“I can’t express myself in English, and I hate myself! What should I do?”

As far as I remember, I always enjoyed learning foreign languages.
My first foreign language was German. I hardly remember anything about that experience, but, according to my mom, my German teacher was praising me all the time and suggested I should apply for a specialised German school when the time comes.
My second foreign language was English. I’ve been learning it since I was 4 years old, and I have much clearer memories of my early English-learning experience. For example, I remember my English teacher in kindergarten complaining to my mom that I was mispronouncing /ð/ and /θ/ sounds replacing them with /z/ and /s/ respectively, obviously due to L1 interference (since these were the closest sounds in my mother tongue, Russian). Was I sad? No, not at all. I didn’t care. I clearly remember thinking something like ‘oh well, but she can still understand what words I’m saying, right? So what’s the problem?’. My mom didn’t scold me either.
I then started learning German once again in grade 7, had some experience with learning Spanish in grade 10, and started learning Scandinavian languages and Japanese at university. As you can see, I had or have been learning quite a number of languages.
And I have never experienced foreign language anxiety.

Foreign language anxiety is one of quite well researched affective variables (see e.g. Scovel; MacIntyre & Gardner; Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope; Young; von Wörde). It can be defined as the “worry and negative emotional reaction aroused when learning or using a second language” (MacIntyre, 1999, cited in Dörnyei & Ryan, 2015). Moreover, Jim King (2014) writes that social anxiety – and foreign language anxiety as a result of it – is especially common within the foreign language classrooms of Japanese universities (and I’d add that not only universities but schools as well).
I remember when I just started teaching English in Japan it came as an unpleasant surprise that I had to drag every word of my students’ mouths as if I was interrogating them and they had something to hide.
As the time was passing by, I learnt not to ask open questions but yes-no questions and provide answer templates, e.g., “Ok guys, how was your discussion? Good? Bad? So-so?”. Only after that would they finally say something. As soon as I’d ask them “Why?” though they’d stuck, but I got used to it.

What never came across my mind is that most of these students would start feeling nervous or even anxious as soon as I opened my mouth and started speaking English. What shed light on this issue was the Dialogical Feedback activity I started doing every week at the end of the lesson with all my classes (I’m currently writing an article on it so stay tuned for updates!).
I thought it would help me understand if I missed something when teaching today’s target phrases, but it became bigger than that. Many students actually weren’t worried about the phrases as much as I thought they would. What worried them much more was an inability to express themselves in English, starting with mild feelings of worry and finishing with severe feelings of anxiety and self-unworthiness like for that student whose words I chose as the title for this post.
Due to my anxiety-free foreign language learning experience, I could hardly imagine how stressful and painful it can be for someone to learn a foreign language.

Scovel (1978) described anxiety as “one of the most important affective variables identified in learning tasks”. Yet nothing is said about this phenomenon in the pre-service courses like CELTA. Freshly qualified teachers step into the classrooms across the world trying to make their lessons as communicative and fun as possible, and the question is how many of them bump into the emotional-based wall of silence like that one in Japan?
What’s more, hardly any of those articles I’ve read on foreign language anxiety (and I read a lot) gives any practical advice on what we, teachers, could do to help our students relax and let all those negative emotions go (or at least make them less strong).
Of course, we do not have adequate expertise to deal with severe anxiety reactions (this is psychotherapists’ work), but we could definitely help students with mild anxiety reactions, those who feel worried, apprehensive, and nervous.
I found some suggestions that come from Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope (1986), von Wörde (2003), and Oxford (2006):
– enhanced awareness of language anxiety for teachers, students, and programme planners,
– a relaxed classroom atmosphere or environment,
– relaxation exercises,
– acknowledging students’ feelings and supporting them,
– small group work,
– advice on effective language learning strategies (Oxfords’ affective strategies are specifically aimed at reducing anxiety),
– behavioural contracting,
– journal keeping,
– slowing down the tempo and giving more time for students to process and digest the material,
– homework assignments and test assignments being explained in L1 or in writing.
I’d add to this reflective practice which lies in the core of my Dialogical Feedback activity.
Give students a chance to write their feelings down and then look through what they wrote. Encourage them to write whatever they feel and make it anonymous to make sure they won’t feel restrained. Then hand out your written reply to what they wrote with some advice on learning strategies, words of encouragement, etc. That’s what I did, and my students said that it helped them identify their problems and feel more relaxed and confident. It works!

When did you become aware of such issue as foreign language anxiety?
What do you do to help your students feel less anxious?
What other tips can you add to the list in this post?

 


References:
1. Dörnyei, Z. & Ryan, S. (2015). The psychology of the language learner revisited. New York, NY: Routledge.
2. Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B., & Cope, J. (1986). Foreign language classroom anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 70, 125–132. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4781.1986.tb05256.x
3. King, J. (2014). Fear of the true self: Social anxiety and the silent behaviour of Japanese learners of English. In K. Csizér and M. Magid (Eds.), The impact of self-concept on language learning. Bristol, England: Multilingual Matters.
4. Oxford, R. L. (2006). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.
5. Scovel, T. (1978). The effect of affect on foreign language learning: A review of the anxiety research. Language Learning, 28(1), 129–142. 10.1111/j.1467-1770.1978.tb00309.x
6. Wörde, von, R. (2003). Students’ perspectives on foreign language anxiety. Inquiry, 8(1), 1–15. Retrieved from: http://vccaedu.org/inquiry-spring2003/i-81-worde.html

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3 thoughts on ““I can’t express myself in English, and I hate myself! What should I do?”

  1. Hello! One thing I do to help students with language anxiety (and anxiety in general) is start the class with reading aloud. I can’t remember where I read it, but I learned that it’s an activity that helps with anxiety because it takes ALL the student’s attention and they don’t have time to think about how worried they are before they’re already speaking in English.

    1. Hi!
      That’s an interesting point. I’m pretty sure I myself would feel more relaxed if I had to do this. I like reading out loud 🙂
      Just one point re the context: Asian students tend to be more worried about their pronunciation and intonation than European students due to the significant difference in phonetic systems of their languages so reading out loud might actually make them a bit anxious. I remember asking them to read out loud, and as soon as they would mispronounce something they’d blush and start behaving like they felt nervous. I still make them read out loud sometimes ‘cos it’s a good practice 🙂

      1. You’re right. Classroom culture would play a big part in this sort of thing. I’m not giving advice, though. I’m just explaining what I do. I also work in Japan (and you know me, in fact!), but the context is quite different. I teach in eikaiwa, so I have the benefit of having the same students for multiple years in a row, rather than just a semester. And of course I ask them to read material that is too easy and I do not correct, even non-verbally, if the goal is to reduce anxiety.

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