In affairs of the heart, this may be helpful, making you bite your tongue just as you are about to mention the previous of your life. But what about speaking a foreign language, where habits of the tongue are not as easy to control? I have to form entire sentences before uttering them otherwise, I too easily get lost in the middle. My speech, I sense, sounds monotonous, deliberate, heavy—an aural mask that doesn’t become or express me at all. … I don’t try to tell jokes too often, I don’t know the slang, I have no cool repartee. I love language too much to maul its beats, and my pride is too quick to risk the incomprehension that greets such forays. I become a very serious young person. I am enraged at the false persona I’m being stuffed into, as into some clumsy and overblown astronaut suit.
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(pp. 668-669 see also )Psychologists studying language learning and use distinguish between two main types of anxiety, trait and state. Trait anxiety is a attribute exhibited in persistent and sometimes unrealistic worry about mundane things. This pervasive worry also underpins many excuses we come up with to avoid foreign language learning and use: I am not good at languages, I am too old to learn a new language, My is poor, I do not have a good ear for languages, I have forgotten everything I learned, and so on.
The other type, state anxiety, is experienced by all of us, triggered by a job interview, a visit to the dentist, a conference presentation or a particularly hard test. Communication in a foreign language – especially one in which we have limited competence – is one such situation. To understand the effects of anxiety on language learning and use, University of London professor Jean-Marc Dewaele and his colleagues analyzed responses to foreign language anxiety questionnaires. Their results revealed several groups particularly affected by foreign language fright, including girls,, and. Girls experience – or at least report experiencing – foreign language anxiety more intensely than boys.
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Perfectionists may set impossibly high performance standards and then feel debilitating anxieties that lead them to procrastinate and put off angst-inducing tasks. As for quiet and reserved introverts, they may outperform everyone else on pen-and-pencil tasks but become tongue-tied when required to speak. At the other end of the anxiety spectrum are a few lucky who fearlessly ask for directions, order meals and make jokes using a vocabulary of a dozen words. Their exploits show that anxiety also colors our perceptions of how good we are: highly anxious speakers tend to underestimate their language competence, and speakers with low levels of anxiety tend to overestimate it.
Research findings also show that some types of foreign language communication are more anxiety-provoking than others. Talking on the phone or speaking with strangers stirs more worries than communication in the same language with friends. The angst is not limited to the second language (L7). In a study with Turkish immigrants in the Netherlands, Yeşim Sevinç and Jean-Marc Dewaele found that some immigrants may experience anxiety in the slowly deteriorating or incompletely acquired first language (L6) and the non-native L7. These findings suggest that at the heart of anxiety is not the situation itself but our perception of it:
if we think that we should have a better mastery of a particular language, we may become tongue tied out of and guilt. Future studies in highly multilingual contexts may add an additional twist: foreign language anxiety may turn out to be a uniquely Western construct, triggered by unrealistic expectations of monolingual or native-like language use (for a discussion of a multilingual setting in Cameroon, where “native-likeness” is not an issue, see ). Yet not all is doom and gloom. When they expanded the scope of their studies, Dewaele and his found that many learners experience both anxiety and enjoyment, and that, in small doses, anxiety doesn’t hurt language learning, as it focuses our attention on the task at hand.
The key is to articulate realistic expectations and to strike a constructive balance between foreign language anxiety and positive emotions intrinsic in language learning, including pride in one’s achievements, excitement about new challenges, and that comes with practice.