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Why do we get anxious about learning a second language?

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By George Smith and Kaitlyn Tagarelli

This article is part of our "Learners as Individuals" strand of The Science Behind Language Learning series. In this strand, we are taking a look at the factors, or individual differences, that account for the different levels of language learning success among learners. Read on to learn more!

Bonjour et bienvenue! Welcome to Adventures in Language! In this article, we’re facing our fears about learning new languages… That’s right! We’re talking about how and why anxiety rears its head when we learn languages, and how it affects the learning process. We even have a free worksheet with 5 steps to help you manage language anxiety by taking control of your language learning journey. Check out the link at the end of the article.

Are you ready? Let’s get started!

Picture this: You’re in your German class, following along as your teacher and classmates talk about their weekends, when suddenly your teacher calls on you. You freeze. Your palms are sweating, your heart is racing, and you can’t manage to say anything. Sound familiar? This is one of the many effects of language learning anxiety, a very common experience among language learners, and a very important factor in language learning. How and why, you ask? Let's have a closer look.

What is language learning anxiety?

broken pencil on scratched wood

Language learning anxiety represents the fears or worries that you may have when learning or using a second language. But language anxiety isn't an inherent trait that you either have or you don’t. Anyone can feel anxious when learning a new language (and most people probably do). But this type of anxiety usually occurs only in specific situations. 

For example, you may feel anxious when you are exposed to new input in a foreign language (e.g.,  words, phrases, sounds, grammatical rules) and your goal is to try to remember them. This could happen if you’re taking a Spanish class and your teacher is introducing the words for the days of the week, or explaining how to form the past tense. It might seem simple enough, but learning new things can be overwhelming! You might feel like there are too many words to remember, or that you’ll never be able to pronounce a tricky sound. 

You also might feel worried when you have to memorize or understand something in your target language, like when you’re studying for a test or trying to have a conversation. Personally, I always feel nervous when I’m in a foreign country and have to listen out for announcements on the train. Making out the conductor’s voice over a loudspeaker isn’t very clear to begin with, plus the cost of missing an announcement could be missing your stop!

And if you haven’t experienced anxiety while learning or trying to understand something in your second language, you’ve almost certainly felt tension while speaking. This is the most common type of language learning anxiety, and is partially related to a fear of being judged by others, like your teacher or your peers.

Some situations might involve multiple types of anxiety. For example, if you’re having a conversation in your second language, you may be anxious about picking up new words that come up, understanding what the other person is saying, and trying to speak without making too many mistakes.

Okay, so we've talked a bit about what anxiety is. But how does it influence language learning?

How does anxiety affect language learning?

At its core, language learning anxiety is a distraction. It’s information in your head that isn’t really relevant to what you’re trying to focus on. If you’ve been following along in this series, you know that our minds can only hold and process so much information at once. Well, anxiety effectively takes up some of this space and therefore tends to interfere with learning. 

crowded train station

For instance, if you feel anxious when you hear a new word for the first time, you may be so distracted that you can’t remember what it sounds like. You may even need to have it repeated a few times before you can successfully commit it to memory. This can be a problem, since in the wild we don't always have access to a replay button. Alternatively, if you feel anxious when producing language, you might not have the spare mental capacity to retrieve that word you need, even if you've painstakingly memorized it beforehand. That’s right — anxiety can put you at a real loss for words. Researchers think that anxiety can even interfere with your ability to recognize feedback from other people on your speaking and writing. This can definitely get in the way of language learning, as feedback is known to be critical for language development. Considering this, it isn't surprising that learners who experience less anxiety are able to learn and achieve more in a second language overall

But is anxiety always a bad thing? Most of the time, anxiety is detrimental to language learning because it shifts your focus away from the task at hand towards personal concerns — like worrying about failing or being judged by others. However, research suggests that small amounts of anxiety during simple tasks (like competing during a language game) may actually boost your language performance by pushing you to put in extra effort

Anxiety and other individual differences

Anxiety is a pretty important part of understanding why people are more or less successful in language learning, but how does it match up to other factors like aptitude or motivation? Well, as it turns out, these factors influence each other, and language learning, in pretty interesting ways. 

Take language aptitude, for example, which is a natural talent for language learning. Previously in this series, we’ve talked about how learners with low levels of aptitude tend to have a harder time learning new languages. But research also tells us that low-aptitude learners tend to have higher levels of anxiety as well. This relationship can be explained fairly simply: low-aptitude learners face more obstacles to learning, which can lead to more anxiety. However, while high-aptitude learners may be less prone to anxiety, they are not immune to it. High levels of anxiety can prevent even high-aptitude learners from applying their natural talents, like a robust working memory capacity.

Anxiety has an interesting relationship with motivation, as both are emotional factors that come into play during language learning. Anxiety interferes most strongly with the effort component of motivation; that is, how much work someone is willing to put into language learning. Studies have shown that learners who are more anxious are also less willing to use their second language, perhaps because they’re afraid of making mistakes and embarrassing themselves. So even if someone has good reasons for studying a language, anxiety may make it difficult to put in the effort and get good results.

two men jumping over burning logs

Interestingly, anxiety may also be linked to factors related to a language learner’s age and how many languages they speak. Younger learners, who are less self-aware than adults, are generally less anxious about learning languages and worry less about being negatively judged. Similarly, learners who know more languages tend to be less anxious than those who know fewer languages, likely because they are more familiar with the ins and outs of language learning.

What can we do about anxiety?

So far, we've seen that some language learning situations are likely to make us anxious, and that anxiety isn’t exactly our best friend when it comes to achieving our language learning goals. So is there anything we can do about it? Researchers have asked themselves the same thing, and have come up with a few things language learners can do to reduce their anxiety. 

  1. Practice with games! Using games to learn can push learners to take risks and experiment with language in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise. 

  2. Use a language learning app! An app like Mango allows learners to practice speaking in low-pressure environments, like in the privacy of their own homes. This can help reduce anxiety and improve learning.

  3. If you’re able to, take an extended trip to a place where your target language is spoken, study abroad, or look for a local Meetup with speakers of your target language. Studies have shown that practice in language immersion settings can help learners feel less nervous when interacting with others. The more contact you have with the language you are learning, the better!

  4. Put yourself in control of your language learning journey! Research suggests that language learners who feel more in control not only have lower anxiety, but also tend to be more motivated to learn a language, and achieve greater success

And if these tips still leave you unsure about how to take the wheel on the road to language learning, check out the free worksheet at the end of this article for some advice. It can guide you through the process!

Well, there you have it! 

Let’s recap what we’ve learned today.

  1. Language learning anxiety refers to feelings of fear, tension, or worry that people may experience when they’re learning or using a second language. It can arise in many different language-learning situations.

  2. Anxiety is usually harmful to language learning because it distracts us from important language information. But small amounts of anxiety can actually help you put in extra effort and learn more!

  3. Anxiety interacts with several other individual differences in language learning, like aptitude, working memory, and motivation.

Finally, we covered some tips for managing language learning anxiety. Let us know which ones work best for you! Do you have any tips to share with the language learning community? Tell us about them in the comments!

Thanks for reading!

If you liked this article, let us know! Want more engaging language content like this? Subscribe to our YouTube channel and podcast feed, and follow us on Instagram @MangoLanguages! Or visit us at Mangolanguages.com!

Fill out the form below to download a worksheet which walks you through a concrete plan for managing language anxiety! Thanks for reading! À la prochaine !

Wondering what languages were used in today’s post? 

Bonjour et bienvenue (bo(n)joor eh beea(n)veunu) means “Hello and welcome” in French. À la prochaine (a la prochayn) is short for À la prochaine fois, which means “See you next time!” 

Interested in learning French or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to start learning! https://mangolanguages.com/app

Want to know more about the scientific research underlying this episode? Here’s some of the research we consulted and/or mentioned:

About the authors

George Smith is a Linguistics Content Writer at Mango Languages. He holds a Ph.D. in Second Language Studies from the University of Hawai‛i at Mānoa, and conducts research on second language listening, speaking, and vocabulary learning. He is a lifelong teacher and learner who enjoys gabbing about language with his family and friends.

Kaitlyn Tagarelli is a linguist and the Head of Research at Mango Languages. She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Georgetown University, specializing in how the mind and brain learn languages. Aside from geeking out about all things neuroscience and linguistics, she loves hanging out with her family at their Connecticut home, trying to convince them to speak French with her.

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