foreign language learning anxiety
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Recently I stumbled upon a realisation that I had developed foreign language anxiety.

I moved to France last year to fulfil a long-held dream of living in France and learning to speak French. I was doing well and swiftly excelled from the basic French level A1 to intermediate level B2 in six months. I had become conversational and understood most of the grammatical structures of the language.

However, by the 7th-month mark, I began to feel burnt out. I mean, how could I not be? I was on an intensive programme of 20 hours per week. I started losing focus in class and developed a fear of communicating. At first, it was with strangers and then increasingly, with my teachers. I began to forget simple things I had learnt in A1 and harshly criticised myself when I made these mistakes. I felt judged every time I spoke French.

This resulted in an intense fear of communicating with everyone and tensions inside me that made me avoid classes.

woman looking frustrated foreign language learning anxiety
Photo by Mikhail Nilov:

Like many situations we go through in life, we often falsely believe that we are the only ones carrying that burden. The truth is if we only open up to others and share our struggles, we will find that what we think of as our unique problem is common and affects more of us than we realise.

Through this experience, I learnt that the difficulties I started experiencing in my language learning journey were not unique to me but were a common problem that learners of a second language have faced. Knowing this has made a difference to me. Now I can find solutions to the problem.

You must be asking, what is foreign language learning anxiety and what does it have to do with your child?  Stick around, and I’ll tell you.

With schools back in session, many students are set to start a foreign language course because it’s perhaps compulsory or they have plans to study or work abroad. Whatever the reason for your child to learn a new language, you should know about a potential pitfall that might derail their foreign language plans.

Let’s talk about foreign language learning anxiety.

What is Foreign Language Learning Anxiety?

foreign language learning anxiety
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Foreign language learning anxiety is a form of situation-specific anxiety that arises within the context of learning a foreign or second language. This is different from children who experience trait anxiety or generalised anxiety disorder.

With foreign language anxiety, students develop anxious and worrying feelings about their ability to learn, understand and communicate in their target foreign language.

Language learning anxiety can occur at any point during the language learning journey and can be caused by negative experiences during the language learning process.

This results in the student having negative self-concepts, it discourages students from learning, they start to avoid the classroom and may even give up on learning the new language completely.

Researchers have identified 3 aspects of foreign language learning anxiety and how they can be manifested in students.

a. Communication apprehension is the difficulty that students experience in understanding and expressing the target foreign language.

b. Fear of negative evaluation is when students develop a fear of making mistakes and being corrected for the mistakes they made during the language process.

c. Test anxiety occurs when it’s time for students to take their language assessments.

Often foreign language learning anxiety is an interplay between students’ characteristics, teaching styles and the learning environment.

While a level of moderate language anxiety can drive students to do better, high levels of foreign language anxiety have a debilitating effect resulting in students performing poorly in achieving their foreign language goals.

Getting beyond the phase of language learning anxiety in the language journey could be the difference between attaining proficiency in the target language or not at all.

What are the signs of Language Learning Anxiety?

Before I was able to identify that I developed foreign language learning anxiety, I realised a change in my behaviour which made me know that there was something not quite right.

If you suspect that your child has developed language learning anxiety, look out for these commons signs:

a. Intense fear and/or worry about language classes

b. Loss of excitement and interest in language learning

c. Inability to focus on language learning tasks and activities

d. Worries about being laughed at by others when participating in language activities

e. Does not want to participate in language learning activities, particularly in speaking activities

f. Avoids going to language classes

g. Gets agitated and worries about upcoming language tests/assessments

h. Overly critical of their language mistakes

Statistics on Foreign Language Learning

child sitting a a desk looking at computer screen learning

According to research, one-third to half of students have reported experiencing foreign or second language learning anxiety.

Foreign language learning statistics show that 20% of students are enrolled in a foreign language course in the US, meanwhile, this percentage is higher outside the United States, with 70% of students in the UK enrolled in a foreign language class, 92%  in Europe and 67% in China.

If your child is not growing up in a bilingual home, the other method of learning a foreign language is through foreign language classes. This is why knowing how foreign language learning anxiety can affect your child is important.

Benefits of Learning a Second Language?

girl sitting on the floor packing a suitcase

In an increasingly globalised world, having a second language can offer children many benefits when they grow up. This is why many parents want their children to learn a second language and why schools give children a head start by making learning a second language compulsory as part of their academic development.

Here are some of the benefits of learning a foreign language:

1. Increased Opportunities for Work

Many companies have multiple locations across the globe and often seek bilingual employees to move around when the need arises. Similarly, businesses often find themselves seeking international talent when local talents are available to fill specific job posts.

2. Cultural Connections

Having a second language makes it so much easier to travel the world and interact with different cultures. The communication barriers are instantly torn down with the ability to speak the local language of your host country.

3. Cognitive Development

Many studies have shown that bilingual children have an advantage in cognitive, problem solving and social understanding skills over monolingual children.

Similarly, bilingual teens outperformed monolingual teens when tested on various tasks that assessed executive brain functions like attention and working memory.

How to Help Your Child Overcome Language Anxiety?

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Now that you know what is foreign language learning anxiety, how do your help your child deal with it?

Here are a few things to remember when you develop strategies to help your child overcome foreign language learning anxiety:

1. Language Learning is Not a Sprint; It’s a Journey.

Language learning is a journey, which means that it takes time to learn the nuances of a language. There will be grammatical speedbumps, pronunciation blunders and disconnects between classroom knowledge and everyday talk.

Native speakers of your target foreign language spend their whole lives perfecting that language through multiple modes of communication and situations. As a language learner in a classroom, your child will not have the full spectrum of these experiences. 

However, the journey continues with each milestone achieved, your child is so much closer to her destination.

2. Set Realistic Language Goals

Sometimes we experience anxious feelings when our personal goals do not meet reality which can be the case for language learning. Perhaps, your child has set extremely high goals for acquiring a new language that are unrealistic for their current situation.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with wanting to aim high, you should talk with your child about the other activities he has planned for the academic year.

In doing so, you can decide together if his language goals can be met with all the other competing activities. It is helpful to prioritise what needs to be done to achieve his desired language goals.

3. Everybody is Different with Different Learning Styles

Some children are naturally talkative and outgoing, while some are more reserved and prefer the company of a few.

Similarly, some children learn better as part of a group, some learn better during play, while others need to review information more than once and take a lot of notes to remember what was taught.

The fact is, every child has a different learning style that will correspond to her personality.

In overcoming foreign language learning anxiety, it could be useful to help your child to figure out her learning style and work with her to make the best of her language learning experience.

4. Celebrate Small Wins

When I finally realised that I developed language learning anxiety, I was able to step back and reassess my relationship with the language. I took myself back to the beginning of my language journey when I had a lot of curiosity and love for French. During this time, learning something new was fun and exciting.

I used to revel in the fact that I conjugated a verb correctly from memory. It was these small wins that helped to build my confidence that I was learning and progressing. 

So, I started to celebrate the small wins again. Whether this was pronouncing a difficult word correctly, getting my “r” right, or going to the pharmacy and fulfilling my prescription using only my French. Celebrating the small wins worked and has helped my confidence and reduced my language anxiety.

5. Language Learning is a Process; It’s Okay to Make Mistakes

Like everything in life, language learning is a process and your child is going to make mistakes. Not only that, everyone makes mistakes every day, it’s the nature of being human.

The other thing to know about mistakes is that we learn from them. Mistakes are an important aspect of learning and development, even in language learning. However, as time passes and we achieve mastery of our tasks, we will make fewer mistakes and achieve our goals.

The process of learning a new language is the same as every new activity we undertake. It requires patience, love, passion and curiosity. Happy learning and Bon Courage!

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