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Overcoming anxiety in language learning.

empty_classroomWe’ve all been there. We tell ourselves that we’re going to learn a language. We get pumped up, we gather materials, maybe we’ve even learned a bit on our own or signed up for a class. It would seem that we have everything we need to complete our language-learning mission — that is until we have to actually speak to someone in another language.

This anxiety that often accompanies language learning is something that many novice (and even experienced) language learners go through. At the Polyglot Conference in NYC, Dr. Taghreed Al-Saraj spoke about her research into language learning anxiety and how to overcome it. Dr. Al-Saraj mentioned that it’s a given that learning languages formally can provoke anxiety. The title of her talk, “The Anxious Language Learner: A Saudi Woman’s Story” was also the title of her book, so she has conducted plenty of research on the subject and she even has personal experience.

During her talk, she explained how various cultures think and react in different ways and classroom settings can affect their level of anxiety. In Middle Eastern cultures, for example, the idea of saving face and bringing honor to one’s family is important. Dr. Al-Saraj herself was born into the Middle Eastern mentality, so she felt the internal conflict when she moved to America as a young child. For example, when she first started attending school in the US, there were no ESL classes, so she learned in the classes alongside other American children. She did not know English, but would simply listen and observe how the other students acted in order for her to better immerse herself in the cultural setting of the American classroom. In addition, she would watch American TV shows often, which helped introduce her to learn the culture as well as the language.

One day in class, she was listening to what was being said when the teacher began repeating a word: “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.” She was so intrigued by the intonation and musicality of the word that she began to repeat it to herself in her mind over and over again. However, when laughter erupted from the classroom, she looked up and realized that she had not been saying it to herself but had been saying it out loud. She laughed along with everyone else, but in her heart, she felt ashamed at her outburst, which motivated her to amp up her English learning efforts.

Academic endeavors.

In her academic endeavors, Dr. Al-Saraj started researching language learning anxiety and she had been planning on publishing her findings in a journal. She had heard so much from her students about their language anxiety that she wanted to try learning another language to experience what her students were feeling. So, she decided to learn Turkish because she did not know of any speakers in her area — she would be “forced” to learn it on her own and/or in a classroom setting.

Her approach to learning Turkish consisted of watching soap operas and practicing vocab and phrases. However, when she would attend the class lectures, she realized that she had only learned words and had difficulty creating sentences.

Based on Dr. Al-Saraj’s experience, we’d like to provide a few tips that can help you lessen the anxiety of language learning in the classroom and help you to conquer your fear of speaking:

Label your emotions.

When you know what you are feeling, you can better address it and in turn, help your students to address their concerns. She told us about her experience learning Turkish as a grad student. She thought that the language would be fairly similar to Arabic, her native tongue. However, she found herself struggling on the test. She would remember all of the vocab words she needed to know, but when it came to putting together sentences, she was at a loss. The first step toward overcoming your fears is to give them a name. From now on, you’ll know what to expect and start taking steps towards lessening those fears. The minute you recognize the fear, you feel relief. They actually do this in hostage negotiation, in order to calm down the hostages. If you don’t calm down, may want to give up and then you would believe that you’re not a good language learner.

Plan your steps, methods, and goals.

Now that you’ve labeled your emotions, you can take steps towards overcoming them. Dr. Al-Saraj suggested taking baby steps by first setting yourself goals for what you want to accomplish in the language

Once you’ve set your goals, you can start planning your steps. First, think of one small thing you can do each day that would bring you closer to your goal. For example, this could be “learn five vocab words,” “hold a 10-minute conversation with yourself,” or anything else that you think you can realistically accomplish each week. Then, start acting on them. You’ll need to develop methods such as the resources you’ll use, where you study, etc. However, you don’t have to get that specific if you don’t want to. Of course, these tips can apply to a variety of learning topics. If you have a fear of public speaking, you can start setting goals and taking steps towards overcoming the anxiety related to speaking as well.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

As Dr. Al-Saraj has experience teaching students, she knows how much anxiety can affect students in a classroom environment. In order to lessen the classroom anxiety, you can do things such as tell the class that you are going to laugh, so that a student will not take laughter as an offensive reaction to his/her mistake. Another tip you could implement is to see how you can help others in their language-learning efforts.

Al-Saraj also recommends that you embrace the fact that you will most likely look silly or feel silly when you start having conversations with others. You should also try to apply any of the words and phrases you are learning, whenever you can, no matter how silly you feel. The goal is to communicate with others, not to give an award-winning speech. Above all, keep going and don’t get discouraged!


Time is a big factor in anxiety. Although hard to find, it lurks in the shadows, springing out at the most inopportune moments only to realize that you’ve slept in too late, you won’t be able to accomplish what you set out to do and that you’ve spent three hours on Facebook. As we mentioned about setting goals and taking steps, you can segment your time so that you have a dedicated schedule that you can follow to achieve your language-learning (or other) goals.

In a long-term aspect, it really depends on why you want to learn the language. If you have that goal, you can break it down and take small actionable steps toward completing it. Breaking down that goal with a time limit is extremely important. Something that Dr. Al-Saraj suggests is to keep your goals on your desks so that when you look up, you are always thinking about them and will not give up.
If you are still a bit nervous and uncertain about how to exactly begin learning a language, simply follow Dr. Al-Saraj’s five-step plan: SPEAK.

Select a language that interests you.
Prepare yourself on how the language works and how the people interact with each other by watching them on TV and in movies.
Expect and embrace that you may feel or look silly along the way — it’s OK!
Apply the words whenever you can and engage with those who speak the language.
Keep going and don’t get discouraged!

Are you feeling a little less fearful about learning (and speaking) your target language? Why not start setting some goals this week? Let us know your language goals in the comments!

What better way to reduce your language-learning anxiety than to learn with a fun, delicious language software? Click below to see if Mango Languages (and access to 70+ languages) is available for free through your library.


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Check out Dr. Al-Saraj’s talk from this year’s Polyglot Conference for more insights on language learning and overcoming anxiety.

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Melanie Moore
Written by Melanie Moore

Melanie speaks German, Lithuanian, and Japanese and has dabbled in several others. She is an aspiring polyglot and enjoys sharing her passions for language learning and music with anyone she meets.

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