Overcoming language anxiety: helping students build confidence and conquer fear

Addressing Language Anxiety: helping students overcome fear and building confidence

Addressing Language Anxiety: helping students overcome fear and building confidence

28.06.2024

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  • Tips & Strategies

Any qualified and conscientious teacher aims not just to teach students a language, but to guide them from point A to point B, making them confident non-native speakers who can express themselves without difficulty. 

However, sometimes “something” can stand in the way of successful language learning, which not only slows down the language learning process but also sometimes leads to the fact that students give up the idea of ​​learning a foreign language. And this “something” is foreign language anxiety.

What is foreign language anxiety?

Whenever it comes to using a foreign language, a person often begins to feel nervous, and uneasy. A person struggles to shrug off an approaching wave of fear, caused by the thought that now they will have to speak in a language that is not their mother tongue, and they worry about making mistakes or saying something inappropriate. Additionally, their voice may begin to tremble, and their palms may sweat. 

All these feelings of nervousness and stress when learning or using a foreign language have its name — Foreign Language Anxiety (FLA). 

It seems that there is nothing wrong with a little apprehension when you find yourself in a challenging situation. The problem is that FLA can make you reluctant to study or practice, and you might avoid conversations.

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Causes of anxiety in language learning

The feeling of anxiety is quite natural, but not in the case when it interferes with learning a second language or communicating with foreigners. Let's take a look at some common reasons that make you feel nervous when using a foreign language.

1. Classroom environment

The dynamics of a language classroom, including teacher behavior, peer interactions, and the overall atmosphere, can influence anxiety levels. 

It is obvious that students who study a foreign language in competitive or unsupportive environments experience even more anxiety and stress.

For instance, a student who needs a little more time to learn the material may feel uncomfortable and tense if their groupmates mock them and refuse to work in pairs. Furthermore, if the teacher interrupts every time hearing a mistake and corrects it publicly, it can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and leave a negative impression on the student's desire to learn the language, regardless of whether they switch teachers or groups.

2. Fear of negative evaluation

Have you ever heard stories about students being afraid to enroll in English classes or taking individual lessons prior to enrolling in a group course because they were afraid of being judged by peers or teachers? How often have you heard "I'm sorry" every time your student made a mistake?

Students feel most vulnerable when it comes to speaking, especially if they have to communicate with native speakers.

Learners may worry about making mistakes, and worry about being treated with scorn and ridicule by others due to their inability to communicate correctly, their accent, or incorrect use of tenses. Some students feel worried because they are afraid to say something embarrassing, thus sounding foolish or not being understood correctly. It is also worth saying that past negative experiences of failure or embarrassment when using the language can create a lasting fear of similar situations.

3. High self-expectations and personal traits

Perfectionism and unrealistic self-expectations can lead to frustration and anxiety. There are learners who expect to speak flawlessly in a short period of language learning, being intolerant of making mistakes and may become anxious when they inevitably make them. Limited proficiency or unfamiliarity with the language can lead to self-doubt. 

This lack of confidence can make individuals more anxious about their ability to communicate effectively. 

Students become even less self-confident when they begin to compare themselves with more fluent peers, believing that something is wrong with them, because they studied in the same group, at the same pace, and for some reason, the groupmate communicates freely, without mistakes and uses an extensive vocabulary. It is also worth taking into account individual personality traits, such as introversion, low self-esteem, or general anxiety tendencies, which can make some people more prone to language anxiety.

4. Not being able to express thoughts freely

Anyone who has learned a new language has likely found themselves in a situation where they wanted to say so much, but the necessary words seemed to dissolve in their mind. 

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Not being able to express themselves can cause a student to feel frustrated and hinder their ability to communicate effectively. 

The more often such situations arise, where the student struggles to find even a single word to express their thought, the more anxiety can grow, accompanied by questions like "What is wrong with me?" or “Why does it take me so long to learn this language, and I’m still unable to string a sentence together?"

5. Fear of tests

Testing is an integral part of the learning process, but every time when it’s high time to test students’  knowledge, they feel anxious, as if the test result is some kind of fateful decision that could drastically change their lives in case of failure.

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Overcoming language anxiety

Teachers play an essential role in helping students overcome language anxiety through various strategies aimed at creating a supportive and encouraging learning environment. 

Here are some effective approaches:

1. Establish rapport and create a positive atmosphere

Building rapport is an essential skill that can greatly benefit a teacher's future collaboration with students. It begins on the first day with the first few interactions and lasts the rest of your time with them. 

Here are some tips on how you can improve your relationships with the students:

  • Learn students’ names and show interest in their interests, ambitions, and concerns. Show your students that you care.
  • Show your sense of humor.
  • Be respectful and show empathy.
  • Offer your support, especially for those students who need it. These could be one-to-one meetings to address specific challenges, practice sessions, or consultations. By showing your availability before, after, or outside of class, you not only build good but show your support.
  • Share your personal insights and experiences with the class
  • Motivate them to come to class more often, and pay more attention in class.

It’s also important to foster a classroom environment that is welcoming, supportive, and non-judgmental, encouraging collaboration and mutual respect among students. Students are likely to find it easier to express themselves in a foreign language if they are surrounded by supportive people. 

When they feel comfortable, it doesn’t matter if their skills are perfect or if they make mistakes, as they will not be criticized or ridiculed. Until the relationships are good within a class, the learning is likely to be of a lower quality, so it's worth spending time on this.

One effective strategy is to divide your students into small groups during speaking tasks. 

This may encourage peer support and create opportunities for peer mentoring, where students can help each other and share their experiences for coping with anxiety.

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2. Normalize mistakes and provide appropriate feedback

Emphasize to your students that making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process and the sooner they accept the fact that mistakes are an inevitable part of this process and that they cannot become fluent without making them, the faster they will reduce their anxiety when realizing they have said something the wrong way. Don’t forget to mention that even natives make mistakes too. 

Moreover, encourage your students by highlighting that by speaking a foreign language, they take a risk and show that they are talented enough to communicate outside their native tongue. 

Explain that most native speakers appreciate the effort non-native speakers make and focus on the message rather than on any errors, as they respect the genuine interest in their culture shown by non-natives.

Unfortunately, as noted earlier, some students have had negative experiences of being publicly corrected for each and every mistake. The danger of correcting students in the middle of a speaking task is that you interrupt their flow and take the focus off their message. 

Students often find it hard to continue after a correction, whilst others in the class may become more reluctant to speak for fear of similar interruptions. 

As a teacher, you understand that ignoring mistakes isn’t an option. So, what action can you take? If the main aim is to get your students to speak, then one way to achieve that would be for you to reduce your own contributions and discreetly monitor your students’ communication in pairs. Discreet monitoring is when you maintain a presence in the room, without disturbing your students. That means you do not offer help, interfere, or correct them. 

A useful thing for you to do during students' speaking activity is unobtrusively taking notes of interesting student utterances (correct and incorrect) for possible use later. 

After the speaking activity, share the noted utterances with your students and offer constructive feedback, and praise students for their efforts and progress. Highlight their strengths and improvements rather than focusing solely on mistakes. Furthermore, when sharing incorrect utterances, avoid drawing attention to who said them.

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3. Help students set realistic goals

If you notice that your student is overly self-critical and has high expectations, help him set achievable goals that can build their confidence over time. Teach your learners to celebrate small victories to boost their motivation. 

Share with your students the secret that being an effective communicator is more important than having perfect grammar.

Help them realize that people can understand them, even if they make mistakes. Encourage them to choose clarity and ease of understanding as the main goal.

4. Full sentences and appropriate speaking activities

Vocabulary is one of the most basic elements of a language, as without the necessary words there’s not much one can do or say. However, the misconception that learning only vocabulary will make anyone speak is common. Some learners hope that learning a list of words by heart will help them somehow build sentences by combining them during conversations. As a qualified teacher, you should be aware that it usually does not work.

 What your students need to do is practice not only words in isolation but also full sentences, optimally those that use the words in context. 

No matter what you teach your group in the lesson (Vocabulary, Grammar, Functions, Reading, Listening) there should always be a productive follow-up (to provide oral fluency practice on the topic) or semi-controlled and freer practice aimed at developing learners’ fluency in using the target language and to practice real communication.

Very often students find that they can’t use a language to communicate when they want even though they may know grammar rules and lists of vocabulary items. 

If you see that your students struggle to use their passive knowledge actively, help them activate this knowledge by creating activities in which learners feel less worried about speaking, less under pressure, and less nervous about trying things out. 

Rather than giving the students a general topic to discuss, try setting a specific related problem. This is often more challenging, more interesting, and more realistic.

5. Adapt assessment methods

Make it clear to your students that testing is a progress check that helps students understand their weaknesses and provides the teacher with insights into which topics still require attention. 

Never test your students’ knowledge without giving them prior notice, and always review the material to help students brush up on what they have learned.

In addition, use a variety of assessment methods that do not solely rely on oral performance. Written assignments, projects, and alternative assessments can help reduce performance pressure. 

By implementing these strategies, you can help reduce language anxiety and create a more effective and enjoyable language-learning experience for your students.

Have you ever helped your students overcome language anxiety?

Article authors & editors
  • Myroslava Khmelenko

    Myroslava Khmelenko

    Author

    CELTA certified teacher of General English

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