More than it seems

Language psychology

What're the dangers of language anxiety, and how to cope with them?

Photo by Tonik on Unsplash
Photo by Tonik on Unsplash

As we found out in the previous post, language anxiety is not as much of anxiety itself but a consequence of quite specific fears. It's noteworthy that most of them are not directly related to us personally, but other people and their perceived evaluation of what we do. So it's not surprising that the first and foremost "side effect" of language anxiety is a decrease in self-esteem in general.

A decline in self-esteem often means a lack of confidence in one's capability to cope with the situation. The lack of confidence, in its turn, might cause comfortable avoidance of the stressful conditions. Thus, students suffering language anxiety tend to be less active in class or even systematically skip it. "The less engaged I am, the fewer chances others have of hearing my mistakes and making a bad impression of me," we might think. In reality, however, the result can be the opposite. People who appear withdrawn from communication (and those with poor speaking skills may look like this) might be seen as less socially attractive, less competent and even less trustworthy.

How to handle language anxiety? First, we identify what kind of fear it grows from (we've listed them here). Secondly, we understand what we can do to make that fear stop being a fear. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all script to help all anxious learners. However, there are some general recommendations. For example:

  • Take every opportunity to practise the language (especially the most critical skill) or even create it artificially. Let's say that we are afraid of talking to other people, then talking to ourselves (as an exercise, of course) is also an option, despite all its outward strangeness.
  • Keep a language journal. The practice that is popular in psychology and psychotherapy can be applicable here too. Writing by hand is known to activate areas of the cerebral cortex responsible for memory and analysis of new information. Likewise, regular note-taking may become a sort of handy habit to use the language regularly and keep it relevant to our daily life. Gradually we get used to it. And what is familiar is less intimidating.

The teacher doesn't doze off either and makes their contribution. First of all, by creating a friendly atmosphere and being as supportive as possible of their students. Mistakes don't get stigmatised — everyone in the course knows that mistakes are a part of the process. The teacher can apply a variety of correction techniques with no direct indication of the error (e.g. modelling, i.e. repeating what the learner has said but in a correct way). In some situations, it makes sense to discuss the problem of anxiety honestly in class. A joint discussion may reveal the options to help the class community deal with language fears.