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

Advertisements

New Endings

It has been a while since I have posted anything on this blog. Blogging involves a great deal of self-discipline, which I lack. Those bits of self-discipline I do have are all invested in lesson planning. Choices, you know.

Anyway, my third semester of teaching English discussion finished several days ago. Last lessons are always hard to plan: I find it tricky to stuff something meaningful, something memorable and something exciting into one lesson altogether.

I believe that the end of something is always a good chance for a reflection. That is why this time, I decided to begin the last lesson with a reflection.
At the end of almost every lesson, my students would write answers to two questions: the first question would ask them about what they liked or found interesting, and the second question would make them focus on something they thought was difficult. I wrote about this activity a while ago.
I thought that students would benefit from getting some tangible result from this activity. Even though I would write them a reply and hand it out at the beginning of the next lesson, I was not sure how many of them would actually read it 😀 Since most of my students admit that speaking English is stressful, I wanted them to see that these 3 months were enough to make some progress. Therefore, I prepared a simple reflective task.
First, I looked through their answers to the second question and made a list of top-10 difficulties/issues/problems they faced at the beginning of the course (first 5 lessons). Students were asked to have a look at these problems and circle yes or no when answering two questions:
1. Did you have this problem in the beginning?
2. Do you still feel like you have this problem?
After that, students would discuss their answers with each other and share their impressions. They would also answer some other questions, e.g., “Do you feel you made some progress?”, “Are English Discussion classes similar to your high school English classes?”, etc.

It was heartwarming to see how many yes became no! I heard some of my students saying that in the beginning, they were nervous and had some kind of negative attitude towards the whole idea of having discussions in English (something we can call demotivation, according to Kikuchi). However, after some time, they started feeling like it was getting easier and realised they actually could have long discussions in English. The thing is that in Japan, in most high schools, the grammar-translation approach is still used so when students get into universities that use CLT, they feel anxious and stressed out because they have to communicate in English – something they were not taught to do.
There is nothing more empowering than watching these students develop their English communication ability, watching how they rely on L1 less and less and learn to use communicative strategies effectively.

Another reflective activity I did in this lesson was a Semester Reflection. Students would draw a mind map for the following topic: My first semester at university. They would put whatever they think was important enough to be on paper. They would share their mind maps with each other and ask some questions if needed. They would also discuss some questions, e.g., “If you could go back in April 2018 and start your semester again, would you change anything?” and “What is your goal for next semester?”.

So far, I am happy with how the weekly dialogical feedback activity ended up being wrapped into an end-of-semester reflection. I would say the piloting was successful. Getting ready to try out the refined version next semester and write a paper on it! And for now, holidays.
There is one exciting thing I am planning for August (hint: it has something to do with Dogme), so stay tuned!

Dialogical Feedback: The Beginnings

It’s been 2.5 weeks since the new semester has begun, and I must say all my students are really nice and hard-working. Some of them are a bit less hard-working than others, of course, but still, they all try to do the tasks as well as they can and act on my feedback. They are very talkative, are able to keep discussions going for a long time and hardly ever rely on L1. I sometimes feel like there’s not much for me to teach (apart from some useful phrases and expressions)! Though I should not complain 🙂

For this semester, I decided on some things I want to try. First of them was an entirely new Introductory Lesson that would tune my students into reflecting on the features of effective communication and some useful communication skills. I spent rather long time planning this lesson, and it turned out to be a really good one. Here’s what I did:

I. What Is Communication?
This step was different for lower and higher levels.
Lower levels had to do two brainstorming tasks which were somewhat related to each other: first, they had to brainstorm the word ‘communication’, and then they had to brainstorm what they could do to have effective communication.
Higher levels would start with discussing four quotes about communication (if they agreed/disagreed with them and why) and then brainstorm the same question as lower levels, i.e., the question about the features of effective communication.
Students of both levels came up with similar lists, which included eye contact, careful listening, use of body language, and positive attitude (smiling). Only some of them mentioned mutual understanding, though, mostly higher level students.
This stage was kind of a guided discovery task and, in my opinion, showed good results.

II. Communication Skills
This level was built on the features of effective communication my students came up with in stage I.
Careful listening (or just listening to others’ ideas) became Active Listening (use of reactions and gestures), the first skill we practised.
Then I talked about how important for effective and successful communication it is to understand each other and introduced Checking Understanding skill (combined with Paraphrasing and Asking for Explanation). We practised it with the help of a very controlled activity called ‘This is blah-blah-blah’.
Finally, I reminded my students that it is always okay to ask others to repeat something if they feel a need for it.

III. Discussion
The last stage was a long 16-minute discussion about The Ideal Classmate. Students had a chance to reflect on the things that can make their English lessons better and happier for everyone, for example, being active, helping each other, knowing everyone’s name, not giving up, etc. They were welcomed to come up with their own ideas, but the initial list was rather comprehensive, so only a couple of students added something extra (unfortunately, I cannot remember what it was).

IV. Feedback
The last but not the least!
I tried to make discussion feedback both student-centred and level appropriate. Lower levels did self-reflective feedback followed by peer-feedback (they could use their answers in the ‘Check Yourself’ part to answer some of the peer-feedback questions). Higher levels did less scaffolded group feedback that invited them to reflect critically on their discussion both as a group and as individuals.
And here it comes, the so-called Dialogical feedback, my spring innovation. I asked students to write answers to two questions (anonymously, of course):
1. What did you like about today’s lesson? Why?
2. What did you not like? Why? (e.g., something about Lina’s teaching or something about your performance)

A Little Bit about the Results

Students could choose the language they wanted to use for writing their answers.
Lower levels went for Japanese while higher levels prefered English. Some lower level students chose English as well (those who were more active during the lesson and seemed more self-confident than their classmates).
Among higher levels, those students who seemed shy and less confident chose Japanese. Nothing unexpected.

Almost all students wrote about their performance or their worries/concerns/etc. I am not sure if the reason for this was the unwillingness to criticise the teacher or the tendency of Japanese people to focus on their weaknesses and faults. Nevertheless, both reasons are socio-psychological and have deep roots in Japanese people’s mentality and culture.
I mentioned, of course, that if they did not like something about activities or my teaching they could feel free to tell me about it so that I could change it, but as you already know, I hardly got any comments on it. To be precise, I only got two comments:
– One student said I spoke too fast and she did not understand some bits;
– One student said he wanted more copies of the poster because it was difficult for him to share it with other three people.

As for comments on their performance, most students said they had difficulties with expressing their ideas due to the lack of relevant vocabulary. Some other concerns included:
– unbalanced participation;
– lack of ideas;
– communication problems caused by insufficient knowledge of relevant communication strategies (i.e., struggled to keep the discussion going and did not know what to do when there was silence);
– discussing in a 3-people group was difficult;
– low level of motivation;
– low English proficiency and insufficient knowledge of English grammar.
It is possible to conclude that most of the students experience some kind of anxiety caused by various factors, mostly intrapersonal.

This week, I am replying to my students with some advice on how they can overcome this anxiety and provide them with some learning strategies.
I do not push them though since I always recognise the fact that not all of my students have to love English as much as I do. Most of them are being torn apart circle activities, part-time jobs, studying, and necessity to have some free time, and it’s a big question which of the things above are their priority. Actually, I know for sure that for many of first-year students circle activities and free time are more important than studying; we had a discussion about it.
As I said, I do not push my students to follow my advice. However, some of them got the message between the line, and when they had to answer the Dialogical feedback questions, many of them wrote not only about their difficulties, but also what they think they need to do to handle it. Cool!

I am not sure yet which principles this Dialogical feedback activity focuses on. Learning strategies? Maybe, but I am not exploring this aspect deeply enough, and I am not intended to do so. Motivation? Again, maybe some of them will feel more motivated by understanding that their problems do matter.
I will conduct a survey at the end of the course to get some feedback from students on this activity.
Therefore, …

… Stay tuned for updates!

Goal-setting

Oh well, it’s been a long time since my last post.

I got through weeks 2 and 3; we’re starting week 4 tomorrow.

So far, I’ve been sticking to the same feedback activity every lesson. Last semester, I’ve tried different kinds of feedback and ended up with using the combination of self-reflective and peer feedback followed by setting a goal for the next discussion this semester.

All students set realistic and appropriate goals based on their performance – it’s good! However, not all of them (I’d say few of them) manage to achieve their goals. Probably I have to promote it more and push them harder…

Anyway, I decided to focus on goal-setting for my semester project (which is a teaching journal this time). Rather than focusing on achieving individual goals, I decided to promote so-called class goals (to create some sense of unity, I guess?). At the end of every lesson, we’ll choose a class goal for the next lesson. At the beginning of the next lesson, I’ll put this goal on the board and announce it. At the end of the lesson, I’ll ask students if they think they achieved it or not. If yes, then ‘yay!’ and a new goal. If not, then ‘ouch…’ and the goal remains the same.

Focusing on individual goals would be interesting as well but in this case, I’d like to do some questionnaires as well (progress, etc.) – make it deeper, in other words. So for now, I decided to start with a smaller project. I’ll see how it goes.