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Fear Less: Four Easy Ways to Lower Your Foreign Language Anxiety

My speaking exam was starting in five minutes, and I was about to faint. I wasn’t the only one: my partner, whom I’d never met before, was just as stressed. We were both sitting there, winding ourselves up, and then she said something strange:

“We should have had a vodka or two before that, you know.”

Several years later, I know how right she was.


“I’m not stressed, it’s my affective filter” – how anxiety messes up your learning

Sometimes it’s easy to take anxiety for granted, and to assume that it’s not helping or damaging to our actions in any way. Not so with language learning. It’s hard to measure or prove anything in linguistics, but this one thing has been researched pretty well.

When you’re bored, anxious, or filled with self-doubt, your language acquisition suffers. You learn slower, and tend to use the language more reluctantly. This is not just a hypothesis any more: serious research has been done to prove this in practice (such as here – PDF).

This phenomenon is known as “affective filter“: the more stressed, bored, or uncertain you are, the higher the filter – and this means that less useful stuff gets through (and back outside!).

The good news? It’s possible to adjust the filter. You can make yourself more comfortable, confident and interested. And sure enough, this means that you’ll learn a language better and use it more effectively.

Here’s how.


1. Banish Boredom

If this is so simple, then why do so many people waste their evenings and weekends in boring classes that last forever? Why do you put up with endless grammar explanations, page upon page of outdated textbook stuff – and pay someone for it?

Boredom kills your language proficiency. It numbs your memory, poisons your motivation and harms your confidence in using a language. This, in turn, makes you a lousy language learner. And soon, this becomes a vicious circle: the stuff is boring – you learn less – you fall behind – you become anxious – you fall behind even more…

If you can’t keep up interest in your language, ask yourself: who is not doing the right thing here? If it’s the school’s fault, take action. Speak to your teacher. Change the school if need be. And if it’s not the school’s fault, well – maybe this is not the language for you, and the magic is gone?


2. Write and read more

I know lots of people who have panic attacks before a speaking test. But I haven’t met anyone who would freak out at the sight of a book.

Listening and speaking are instant, and give you little time to react. That’s what gives most students the fear: there’s just not enough time!

The truth is rather painful: it’s always going to be that way. Public speaking, asking for directions, even telephone calls – they’re stressful regardless of your language proficiency. And they’re always going to make you anxious.

So it you can’t do anything about it, just accept it – and start working on the things that give you more time and less goosebumps. Reading and writing in a foreign language is slow, but rewarding work. It builds up your vocabulary and improves your confidence. It allows you to take things slowly and to do stuff your way. In time, these skills will support your listening and speaking.

Sure, it’s unwise to shy away from conversations and listenings completely, just because “they’re stressful.” But it’s equally silly to neglect the other two skills. So grab a book, write an email, and enjoy them!


3. Practice for success

This one comes from fitness coaches, who will frequently stress the importance of “training for success.” It’s simple: if you set out to do 100 push-ups and only do 25, you will remember it in many ways. You’ll be gutted to have failed, your body will ache and take some time to recuperate – and the thrill of accomplishment will be gone.

Now imagine that you’re aiming for 25 push-ups and succeeding. You’ve done just as many as in the previous example – but this time you’ve succeeded, you’re feeling really happy about it, and your body treats it like a small victory! Of course, it’s easier to come back to training in the second scenario – although in both cases, you’ve done 25 push-ups.

Let’s get back to languages: for most learners and levels, a “can-do” framework is available. This shows you what you should be able to do in a foreign language at your level. Most of the time, these are reasonable goals.

So whenever you learn, take a test or use your language, remember – it would be madness to expect perfection! Refer to your frameworks frequently, and try to achieve the things within your reach. This will lead to a series of little successes – and give you the boost to carry on learning.


4. When all else fails: what’s your strategy?

You don’t want all your communication to look like this:

But sometimes it will. All languages are imperfect, and the learner’s language – even more so. Fortunately, in all languages you can do things to repair the communication when things go wrong. The list of these “communication strategies” is long – you can paraphrase, invent new words, mime, ask questions etc.

It’s OK to do so. In fact, you’re probably doing this in your own language from time to time – when a word escapes you, or when someone just doesn’t get what you’re saying. So when it comes to these strategies, you’re a natural!

Practice these and you’ll feel more confident in speaking foreign languages. It will give you a “Plan B” – something to fall back on when your attempts fail. And knowing that there’s always another way to communicate will in turn lower your anxiety.


I didn’t mention alcohol here – but I’m waiting for your stories 🙂 What are your tips for lowering language learning anxiety?

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5 Responsesso far.

  1. marta says:

    hey, another great post! my director of studies is into linguistics and so you get hours upon hours of bloody boring grammar. i had enough and told my teacher that this programme isn’t working, i refused to study more grammar without actually trying to use it. now we do conversations only, i work out grammar at home. and about small victories – ordering pizza over the phone helps;) also, pretending that no no hablo ingles is a cool trick that works wonders with willing-to-practice-english natives. i’m sure i’ll go to hell for that;) and running – best for anxiety.

  2. marta says:

    i swear to my linguistic god i will learn to remember about practice/to practise one day.

  3. Wiktor K. says:

    I’m with you on the pizza-ordering (here in Wales, hardcore = calling a cab), and thanks for mentioning running 🙂

  4. Dangph says:

    I’ve noticed this phenomenon when I’m watching TV. If I’m watching something and I’m not understanding much, then I get anxious, which make me understand even less.

    How to jump out of that cycle? I have an idea that I’ve been trying. It’s just an idea, but I think it may work. What you do is that if start getting anxious, you just start listening to the sounds of the language without worrying about trying to pick up the meaning.

    The idea is that you redirect your focus back to what you are supposed to be listening to, and at the same time you reduce your anxiety because listening to sounds is easy.

  5. Wiktor K. says:

    Good one! With TV, you get an added bonus of being able to watch for visual clues (body language, setting, facial expressions) – which can put you at ease even faster.