What is stopping you from learning a new language?
As everyone in their life has experienced either fleeting or more prolonged episodes of anxiety, it is essential to talk about it and understand it. More precisely, the focus is on foreign language learning anxiety. Language anxiety affects 1 in 4 learners, so it’s not surprising that it’s the subject of extensive research, with researchers taking it seriously. So, let’s dive into the research to understand better why you might feel anxious whilst learning a language and what you can do about it.
What is language learning anxiety?
Foreign language learning anxiety results from situations one might identify as stressful and potentially embarrassing, making the person feel worried or self-conscious. For language learners, anxiety is a preventing factor. Feelings of nervousness, anxiety, or overwhelm mean they cannot express themselves freely and to their full capabilities. This can happen when travelling abroad or in a classroom setting. In either case, anxiety often acts as a so-called negative narrowing emotion. This makes it harder for us to maintain an accurate, healthy perspective. Instead, we shift our focus to the negative aspects of our experience. For more on this, read our previous articles on positive psychology.
When it comes to language anxiety, it’s more likely that people prone to feeling anxious in general will experience foreign language learning anxiety. Regardless of how severe the anxiety is, there are many great tools you can incorporate and use to cope with it better – our next article will cover this in more detail.
Why do we experience foreign language learning anxiety?
Every person will have their own answer to this, but generally, language anxiety is caused by fear of negative feedback (whether by a teacher, peer or a native speaker). Exams or fear of speaking in front of others can also trigger language anxiety. Having unrealistic beliefs or expectations of progress is another contributing factor.
For others, language anxiety can appear when the learner first immerses themselves in the culture, for example, when moving to a foreign country. This was the experience of Languages Alive founder Raffaella Palumbo who had quite a cultural shock after coming to London in 1995. Similarly, I experienced this myself while listening to eloquent native speakers. I would often make unhealthy comparisons and feelings of not being good enough.
It is natural to feel anxious when we face a change such as foreign language learning, especially when combined with intensive studies or living in a foreign country. In this scenario, it’s pretty normal to feel anxious as we encounter new situations and speak with native speakers we perceive as better than us. This often creates a barrier, making it difficult to develop confidence and a positive relationship with a foreign language.
So, it can feel daunting if you experience anxiety while studying a foreign language. You are not alone, but there are ways to improve the situation. Knowing the struggles of foreign language learning anxiety personally, Raffaella and Nicole have developed a 21-Day Italian language course that addresses language anxiety to make your learning journey more enjoyable and worthwhile. This innovative course includes research-based tools to help you tackle language learning anxiety and other difficulties with greater ease and understanding. As a result, you feel more confident and motivated with a sense of ownership over your learning.
You can try it by downloading the first video lesson, meditation and workbook by simply clicking on this link https://www.languagesalive.com/
Negative effects of foreign language learning anxiety
As researchers explain, anxiety and stress weaken the brain’s ability to process, obtain and store new information. As the brain’s ‘fear sensor’ (amygdala) is activated by anxiety or stress, further information cannot reach the part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) where processing and memory storage happen. Here we encounter a paradox. If you feel anxiety rising when about to converse in another language, the more you pressure yourself to get it right (whether it is saying a sentence using perfect grammar, impressive vocabulary, etc.).
Also, the more you try to suppress the anxiety, the worse it becomes and the more anxious you feel. This can be an overwhelming experience if we do not understand the processes behind it. If we don’t realise that the solution is to remain calm and try to relax in such situations, we can easily find ourselves discouraged in our efforts. This, of course, is easier said than done. Learning to calm your nervous system down by deep diaphragmatic breathing is one way. You can also use the power of visualisation to imagine yourself speaking calmly and confidently. If you find yourself getting nervous, practice deep breathing and start again.
Having unrealistic expectations is another common difficulty learners face losing motivation when they don’t make the expected progress. For example, one might know someone who’s learned a language very quickly and set themselves the same timeframe to learn. Everyone has their language learning journey, so everyone’s pace will differ. In this scenario, where their progress is much slower, comparisons will inevitably creep in, resulting in anxiety and feelings of not being good enough.
Such a mindset sets the bar too high; it doesn’t factor in that everyone’s goals, aptitude and current skill level are different. This can easily result in negative thoughts that completely overshadow language learning enjoyment. This can impact self-confidence or cause resentment towards language learning, making people hesitant to pick up the language learning again or start another one.
Why is it important to look at and tackle foreign language learning anxiety in a healthy way?
To prevent the anxiety from escalating to the point where they quit learning a language, it is crucial to understand the psychology behind it and what self-help tools help make the anxiety easier to control.
To begin with, one should not expect the anxiety to go away entirely at any point. Rather, ways to cope with it should be learned and strengthened, such as the ones covered by positive psychology studies, which emphasise a person’s strengths rather than weaknesses. It is also important to realise that if we don’t suppress, ignore, or hide the feelings of anxiety, the uneasy feeling will leave us easier.
When we take the feeling of anxiety as a natural response but not necessarily a true reflection of the danger and focus our attention on our abilities and strength to overcome the challenge (there must be a time when you thought you couldn’t do something, but you did!) we feel more in control and comfortable with managing our emotions. This is important not only for learning a foreign language but also for overall resilience and self-confidence.
Ways to control the anxiety when learning a new language
There are other ways to control anxiety, which are easy to practice and implement within the learning experience. One such practice is mindfulness meditation which can help develop better emotional regulation, giving the learner a powerful coping mechanism. These methods are relatively easy to practice and cultivate by anyone keen. Research shows that it improves the language learning experience by increasing their ability to cope with anxiety. This, in turn, helps maintain motivation and the many well-being benefits.
As some of the researchers discuss, mindfulness and self-efficacy (which is essentially a person’s belief in oneself that challenges and obstacles can be overcome, no matter how difficult) are two variables which are theoretically and empirically proven to be influential factors in managing anxiety (Fallah, 2017). These are just some of the findings on the positive effects of mindfulness and self-efficacy in language learning. Fallah (2017) also writes: ‘In other words, due to its nature, mindfulness can make individual learners more conscious of their capacities and coping resources, including CSE.
Instead of being absent and distracted from the present moment and jumping mindlessly from one task or thought to another, EFL learners can better think of their abilities and stay focused on their performance and objectives by being mindful. They can visualise their situation and everything involved, be it ideas, people, places or objects, thereby having better access to their CSE’.
Everyone feels anxiety, and it is normal to experience it while learning a foreign language. However, it is vital to know how it can interfere with the language-learning experience and how to control it. An exciting way to experience a more positive language learning environment and learn more of the ways to combat anxiety better is the 21-day Italian language learning course mentioned before.
The programme incorporates empirically proven methods such as meditation and mindfulness to make the foreign language learning experience more enjoyable and less anxiety-inducing by creating a friendly, positive and supportive language learning environment. Don’t miss your chance to try it for free; start now and feel the benefits which will change your life. www.languagesalive.com
Dewaele, J. M., Chen, X., Padilla, A. M., Lake, J. (2019). The Flowering of Positive Psychology in Foreign Language Teaching and Acquisition Research. Frontiers in Psychology. 10(2128).
Fallah, N. (2017). Mindfulness, coping self-efficacy and foreign language anxiety: a mediation analysis. Educational Psychology. 37(6): 745-756.
MacIntyre, P., Gregersen, T. (2012). Emotions that facilitate language learning: The positive-broadening power of the imagination. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching. 2(2): 193-213.
Minahan, J., Schultz, J. J. (2014/2015). Interventions can salve unseen anxiety barriers. The Phi Delta Kappan. 96(4): 46-50.