DANIEL C.SWENSON. Our Rules: An idea to help reduce foreign language anxiety in the classroom. PDF Печать E-mail
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01.04.13 11:13

Our Rules: An idea to help reduce foreign language anxiety in the classroom

Daniel C. Swenson

Minnesota State University, alumnus Mankato, Minnesota, USA



Learning a foreign language can be a particularly stressful activity.  Research indicates over a dozen factors that can complicate and impede the learning process.  Varying amounts of negative emotional anxiety are generally attendant to the traditional classroom process.  This anxiety is called foreign language anxiety or second language anxiety, and is closely related to the concept of the emotionally safe classroom or psychologically safe classroom.  This paper will offer an idea, a suggestion, and the reasoning behind it, for teachers and researchers to consider.  The idea is an attempt to reduce the level of anxiety in the foreign language classroom, or better yet – to prevent the formation of undue anxiety in the first place.  Language students should first talk about the tensions, fears, and uneasiness that they feel, and then proceed to develop a set of rules that they would like to see implemented in their language classroom.  These rules would be viewed as their code-of-conduct during the up-coming language course.  All of the participants in the learning environment would pledge to abide by this set of rules, students and teacher alike.  The rules establish the parameters for their own emotionally safe classroom – a place where learning a foreign language can proceed with a significantly lower level of anxiety.

Key words: foreign language anxiety, second language anxiety, emotionally safe classroom, psychologically safe classroom

Foreign Language Anxiety

“Language teachers have long been aware of the fact that many of their students experience discomfort in the course of language learning” [Horwitz & Young 1991].  Foreign language anxiety appears to be more than just a combination of communication apprehension, test anxiety, and fear of negative evaluation, even though all of these are important factors.  Horwitz, Horwitz, and Cope [1991] see “foreign language anxiety as a distinct complex of self-perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors related to classroom language learning arising from the uniqueness of the language learning process.”  Horwitz [2000] reminds us that “Countless language learners and teachers across the world identify with the experience of foreign language anxiety, and the potential of anxiety to interfere with learning and performance is one of the most accepted phenomena in psychology and education.”

Some researchers [Sparks & Ganschow 1991] contend that foreign language anxiety is the result of students’ inabilities in their first language (L1) being exemplified as poor performance in their second language (L2).  This position, contested by other researchers [MacIntyre 1995], does not square with the fact that many successful second language learners also experience anxiety.

Guiora [1983] portrays language learning as “a profoundly unsettling psychological proposition” because it threatens an individual’s self-concept.  Horwitz, Horwitz, and Cope [1991] offer that “Probably no other field of study implicates self-concept and self-expression to the degree that language study does.”  MacIntyre and Gardner [1991] add that “language courses have been shown to produce more anxiety than any other.”  Young [1991] and Price [1991] agree that speaking in the target language in front of a group causes the greatest amount of anxiety.  The other language skills - listening, reading, and writing - also have their associated difficulties, but usually with a lesser degree of anxiety.  “Standing in front of or even sitting at a desk in a classroom of peers while reciting in an unfamiliar language is likely to make almost anyone anxious” [Daly 1991].  Students report fear of being laughed at, feeling foolish, going blank, and freezing up as some of their difficulties.  Some students engage in avoidance tactics: not making eye contact, skipping class, and being sassy with the teacher [Lee 2002].  Of all the language activities, Young [1992] found that silent reading produced the least anxiety.

Insight from Littlewood [1984] relates: “In the typical language classroom, learners are often asked to perform in a state of ignorance and dependence which may engender feelings of helplessness.  They have to produce unfamiliar sounds in front of an audience.  When they do not perform adequately, they may be subjected to comment and correction, sometimes for reasons that are not clear to them.  Most of them do not possess the linguistic tools to express their own individuality.  In any case, there is usually little opportunity for this, since the interaction is dominated by the teacher.”

Oxford [1990] affirms that language anxiety results in lowered self-esteem, reduced confidence, lowered willingness to take linguistic risks, and decreased learning.  Foss and Reitzel [1991] view self-perception as a critical factor.  Second language learners have feelings of incompetence about their inability to present themselves in the L2 in a manner that is consistent with their own self-image.  MacIntyre and Gardner [1991] explain that the language student has mature thoughts, but only an immature L2 vocabulary with which to express them.  Not being able to express yourself, or to comprehend another person, results in frustration.  Several researchers claim that deep psychological phenomena are at work during L2 acquisition.  “For Rardin, existential anxiety is a more profound type of anxiety inherently built into the language learning process, particularly for adolescents and adults, that ‘touches the core of one’s self-identity, one’s self image’” [Young 1992].  Yan and Horwitz comment that “It is not surprising that such a personal and ego-involving endeavor as language learning is the subject of feelings of anxiety” [2008].

 Emotionally Safe Classroom

Scovel maintains that “Language teachers have known all along, that students learn better in a supportive, nonthreatening environment” [1991].  Fleming, Fischer, Griffin, and Garner provide that “Students who are unsure of their own social or emotional safety in the classroom will tend to err on the side of safety, resulting in writing dull and uncreative papers and essays, learning material only to pass a test, and remaining silent during class discussion” [2007].  Language learners are quite concerned with saving face; they will sacrifice their progress in language learning if it means preserving their social relationships [Slimani-Rolls 2005].   Fear of face loss, that of their own and that of their classmates, is paramount.

There does not appear to be a simple recipe for creating an emotionally safe classroom for language learning; however, considerable helpful information has been gleaned from qualitative research, including surveys, interviews, questionnaires, and conversations with language students [Price 1991].  Student journals have also been analyzed.  Students directly contributed the following suggestions: “In order to change the classroom atmosphere, I think first of all, we need to rearrange the seats” and “Don’t let the teacher stand at the podium” [Yan & Horwitz 2008].  Yan and Horwitz then summarized that “Many students reported that when they were in an informal, anxiety-free atmosphere, they could perform better” and “The students said that when they were not anxious, they could ‘hear better’” [2008].  Students in the field of social work [Holley & Steiner 2005] liked sitting in a circle or square.  These same students also said that row-style seating was a characteristic of an unsafe classroom.  Scrivener [2005] shows several seating arrangements, advocating a circle or horseshoe shape so that learners can make eye contact with everyone.

“One of the current challenges in second and foreign language teaching is to provide students with a learner-centered, low-anxiety classroom environment” [Young 1991].  The classroom pattern needs to be shifted from teacher-student to student-student.  As the pattern changes, anxiety decreases, and students start to relax.  Crookall and Oxford impart that “Learners then usually become more concerned with trying to communicate their viewpoint than with avoiding public humiliation, saving face, or impressing the teacher with the ability to parrot “correct” answers” [1991].  Yan and Horwitz offer that “Class activities could be designed to encourage cooperation instead of competition” [2008].  On every day of the language course, small group and pair activities could be included; this allows anxious students to practice the target language without the entire class as an audience [Price 1991].

Price asserts that students need to view the classroom as a safe place for learning and communication, rather than as a tense place where they perform for the instructor [1991].  Price’s research respondents said that “they would feel more comfortable if the instructor were more like a friend helping them to learn and less like an authority figure making them perform” [1991].  From the field of experiential education, Wurdinger and Carlson [2010] remind us that “Educators are not the center of attention in the classroom, student learning is.”  Particularly in the early stages of the language class, the focus needs to be on the message, the communication, rather than on grammar and pronunciation; linguistic details, including error correction, can be woven into the later stages of the course, after the students have built some confidence in their L2 abilities.  An emotionally safe classroom has a climate that allows students to feel secure enough to take linguistic risks and grow in the language.  A safe classroom does not refer to an environment that is devoid of challenge; it does refer to a space having protection from psychological or emotional harm [Holley & Steiner 2005].

Language learning is recognized as a social activity requiring interaction with others [Benson 2001].  For effective language learning, students need to talk with each other in an environment of low stress, a safe place.  Scrivener [2005] advocates that student-talking-time must increase and teacher-talking-time must decrease.  Foss and Reitzel [1991] recommend that instructors ask students to verbalize their apprehensions about learning a foreign language, have a discussion, and write their concerns on the board.  In this way students can see that they are not alone, that many fears are irrational, and that it is normal to make mistakes.  Lee [2002] advocates putting the topic of anxiety on the table on the first day of class, contending that using class time to work on the problem demonstrates genuine concern to the students.  “If we spend some of our class time not on actually teaching the language directly but rather on dealing directly with the anxiety that students may be feeling, then the time spent on language learning will be more effective” [Horwitz & Young 1991].

 Our Rules: An idea

Building on the above material, here is an idea, a suggestion, which may help to reduce the anxiety that students of foreign language feel in the classroom.  At the beginning of the course, after greetings and introductions, check with each student to ensure that they know how to ask for help in the target language.  This is vital.  First, ask students to form pairs, talk about themselves using their L1, and make notes.  It is unrealistic to expect strangers to work together to learn a language.  Second, keeping the same partner, ask students to talk about their expectations and apprehensions, and make notes.  Working in pairs is less stressful than working in a group.  Third, put two pairs together to form a small group of four; rearrange the furniture as needed.  Ask them to continue their discussion about anxieties, and make a list.  Working in a small group is less stressful than working with the whole class.  Fourth, ask for a volunteer from each group to transfer their group list to the board.  This act makes the board common property, not just teacher territory.  Ask students to make a semi-circle with the furniture, facing the board.  Fifth, ask students to indicate similarities and make groupings of like items on the board.  Ask for and have students capture any new material from their classmates.  As prior schemata get activated, there may be more material that is newly remembered.  Sixth, ask students to share stories about what they witnessed, experienced, or heard from others, about language courses.  Ask students to arrange board items into a master list of concerns.  By now, students will not feel alone.  Perhaps they will be able to identify with the feelings of others.  Seventh, ask students how they feel about these concerns and how these situations could be handled to make a better classroom, a safe place, for them to learn.  Use pairs and small groups as needed.  Ask students to record their inputs on the board.  Eighth, ask students to assemble the information into two lists.  The first list contains the concerns, a source of information for the teacher; the second list captures what the students feel their classroom should look like, functionally and emotionally.  Within the above processes, the teacher can be subtly guiding, suggesting, advising, making hints, and asking questions.  Ninth, ask students if the second list could be made into a set of rules, a code of conduct, a pact, of how they would like to treat each other.  Allow time for serious discussion.  Ask how they feel about making a pledge, a promise, to abide by their own set of rules, Our Rules.  Ownership is important.  Tenth, ask the students to work together to formulate Our Rules into the L2.  Use pairs and small groups to advantage.  Allow adequate time.  Make two posters, one in each language.  Engage students to add artwork.  Students can pledge aloud in both languages to abide by Our Rules.  Copies can be made for each student to carry in their notebook.  Refer to this product during the coursework.  The set of rules might resemble the following:

Our Rules

This is our classroom.

It is a good place to learn language.

1)      Only one person speaks at a time.

2)      When I need help, I will not hesitate to ask for it.

3)      When others ask for help, I will not hesitate to give it.

4)      I will encourage the timid to speak.  No one suffers in silence.

5)      I will treat others with the same respect that I want to receive.

I promise.

To want to learn for the sake of learning is a wonderful thing.  “The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning” [Dewey 1998/1938].


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