difficulty comprehending big chunks of information, but some teachers fail to notice this (especially if a group of students has different levels of proficiency in the target language).
- Learning styles aren’t taken into consideration when selecting activities.
- Other learners’ performance (especially in heterogeneous groups): it’s important to bear in mind that we cannot motivate students with a bad performance by comparing them to others who are better.
- Personal characteristics of a student: problems are not always caused by errors in instruction; sometimes, they are caused by the learner’s struggles.
Is there a way out?
Now that we have identified the triggers listed above, it is time to think about possible solutions. It is best to deal with foreign language anxiety through prevention and observation: with experience and time, you will gradually learn to tame and take into account all the aspects of young learners’ language acquisition.
Tip 1: Whenever you teach new groups of learners/individual students, conduct a needs analysis. Do so not only for better course planning but also for predicting anxiety-causing triggers.
Tip 2: Reach out to your institution’s staff psychologist to observe some group/individual activities and see how learners respond. If you’re teaching groups or individual young learners online, ask parents’ permission to record your lesson and send it for feedback.
Tip 3: Methodological assessment: psychological observation may be mostly done to determine learners’ personalities and reactions, whereas methodological assessment mainly examines a teacher’s instructions effectiveness. Teachers are afraid of this external evaluation, but they must undergo it regularly to master specific teaching techniques. Sometimes it is a question of a student’s mental health and their overall attitude towards language learning.
Tip 4: Trying out different activities: Practice not only makes perfect, but it helps you see what is appropriate and not, interesting or boring, goal-oriented or impeding for learners’ comprehension. You don’t have to prepare lots of activities in advance: choose one and try it out, observe how your learners react so that you can adjust it better/change in the future.
Bonus: questionnaire for your students to discuss the issue openly
Interviewing learners can also be an effective method of determining what makes them anxious. To avoid confusing children, ensure that the questions are easy to understand when formulating them.
Below you can find relevant examples:
- How do you think different students learn English?
- When the teacher speaks English less than your native language, is it a good or a bad thing? Why?
- Is it okay to make mistakes when you use English? Why?
- If you don’t know the meaning of a word in English, what do you usually do?
- What is the best way to learn English for you? Why?
- When you start working on something new/difficult, how do you feel?
Have you ever encountered the FLA in a classroom? If you have, please tell us in the comments how you dealt with it.