Extra! Extra! We’ve Got the Cure for Foreign Language Anxiety

You enter your foreign language class, and you notice that some students react to your entrance like you’re the bearer of doom.

They start fidgeting uncontrollably, when just five seconds ago they were as cool and steady as polar ice. You wonder about the change in demeanor and strain to look to the top of your forehead to see the makings of devilish horns, but see nothing.

You coax said students during class, but they rarely participate—and when they do, they generally lack confidence in themselves or eagerness to play along.

What’s up with these wonderful students? Why did they voluntarily enroll in the class, only to find every excuse to miss it and avoid getting involved?

Well, they may have Foreign Language Anxiety, and if you’ve seen this in your classroom, it’s a good thing that you’ve got your eyeballs glued to this post.

We’re not only gonna talk about it. We’ll look at five ways to cure it once and for all.

Foreign Language What?

First and foremost, Foreign Language Anxiety (FLA) is a real thing. It’s not some excuse concocted by your students to miss your classes and watch reruns of “Seinfeld.”

Xenoglossophobia, as it’s also known, is an extreme nervous reaction to any second language learning, speaking, writing or listening situation.

A second language class, like a public speaking class, can be inherently stressful to students with certain insecurities and personality types.

Every human being naturally experiences a certain anxiety when dealing with something unfamiliar, especially when it’s a foreign language that operates with different grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and so on. Some psychologists believe that some amount of anxiety is healthy because it elevates adrenaline and improves performance.

It’s just that the level of anxiety in FLA is so extreme that it hampers performance and productive learning.

FLA is debilitating, often leaving students trying to camouflage themselves against the walls during classes. Because of their anxiety, students suddenly become painfully shy and find every excuse to keep to themselves or even miss the class. They don’t remember the lessons, much less focus on what the teacher’s doing.

In any other situation these students may handle their stress just fine, but when it comes to second language learning opportunities they freak out. And not in a good way.

Three closely related cognitive factors are said to cause FLA. First is Communication Apprehension which is the fear of speaking, whether in front of the class, to the teacher or with a native speaker. Second is Test Anxiety which is the fear of being tested and being put on the spot. And last, which is very much related to the second one, is the fear of Negative Evaluation—the fear of the judgment of others, including us teachers. Nobody wants to look stupid, but in FLA, that fear reaches feverish heights.

These three are self-sustaining and can easily snowball to the point of the student not being able to acquire the target language. To successfully combat them, teachers have a vital role to play.

Why Teachers Are Key to Beating FLA

Fortunately, teachers don’t have to put up with the situation mentioned in the introduction. We can do something about it. As the typical movers and shakers of the classroom dynamic, teachers have the power to positively carry our anxious students back to the learning track.

This begins with an extra dash of awareness. By knowing about the mere existence of FLA, half the battle is already won.

But there’s still much to be done. Helping our students requires a dramatic shift in perspective. This means factoring FLA into every aspect of the teaching situation—from the creation of lesson plans, the classroom proceedings and methods of evaluation.

By being aware of FLA, a teacher can, for example, can create lessons that support shy students—like playing games that foster bonds between classmates. During classes, a teacher can purposely ask “gimme questions” to those anxious students so they can have a higher probability of success. In terms of evaluation, a teacher can even stop the use of the word “test,” which sends chills down the spines of even the bravest students. Instead, you could try saying something like, “class, let’s do a vocabulary review.”

We have to be aware of the words and actions we employ in class so they don’t become anxiety-inducing. We don’t want that. We want a situation where students become confident of their abilities to learn the language.

In the next section, we’ll talk about more ways to beat FLA and help our students enjoy our classes.

5 Classroom Cures for Foreign Language Anxiety

1. Teach Students That It’s Okay to Make Mistakes

“Mistakes are welcomed in this class. We don’t frown on mistakes. We make them and move on,” said one of my brilliant math professors.

One of the most important gifts we can give as language teachers, and one that should be generously given from Day 1, is the permission to make mistakes.

Studies have found that persons with perfectionist tendencies are more prone to FLA.

We should remember, and should always remind our students, that language learning is an error-prone journey. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody should make them. Then we learn from them.

We have to thoroughly convince our students that mistakes actually make them better with the language. We won’t be successful with this if they see us grimace or become frustrated when a student, trying his hardest, commits an error in front of the class. Sometimes the first person to believe that mistakes are okay must be the teacher. Only then will students find the courage to raise their hands in class—with an answer they’re not really sure of.

Native speakers commit grammar, pronunciation and usage errors on a daily basis. You can prove this by showing a large amount of authentic native speaker content and pointing out errors or slang. You shouldn’t shame the native speakers; rather, you should explain that language is fluid and the goal of learning a language is communication, not perfect grammar.

So a teacher needs to see mistakes as teaching opportunities. For example, a student in a Spanish class might use the article la instead of el with the word problema. Let this be a shining moment to teach about exceptions to rules. Then let the same student go to the board for a second time and correct his own mistake, so he can chalk up the experience as a success.

2. Don’t Teach the Language. Help the Student.

We teachers come to class with certain goals in mind, a planned activity that must be finished when the bell rings or a language lesson to be mastered by the end of the week.

Sometimes we’re so focused on lesson plans and learning outcomes of the day, we tend to forget that we’re actually there for our students.

A teacher dealing with students that are having a hard time must be flexible enough to chuck the plans for the day and address any immediate needs.

Teaching language is a complex endeavor. We aren’t just teaching language. Because language is a social things, our classes take on a social—and even psychological—color. Language is a means of communication and self-expression, and our students will never fully learn or acquire the target language if their confidence and self-belief is out of whack. Heck, they won’t even be able to focus in class.

In short, there are affective filters that students have when viewing your lessons, and your lessons will not live up to their fullest potential if the students are subconsciously resisting your efforts to teach.

But if your students have healthy attitudes towards the activities that are taken up in class, then your job to teach them will be much easier. Participation and engagement will be higher, retention will be stronger.

So a teacher is actually a psychologist, a friend and an instructor rolled into one. In a way, actually teaching the language comes second to teaching your students how to have a healthy attitude towards the target language and culture. If they love your class, learning the language will become a breeze. 

3. Remember That Pressure Isn’t a Teaching Technique

Pressure, especially when dealing with FLA, doesn’t work.

Well, pressure works in the military, and pressure works when you got a Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan or Michael Phelps in your class. But in a standard language class, not so much.

Pressure felt by FLA students can come from a variety of sources—from classmates, the teacher, the test, the assignment or project. It can come even when it’s not intended, even when it’s the last thing on the mind of a language teacher.

So we need to be especially aware of these eventualities in class. If you find out, for example, that the planned individual oral recitations are creating knots in the stomachs of many students, try finding something else that’s both fun and educational. So instead of the students doing everything so they won’t get embarrassed, they’re raring to participate in the game or activity.

If a vocabulary game like Pictionary or Charades can make your students forget about themselves and the possibility of profound embarrassment, perhaps while they’re having a great time, you can go under the radar and actually teach the language without them knowing it.

So instead of pressuring students to memorize vocabulary, you’re scaffolding their learning by having memorable activities teach them. Who can, for example, forget the German word springen (jump) when it was the winning word in a noisy game of Charades?

4. Rewards and Reinforcements Aren’t Luxuries

From a student’s perspective, a simple “Good job!” is like a chorus of angels coming down from heaven. We shouldn’t be miserly with praises.

The reason why you should throw a lot of “gimme” questions in class is so that your students, especially the shy ones, can have the experience of success—and so that we can go ahead and praise them for their achievement.

Regardless of how easy the task is, teachers should be lavish with congratulatory remarks. It makes the students feel good about themselves.

One characteristic of FLA is that the students don’t think themselves capable of learning the language. They don’t feel good about themselves, so they’re overly sensitive to the embarrassment that, in their minds, is surely going to come.

You can combat all of this negative self-perception by letting students feel what it’s like to successfully answer a question or learn a lesson. You bolster this by making it known to the whole class that the student did something right.

Giving compliments works for students of any age—whether they be young ones learning French or a class of professionals learning Chinese. Compliments give energy to the whole class, creating some kind of a learning momentum that’s self-fulfilling.

The confidence of your wards will grow. They’ll prove themselves worthy of your compliments and soon you’ll be amazed at the learning feats that they’ll show you.

And you’ll know that it all began with a simple, “Good job!” when your student gave the correct answer to a relatively easy question.

5. Make the Whole Class a Unified “Support Group”

When students know that their colleagues are on their side, they become less anxious of the second language learning situation.

One of your jobs as a teacher is to make your language class a cohesive group that supports each other and celebrates each other’s successes.

How are you gonna do that?

You can start by giving them activities that the class can do as a whole. So instead of dividing them into five splintered groups, you make them into one single team working towards a common goal. You can play Scavenger Hunt, for example, and have the class looking for something and deciphering clues together.

Just make sure that (1) they succeed and accomplish the task in a timely manner and (2) you give an actual reward to the class.

Another thing that you can do is to encourage them to help each other. Many teachers discourage coaching during oral tasks and consider it cheating. Do the exact opposite. If a student is having trouble giving an oral response to a question, give them time to get comfortable, think it out and make some attempts on their own—and then let the other students shout the correct answer for the struggling student. Consider that a good thing.

When your language class ceases to think of themselves as “individuals” trying to learn a language, but think with the “we’re all in this together” mindset, those painfully shy students will slowly gain the confidence to open up to others. They won’t think that they are being negatively judged by their seatmates or are competing with the most brilliant ones in class.

FLA can be beaten with a group that doesn’t laugh at mistakes but root for each other instead.

You’ve just read some of the most effective ways to cure Foreign Language Anxiety. But come to think of it, the insights we have learned here don’t just work for those encumbered by FLA. They also work for your class as a whole. They benefit everyone on the language learning journey. So why not apply them the next time you enter class?

I’ll see you in the next post.

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