Affective factors: ANXIETY

ESL or EFL Teachers or professionals in this field, did you know students encountering difficulties with learning a foreign language experience high levels of anxiety? This is especially true for those with a history of foreign language learning difficulties for instance, students whose learning experience has been negative and who have suffered low grades.

What happens when we feel threatened?

If we are faced with a dangerous or emotionally challenging event, sensory messages are sent to the part of the brain that plays an important role in emotion and behaviour – the amygdala. This almond shaped collection of cells is known for its role in the processing of fear and its connections within the brain circuitry that orchestrate the manifestation of anxiety. In heightened states, as an innate response to threat, the amygdala may take charge and activate high levels of hormone production leaving the parts of our brains involved with storing information and performing higher-order tasks with less energy and ability to function efficiently. Dr. Kerry Ressler, chief scientific officer at McLean Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School explains that “The basic idea is that the brain is shunting its resources because it’s in survival mode, not memory mode”. This response reaction hinders the ability to process information and, therefore, impedes learning.

What does research say?

In agreement with this, research has consistently revealed that anxiety can inhibit foreign language production and achievement:

  • Anxiety inhibits the learner’s ability to process incoming language and short-circuits the process of acquisition. Krashen (1985a, 1985b)
  • Campbell & Ortiz (1991) report perhaps one-half of all language students experience a startling level of anxiety.
  • Language anxiety is experienced by learners of both foreign and second language and poses potential problems “because it can interfere with the acquisition, retention and production of the new language.” (MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991, p. 86).
  • Crookall and Oxford (1991) reported that serious language anxiety may combine with other related problems with self-esteem / image, self-confidence, and risk-taking ability, and ultimately hamper proficiency in the second language.
  • MacIntyre & Gardner see language anxiety as “the apprehension experienced when a situation requires the use of a second language with which the individual is not fully proficient”, this apprehension being characterised by “derogatory self-related cognitions …, feelings of apprehension, and physiological responses such as increased heart rate”(1993a:5). “Their anxiety brings on the very failure which so concerns them.”

Measuring Anxiety in the Classroom

Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope (1986) developed an anxiety measure which they used to assess anxiety in the classroom context. From their research, they concluded that a large percentage of foreign language students suffer from foreign language anxiety during class, particularly in the beginning stages at university.

What Comes First? Anxiety or Learning Difficulties?

Interested in the subject of whether difficulty in acquiring a foreign language is an emotional problem, Professor Richard Sparks and Professor Leonore Ganschow (1991) asked: What comes first?  Foreign language learning difficulties which cause anxiety or anxiety which causes foreign language learning difficulties?

Sparks and Ganschow criticised the research of Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope for using a questionnaire which brought results that suggested that foreign language learning anxiety exists. Sparks and Ganschow questioned the validity of this research tool since they found it measured much more than FL learning anxiety. The measure included many questions which related to genuine language difficulties for example in, auditory memory, speed of processing and, auditory input. They claimed that emotional difficulties expressed as anxiety in the answers by the students to the questionnaire are actually symptoms of much deeper problems expressed by:

  • Limited awareness towards the speech / sound structure of the language
  • Difficulty with short-term verbal memory
  • Difficulty with naming, verbal expression, and understanding long sentences
  • Difficulty with speaking and pronunciation

Overall, the researchers found foreign language anxiety to be the result of first language difficulties in expression, understanding, and memory. These findings proved for Sparks and Ganschow that difficulty in acquiring a foreign language is much more than just a result of an emotional problem.

Foreign language learning anxiety: a complex construct

Foreign language learning anxiety is a difficult to define, complex psychological construct. As EFL / ESL teachers or professionals in this field, we should not ignore the affective factors involved in teaching a foreign language. If struggling students seem anxious or in a state of nervousness and apprehension, the source of this anxiety needs to be investigated. These students may have a learning disability or disorder.

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Campbell, C. & Ortiz, J. (1991). Helping students overcome foreign language anxiety: a foreign language anxiety workshop. In E.K. Horwitz & D.J. Young, (Eds.). Language Anxiety: From Theory and Research to Classroom Implications. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 153-168.

Chai M. Tyng, Hafeez U. Amin, Mohamad N. M. Saad, Aamir S. Malik. The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory Front Psychol. 2017; 8: 1454. Published online 2017 Aug 24. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01454PMCID: PMC5573739

Crookall, D. & R.L. Oxford. (1991) Dealing with anxiety: some practical activities for language learner and teacher trainees. In E.K. Horwitz & D.J. Young (Eds.). Language Anxiety: From Theory and Research to Classroom Implications. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 141-50.

Gardner, R.C. & MacIntyre, P.D. (1993a). A student’s contribution to second language acquisition. Part II: Affective variables. Language Teaching, 26, 1-11. 

Horwitz, E. K., M. B. Horwitz, and J. Cope, “Foreign language classroom anxiety,” The Modern Language Journal, vol. 70, pp. 125–132, 1986. 

Krashen, S. D. (1985b). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. New York: Longman.

Krashen, S. D. (1985a). Applications of psycholinguistic research to the classroom. In C. James (Ed.), Practical applications of research in foreign language teaching (pp.51-66). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Co.

MacIntyre, P.D., & Gardner, R.C. (1991a). Methods and results in the study of foreign language anxiety: a review of the literature. Language Learning. 41/1, 283-305.

MacIntyre, P.D. & Gardner, R.C. (1991b). Language anxiety: its relation to other anxieties and to processing in native and second languages. Language Learning, 41, 513-54.

Sparks, Richard L. & Leonore Ganschow. (1991). “Foreign Language Learning Differences: Affective or Native Language Aptitude Differences.” The Modern Language Journal, 75, 3-16

Sparks, R. et al (2006). Native Language Predictors of Foreign Language
Proficiency and Foreign Language Aptitude Annals of Dyslexia, Vol. 56, No. 1. 129-160 

Sparks & Ganschow (1995). A strong inference approach to causal factors in foreign language learning: A response to MacIntyre. The Modern Language Journal, 79,2,235-244

Copyright Lesley Lanir. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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