Strategies to Overcome Foreign Language Anxiety

Scientists from many different fields have looked into the phenomenon of foreign language anxiety (FLA). The research indicates that it has a negative impact on learning and performance,1 and can affect people who don’t suffer from anxiety in other situations.2

Many researchers have focused on the classroom and categorized FLA as a type of academic anxiety, even while acknowledging that it doesn’t appear to have much in common with anxieties reported in other classes, like mathematics.3

Compared with academic anxieties, FLA seems to have more to do with the speaker’s sense of identity. The techniques that may help nervous students relax and focus in the classroom might not be as effective when it comes to speaking foreign languages.

Psychologists have noticed that we seem to have more success managing stress when we have an internal rather than an external “locus of control” – in other words, that we deem our feelings and reactions to originate within ourselves, rather than being caused by something outside. The same has been observed in the language learning context:

“If one is reluctant to make an attribution of responsibility, or attributes responsibility to other forces, then one’s coping ability is limited, and is reflected in the belief that no action is necessary”4

Thus, the first step in overcoming foreign language anxiety is to view your own actions as the key to success.

So which actions are effective?

Willingly Make Mistakes

Whenever you feel at ease, pausing to correct yourself can help eliminate mistakes before they become “fossilized” and stuck in your memory. 

But in unfamiliar environments, this approach can perpetuate a cycle of perfectionism and paralysis. In encounters with strangers, it’s sometimes a good idea to have the goal of “We’re going to understand each other,” rather than “I’m going to speak correctly.”

A study in 2002 found that FLA is linked to perfectionism. This reflects the findings of investigations into other forms of anxiety.5

Other researchers have identified a triangle relationship between skill level, anxiety, and “willingness to communicate.” Even a language teacher with excellent second-language competence might “avoid speaking it in social situations… like the plague.”6 

Someone may be a fluent but anxious speaker. A beginner can be carefree. But being reluctant to speak can impact both performance and your enjoyment of the experience. Guessing and taking risks when speaking your second language builds confidence. To beat anxiety, be daring.

How to overcome foreign language learning anxiety

Get out of, or into, the Classroom

In classroom surveys, students have repeatedly said that the teacher has the biggest impact on their level of comfort.7

The right classroom provides an enormous boost to motivation and links the social aspects of language learning with more structured, theoretical aspects.

The wrong classroom can foster feelings of inadequacy and stress that sabotage the learning process. In such conditions, students may experience each speech act as a test. They may fear that a certain standard of performance is expected and find it humiliating or unacceptable to fall below it. This makes them want to be less visible, which makes them less receptive.

For students who feel stuck in a language course at school or university, neither able to quit nor thrive in class, the way forward is to seek out language experiences outside of that environment – self-study, movies, conversation partners – and come into class with the view that it’s just one small component of the language learning process.

Play with Identity

For the psychologist and linguist A.Z. Guiora, learning a new language is “profoundly unsettling” because it demands that we “experience events in and around us” differently. Compared to this, the intellectual challenges of language learning are “trivial.”8 

This theory imagines that our native language stores much of how we view the world, as well as our ability to relate to others. We do certain things linguistically to indicate friendliness and respectability without thinking. Remove that, and interactions become more stressful and confusing.

Later researchers added that “the language learner’s self-esteem is vulnerable to the awareness that the range of communicative choices and authenticity is restricted.” When we speak a second language we may feel that we are not presenting our “true self.”9

It can be painful to think that someone is getting the wrong idea about who you really are.

But there’s a flip side. Language learning gives us an opportunity to understand more about who we are as individuals, as we notice more personality traits that are conditioned by the linguistic culture we grew up with.

We may find freedom in accepting that we cannot control how others perceive us. Few people may know you like you know yourself, and that’s just fine. 

Going into situations where our linguistic resources are limited may force us to be more economical, flexible, and playful in the construction of our identities. Since you can’t reproduce the character you play in your native language, you’re free to create another one in the new language.

Try Classic Relaxation and Desensitization Techniques

Some forms of anxiety have specific triggers, while others linger in the background. But certain techniques have been shown to reduce the intensity of symptoms and produce positive outcomes in many different situations.

Psychologists disagree over how useful it is to intentionally expose yourself to anxiety triggers. There’s a strong case that when it comes to more deeply trauma-related anxieties, exposure risks doing more harm than good. 

But foreign language anxiety is usually not like this. As a language learner, you already have the specific intention of speaking the language. It’s not such a question of whether you’ll be exposed to triggers, but how. It’s in your power to seek out smaller doses, in comfortable conditions, and equip yourself before and during the experience with relaxation techniques.

Methods popular with mental health practitioners include:

  • Contemplative Practices – A 2017 study found that students of Spanish had higher test scores when their classrooms set time aside for gratitude writing and intention-setting, among other techniques.10 

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation – Researchers have suggested the technique may be too time-consuming for the classroom, but can be very effective for individuals who experience a strong physiological component to their anxiety.11 

  • Breathing and Visualization – Students of English at the University of Seville participated in an experiment in 2000 aimed at improving their confidence and focus going into listening comprehension exams. Scores improved and the students said that they believed the breathing and visualization exercises were even more impactful than exam practice.12

Get an Intercambio Partner

Close friends with opposite native and second languages usually resort to the native language of the less advanced learner. Of course, this is practical for ease of communication, but trying to reverse it can also feel embarrassing. Perhaps we don’t want our friend to be disappointed by our level in their own language.

Researchers have noticed that “unequal language competencies are often reported as very stressful.”13 This can be hard to navigate, particularly for English native speakers trying to immerse themselves in a community where the typical level of English proficiency is high.

In this situation, it’s worth the effort to seek out language exchange partners who are more equally matched with you. Even speaking to monolinguals who have little or no intention of learning any other language can be worthwhile, although someone who has some experience of the language learning journey may be a more understanding conversation partner.

The key is to habitually enter a performance state.

Anxiety affects our performance because our attention is divided. “Self-related cognition consumes cognitive resources that would otherwise be allocated to the task at hand.”14 Athletes and performing artists are able to work effectively under enormous pressure because they enter a state where they forget about everything other than the task at hand.

If you can enter that state of focus, there’s a good chance you’ll end up enjoying the experience – transforming stress into a more productive kind of energy.

Work on the Skill That Bothers You the Most

There’s some overlap between learners who underestimate their level and those who suffer the most from foreign language anxiety.15

One way of interpreting this is that as we improve our proficiency, learners increase what we demand of ourselves, so it’s always slightly out of reach.

That would mean that the most obvious way to reduce FLA – actually improving in the language – is not necessarily the most effective.

It might be helpful to identify which skill in particular gives us the strongest feeling of inadequacy. For some learners, this is listening. It can feel uncomfortable to be stuck between interrupting your interlocutor to ask them to repeat themselves, or simply trying to pick up the thread after already missing some key details.

For others, it’s their own pronunciation. Any speech discomfort present in the native language tends to manifest more viscerally when speaking foreign languages. In this case, the fear is rational: A 2010 study showed that “people perceive statements as less truthful when spoken by non-native speakers.”16

A related phenomenon is understanding most of what you hear but feeling unable to reply in an expressive way. 

One aspect of this may be the habit of thinking in the first language and wishing to maintain the same tone and personality when speaking the second. The antidote to this is the willingness to play and construct divergent identities with the language resources available.

But sometimes, it feels like those resources are simply not enough.

Finding a rhythm and flow to communication in a new language is a somewhat creative process, and the fuel for that creativity is active vocabulary.

What to Do When You Feel Limited by Vocabulary

What to Do When You Feel Limited by Vocabulary

Even in our native language, we have a large number of words that we recognize and understand perfectly well but don’t naturally use in our own speech. Instead, we have a smaller subset of words that we employ habitually, which come to us quickly when we’re thinking of how to say what we want to say.

In additional languages, this inventory tends to be much smaller. Advanced learners might grow it by frequently having complex conversations or writing. 

Using Lingvist is an efficient way for learners of all levels to build their active vocabulary. That can unlock greater freedom to express yourself in your target language and ultimately help you overcome feelings of discomfort and anxiety, either in the classroom or in conversation with native speakers.

  1. ZHANG, XIAN. 2019. “Foreign Language Anxiety and Foreign Language Performance: A Meta‐Analysis.” The Modern Language Journal. Wiley. ↩︎

  2. MacIntyre, P. D., and R. C. Gardner. 1989. “Anxiety and Second-Language Learning: Toward a Theoretical Clarification*.” Language Learning. Wiley. ↩︎

  3. Bailey, Phillip, Christine E. Daley, and Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie. 1999. “Foreign Language Anxiety and Learning Style.” Foreign Language Annals. Wiley. ↩︎

  4. Williams, Kenneth E. and Melvin Andrade. 2008. “Foreign Language Learning Anxiety in Japanese EFL University Classes: Causes, Coping, and Locus of Control.” Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching. 5. ↩︎

  5. Gregersen, Tammy, and Elaine K. Horwitz. 2002. “Language Learning and Perfectionism: Anxious and Non-Anxious Language Learners’ Reactions to Their Own Oral Performance.” The Modern Language Journal. Wiley. ↩︎

  6. MACINTYRE, PETER D., RICHARD CLÉMENT, ZOLTÁN DÖRNYEI, and KIMBERLY A. NOELS. 1998. “Conceptualizing Willingness to Communicate in a L2: A Situational Model of L2 Confidence and Affiliation.” The Modern Language Journal. Wiley. ↩︎

  7. Von Worde, Renee. “Students’ Perspectives on Foreign Language Anxiety.” Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines 8 (2003) ↩︎

  8. Guiora, Alexander Z. 1984. “THE DIALECTIC OF LANGUAGE ACQUISITION.” Language Learning. Wiley. ↩︎

  9. Horwitz, Elaine K., Michael B. Horwitz, And Joann Cope. 1986. “Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety.” The Modern Language Journal. Wiley. ↩︎

  10. Scida, Emily E., and Jill E. Jones. 2017. “The Impact of Contemplative Practices on Foreign Language Anxiety and Learning.” Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching. Adam Mickiewicz University Poznan. ↩︎

  11. McCallie, M. S., Blum, C. M., & Hood, C. J. (2006). Progressive Muscle Relaxation. In Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment (Vol. 13, Issue 3, pp. 51–66). Informa UK Limited. ↩︎

  12. Arnold, Jane. 2000. “Seeing through Listening Comprehension Exam Anxiety.” TESOL Quarterly. JSTOR. ↩︎

  13. Kráľová, Zdena, and Daniela Sorádová. 2015. “Foreign Language Learning Anxiety.” Teaching Foreign Languages to Learners with Special Educational Needs. Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra. ↩︎

  14. MacIntyre, Peter D., and R. C. Gardner. 1991. “Language Anxiety: Its Relationship to Other Anxieties and to Processing in Native and Second Languages.” Language Learning. Wiley. ↩︎

  15. Gardner, R. C., and P. D. MacIntyre. 1993. “A Student’s Contributions to Second-Language Learning. Part II: Affective Variables.” Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press (CUP). ↩︎

  16. Lev-Ari, Shiri, and Boaz Keysar. 2010. “Why Don’t We Believe Non-Native Speakers? The Influence of Accent on Credibility.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Elsevier BV. ↩︎

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