Language Anxiety- What is it and how can we reduce it?

I first became familiar with the concept of “foreign language anxiety” as I completed research for my dissertation. My dissertation was not based on this, but it was something that certainly intrigued me. I was an unlikely candidate for French study at university level. Whilst I achieved very good in the subject at school, I tried to avoid speaking in class as much as possible. This was quite easy as we had a large number of students in our Leaving Certificate class so time was quite limited for oral work in the classroom.

In my first year at university I found myself surrounded by French learners who had spent a significant time in France. Some boasted about having holiday homes. Unsurprisingly, I was in awe of their French accents. This had a negative effect on my confidence in speaking the language. Even in small class groups I would try to avoid speaking the language as much as possible, for fear of humiliation in front of my fellow students. Instead, the extent of my oral work was speaking to myself in the comfort of my bedroom and hoping that my pronunciation was okay. However, I went on to spend nearly two years in France- which obviously worked wonders for my language when I achieved a first class honours in it at university. As a teacher today I’m very aware of the presence of language anxiety in the classroom even though I am as encouraging as possible.

Foreign language anxiety is described by Gardner (1985) as “specific to the language acquisition context related to foreign language achievement” (p. 34). In other words, foreign language anxiety may occur with learners who typically do not experience anxieties on other levels. Instead, MacIntyre (1999) argues that it is a “unique form of anxiety” (p.28). Therefore, the concept of foreign language anxiety is something that may occur even with the most confident of learners. This is common- I find that even the highest achieving students are reluctant to engage with any oral task in the classroom. Although language anxiety is not confined to oral tasks, oral work is the area where learners reported the most significant amount of anxiety.

What causes this issue? It is generally accepted that the presence of foreign language anxiety is significantly lower with younger learners. According to studies, the most common cause of language anxiety is learner induced anxiety. This is directly related to their classroom experience and their fear of negative evaluation after completing a task. Students feared pronouncing a word wrong, or using a word in the wrong context (Piechurska-Kuciel, 2008). The students were frustrated with not being able to speak correctly, without any errors and with a “terrible” accent, (Price, 1991: 105). The anxiety may be induced further when speaking the language in front of peers- students feared their efforts seeming “foolish” or “dumb” in front of their fellow students. (Young, 1991; Gregersen, 2003).  This sense of humiliation can be amplified when a teacher adapts the persona of “drill sergeant” in correcting errors. Learner anxiety is also common with language testing and around exam times.

As well as this, the exposure to authentic texts may, ironically, cause language anxiety. Kitano (2001) states that students are often exposed to the expert language of native speakers from tapes, videos, and instructors. In turn, many students then believe that their level of the language is significantly lower than that of the fluent speaker. This leads to a loss of confidence in their own abilities.

Some students may also be over ambitious in their attempts to acquire a language, believing that two years may be sufficient to become fluent in a language (Horwitz, 1988). An unrealistic approach to the time required in their successful acquisition of a language may well lead to frustration and, in time, anxiety. This was something that I certainly experienced in university – I genuinely was concerned when I wasn’t fluent after two months in the course!

The presence of language anxiety has huge effects on the learning of the language. Firstly, feedback from the teacher is essential if the student is to progress further. Therefore, the reluctance of students to engage with tasks greatly impedes their progress. As well as this, students with language anxiety may well be reluctant to take steps to further their progress as they lose any sense of motivation.

Unsurprisingly, this loss of motivation combined with low progress may totally disengage the students from their learning of the language. Horwitz et al. (1986) states that, “Anxious students may avoid studying and in some cases skip class entirely in an effort alleviate their anxiety” (p. 127).

Furthermore, Kleinmann’s (1977) findings reveal that students with high levels of anxiety perused less difficult grammatical constructions than the less anxious students did (p. 126).    In essence, the presence of language anxiety has an extremely detrimental effect on one’s progress in learning the language.

Reducing language anxiety:

Teachers have a hugely significant role in alleviating language anxiety. Firstly, studies show that a teacher should dedicate time to ensuring that classmates are at ease with each other. This will likely make students less fearful about speaking the language in each other’s company. Ariza (2002) recommended that teachers include icebreakers and activities in the classroom in order for students to get to know each other and to incorporate non-competitive conversation circles. Encouragement is also key. If my students embark on a particularly difficult reading or aural comprehension task I will emphasise that students do not need to understand every word in the task to be able to comprehend the overall task. Similarly, I will provide transcripts to accompany aural resources where possible. If we are watching a video resource with accompanying questions I will stop the video after each question (on the second listen) to encourage understanding. I will also repeat particularly difficult sentences slowly.

It was found that, in order to alleviate language anxiety in the classroom, students preferred their educator to take an empathetic role. This can be achieved by teachers reducing any sense of vagueness in the classroom by clearly explaining tasks and ensuring that tests given are of a nature already prepared in the classroom. As well as this, teachers should refrain from constantly assessing students, as this induces anxiety (Reyes &Vallone, 2008).I try to use alternative forms of assessment like Quizlet in the classroom- students enjoy this. If students are struggling with phonics, I may give the class useful websites (for example www.phoné to practise in their own time. I’ve found that this really does help their confidence- as they can practise the sounds in the comfort of their own home! We may also watch short pronunciation videos on Youtube and repeat the sounds after the speaker.

It may also be useful to have students work on oral tasks in pairs. This allows them to express themselves in the target language without the intimidating factor of the whole class listening (Price, 1991). In my own class I would always provide sentence starters for beginners to ensure that everyone has something to discuss!

Teachers should also make an effort to select texts that will be of interest to the student. The engaged students will then be more likely to partake in discussion (Young, 1992). In my own class, I would try to use videos for aural work (usually on ) or use articles on Pogba or Griezmann where possible. I would also try to show topical videos in the target language (recently we watched the last few minutes of the Ireland vs France rugby match in France) to encourage enjoyment of it.


Please feel free to share your thoughts/ idea!




Ariza, E. N. (2002). Resurrecting “old” language learning methods to reduce anxiety for new language learners: Community language learning to the rescue. Bilingual Research Journal, 26(3), 717-728

Gardner, R. C. (1985). Social psychology and second’ Language learning: The role of attitudes and motivation. London; Edward Arnold.

Horwitz, E. K. (1988). The beliefs about language learning of beginning university foreign language students.  The Modern Language Journal, 72(3), 283-294.

Kleinmann, H. H. (1977). Avoidance behavior in adult second language acquisition. Language Learning. 27, 1, 93-107.

MacIntyre, P. D. (1999). Language anxiety: A review of the research for language teachers. In D. J. Young (Ed.), Affect in foreign language and second language learning: A practical guide to creating a low-anxiety classroom atmosphere (pp.24-45). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Reyes, S. A., & Vallone, T. L. (2008). Constructivist strategies for teaching English language learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Piechurska-Kuciel, E. (2008) Language Anxiety in Secondary Grammar School Student. Uniwersytet Opolski.

PRICE, M. (1991_)The Subjective Experiences of Foreign Language Anxiety: Interviews with Anxious Students. In E. Horwitz, & D. Young (Eds.), Language Anxiety: From Theory and Research to Classroom Implications (pp. 101- 108). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Young, D. J. (1992). Language anxiety from the foreign language specialist’s perspective: Interviews with Krashen, Omaggio Hadley, Terrell and Rardin. Foreign Language Annals, 25(2), 157-172.

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