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Language psychology

What is language anxiety?

Photo by Andrey Metelev on Unsplash
Photo by Andrey Metelev on Unsplash

Oh, the times! Oh, the fears! In the modern world, anxiety has become one of our biggest mental problems. It often needs a moment of confession. Language, according to the 19th-century Russian poet Pyotr Vyazemsky, is a form of people's confession. So, it is time, then, to confess our language anxiety.

Language anxiety encompasses all sorts of fears and anxieties we associate with learning and using a foreign language. Traditionally, what causes the most confusion is the need to either speak it or understand what others are saying. Psychologists classify language anxiety as situational, i.e. a person may be susceptible to it in certain conditions. Even if in some other stressful situations, they can maintain self-control. In 1986, Elaine Horwitz, a professor of Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin, and her co-authors published an article describing the phenomenon of language anxiety in The Modern Language Journal. The researchers hypothesized that language anxiety originates from more specific linguistic fears.

  • First, we may fear not understanding what our interlocutor has said or equally that they will not understand us.
  • Second, we may worry that the person we are talking to or others will judge us for mistakes or imperfections in our speech.
  • Third, it can be a more "applied" fear, for example, before or during an exam.

Later in the 1990s and 2000s, their counterparts from other countries offered some new options to be a "fourth" fear, such as the fear of going to class.

What is the mechanism of language anxiety? Similar to psychologists' more general view of anxiety, two details play the key role — (a) whether we perceive the language situation as a threat and (b) how much we evaluate our ability to cope with that threat. Accordingly, if we are unsure of our vocabulary, grammar, or pronunciation skills, a sudden need to demonstrate them is unlikely to awaken our dashing enthusiasm.

Deeper into psychology, some researchers suggest that language anxiety is an in-depth experience related to an individual's self-identification with society. If we cannot fully communicate in a language, won't it raise questions about our cognitive development and ability to speak coherently and meaningfully in general? A frightening assumption that yet has its humble share of truth. ➡️ The second part