Plenary Speech

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a plenary speech at excitELT, a conference that always makes me feel excited.
Of course, it did not go as planned (nothing does, right?), but nevertheless, here is the script.
You can also find the link to download my article about the Dialogical Feedback project in the text below.

———- (INTRO) ———-

Oh well… I am feeling very nervous right now.
Actually, I’ve read somewhere on the internet that this is the worst phrase you can choose to start your presentation with.

However, at the same time, even though hardly anyone admits it out loud while presenting, the majority of people do feel nervous and even anxious when they have to speak in front of an audience, even a small and well-known one.
In fact, public speaking anxiety and communication apprehension, in general, are among the most widespread types of anxiety.

Communicative Language Teaching emphasizes communication. Students are constantly talking to each other, even if it’s a simple pair-check for the answers for some activity.
At universities, they have to take discussion classes, presentation classes and all other kinds of highly communicative classes.

Raise your hand if you teach such a class.
Raise your hand if you think your students might feel anxious during your classes.
Raise your hand if you ever felt anxious when communicating in a foreign language.
Raise your hand if your teacher ever asked you how you felt about communicating in a foreign language.
Raise your hand if you ever asked your students how they feel about communicating in a foreign language.

———- (INTRO TO FLA) ———-

Last semester, I had a student with a Social Anxiety Disorder. You could see she did feel uneasy at times. She would never be the first to speak and she avoided making eye contact. However, I had many more students who behaved the same way or seemed to experience even more severe anxiety than she did, but none of them was official special needs. Could this mean that they never thought to report that as special needs?

This leads to another question: How many Japanese learners think that feeling this kind of anxiety is normal?

———- (FLA RESEARCH) ———-

MacIntyre and Gardner (1994) defined it as “the feeling of tension and apprehension specifically associated with second language contexts, including speaking, listening, and learning” (p. 284).

Initially, two constructs were identified: trait and state anxiety (Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope, 1986; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1989). According to Horwitz et al., trait anxiety as a “stable prediscription to become anxious in a wide range of situations” (p. 93). Apparently, this type of anxiety seems to have little effect on the language-learning process. However, state anxiety – an “immediate, transitory emotional experience with immediate cognitive effects” (p. 93) – has a negative influence on the language-learning process.

Indeed, for foreign language learners, any task is a potential source of anxiety. MacIntyre (1995) stressed that task performance itself and difficulties arising during this performance could provoke anxiety.

Horwitz et al. also offered another classification of anxiety: communication apprehension, fear of negative social evaluation, and test anxiety (or apprehension over academic evaluation).
They reported that students were ‘very self-conscious’ when they were required to engage in speaking activities that expose their inadequacies, and these feelings often lead to ‘fear, or even panic’ (p. 128). As a result, they were sensitive to both peer and teacher evaluation of their oral performance.

Von Wörde’s study (2003) supported the statement that social anxiety represents one of the most serious challenges for foreign language students: “Many of the anxiety-provoking factors reported by the participants appeared to be generated by various speaking activities normally encountered in a language class” (p. 5). As she put it, “[…] language learners have a dual task. They must not only learn the new language but perform in it as well” (p. 5).

And now think of CLT which is all about speaking English to people and in front of people. Imagine how stressful this kind of approach to learning a language is to our anxious students!


However, it is also important to take into consideration cultural features when talking about anxiety, especially communication apprehension and fear of negative social evaluation.

Imagine a typical university freshman. How do they behave in your classroom? Are they chatty and engage in communication easily? Or are they quiet and unresponsive? You’ve probably come across both types, but you’ll hardly deny that the latter one – quiet, unresponsive and seemingly feeling uneasy and uncomfortable – is a more common case than the former.

King (2014) noted that Japanese university students show a “significant trend towards silence” (p. 232). They do, right?
So, this silence is a kind of withdrawn behaviour shaped by socio-cultural values and norms. The society expects social reticence and reserved behaviour – these qualities are considered to be positive.
King interviewed 11 students, and all of them admitted to have a fear of being negatively evaluated by their classmates and teachers because of making mistakes or expressing opinions that are too different or difficult for others to understand.

Anxiety research suggests that language learners experiencing social anxiety end up under double pressure: in addition to all those negative emotions that make them too occupied with the impression they make, they have to communicate in a foreign language in which they often cannot express their ideas clearly and elegantly enough, which, in its turn, makes them even more anxious.
As a result, they end up in a vicious circle filled with negative emotions. Seems hopeless, right?


Now, it is very important to understand that anxiety is an emotion, and like any emotion, it can be difficult for students to control, but it can be controlled.

A foreign language classroom is an arena for multiple social interactions. These interactions cause a great range of various emotions and feelings to arouse.
However, social interactions that have to be carried out in a foreign language are an even stronger trigger for negativity.

Language learning does not only depend on emotions, but it can also influence them.
Cognition and emotions in second language learning are inseparable.


So what can we do about foreign language anxiety?

Well, surprisingly, while many researchers are willingly talking about foreign language anxiety, not many of them are saying what teachers can do about it and how they can help their students feel at least a little bit better.
I’ve only come across a few papers that really tried to deal with this.

First is of Horwitz & Horwitz. They were some of the first researchers to provide some pedagogical implications for dealing with anxious students.
They mentioned two ways: helping learners cope with anxiety and providing them with a less stressful learning environment. To be more specific, they proposed relaxation exercises, advice on effective learning strategies, and journal keeping.

Some effective learning strategies that could help students cope with anxiety were described by Rebecca Oxford (2002) as part of the indirect affective strategies.
They focus on regulating emotions, attitudes, and motivation and include lowering your anxiety by using relaxation techniques, encouraging yourself, and taking your emotional temperature.
She also pointed out that discussing their feelings with someone else was very important for language learners to manage their emotions (Ehrman, Leaver, & Oxford, 2003, p. 317). Please remember that as we’ll get back to it a wee bit later.

Another paper is of von Wörde, and she gives quite an explicit list of various techniques we could use to help our learners.
She, same as Horwitz et al., said that having a relaxed classroom environment was “paramount in reducing anxiety” (p.7).
By that, she meant that teachers should try to create a low stress, friendly and supportive learning environment.
As we saw earlier, anxiety and stress go hand in hand, and therefore, by reducing one factor, we can suppose that the other one is decreased as well.
Moreover, von Wörde insisted that teachers should be “sensitive to students’ fears and insecurities and help them to confront those fears” (p.12).


Remember what Oxford said about having a chance to discuss your feelings with someone else?
I believe this is the key.

You need to give your students a chance to talk about their feelings, or even better, to write about them since Japanese learners tend to get wary when they have to express their opinions out loud.
And – attention, folks – maybe they should be given a chance do it not in English, but their first language.

Now, you might say that this goes against the CLT ‘English only’ policy. However, don’t our students deserve a choice? A choice to talk about their feelings – if they want to. A choice to do it in a language they feel more comfortable using – if they want so.

That’s what I did last year. This project started just as an idea to get to know my students better, but it turned out to be something much bigger than I thought it would be. The response I got was unexpected. These are just some of the things my students said:


Help students express their feelings – both positive and negative.
What did they like about your lesson? What did they find difficult or stressful? How do they feel when they have to speak English?
You’ll never know answers to these questions without asking. And knowing the answers might change the way you approach teaching your students 100%.

Listen – or read – to what they say.
Don’t push those who don’t want to share and recognize those who do. Reply to their feelings by providing advice, support, and encouragement. Show them that their feelings matter to you and that you’re always ready to help them.

We are all humans, which means we all have feelings. Feelings govern our lives and are present in every second of our existence. Language learning and emotions are inseparable. Ask your students how they feel – and they’ll surprise you.

And now, raise your hand if you ARE going to ask your students how they feel about communicating in a foreign language.

1. Ehrman, M. E., Leaver, B. L., & Oxford, R. L. (2003). A brief overview of individual differences in second language learning. Systems, 31(3), 313-330.
2. Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B., & Cope, J. (1986). Foreign language classroom anxiety. The Modern language journal, 70(2), 125-132.
3. King, J. (2014). Fear of the true self: Social anxiety and the silent behaviour of Japanese learners of English. In K. Csizér & M. Magid (Eds.), The impact of self-concept on language
learning (pp. 232-247). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.
4. McIntyre, P. D., & Gardner, R. C. (1994). The subtle effects of language anxiety on cognitive processing in the second language. Language Learning, 44(2), 283-305.
5. Oxford, R. L. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.
6. Oxford, R. L. (2002). Language learning strategies in a nutshell: Update and ESL suggestions. In J. C. Richards & W. A. Renandya (Eds.), Methodology in language teaching: An anthology of current practice (pp. 121-132). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
7. Von Wörde, R. (2003). Students’ Perspectives on Foreign Language Anxiety. Inquiry8(1), n1.

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