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What Is Second Language Anxiety And How Does It Affect Language Learners?

Written by: Sarah Henderson-Sharon, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


I have worked with many clients who were anxious about the way they spoke English. They feared speaking English at work and were ashamed of their pronunciation. They had formed negative beliefs about themselves and their capabilities, and these beliefs were having a significant effect on their achievements.

In my first article for Brainz, I will outline what Second Language Anxiety is and give three examples of anxiety in language learning with suggestions for dealing with each.

What is Second Language Anxiety?

I first became aware of Second Language Anxiety four years ago when I started working one-to-one with extremely advanced and proficient learners who needed English at work or who wanted to pass a high-level exam. The more I worked with these clients, the more I noticed similarities in the way they spoke about themselves and thought about their English. These clients were afraid of making mistakes when they spoke or wrote in English. They felt ashamed of their pronunciation and accents, sometimes wanting to completely eliminate all trace of their first language accent. And all of these clients expressed damaging beliefs about themselves such as I'm an idiot or I hate my English.

These learners were not beginners; they were competent, intelligent people with a strong command of the English language. I was curious and wanted to know more.

As I began to research, I came across Second Language Anxiety. This is a complex psychological phenomenon and has been described as "'the worry and negative emotional reaction when learning and using a second language".[1] Second Language Anxiety manifests in different ways for different people. Some people may be confident users of their second language until they are in pressurised situations like an exam or interview. Others may experience confidence in some areas but anxiety in others. For some learners, Second Language Anxiety is a permanent feature of their relationship to their second language, resulting in low achievements and personal distress. Let's explore these in more detail:

Situation-specific anxiety

It would be rare to find someone who didn't feel nervous before an exam, presentation or interview!

Even the most confident and proficient second-language speaker is likely to suffer from anxiety before a big event where they need to display competence and skillful use of the language. In exam situations, people have to achieve the right balance between fluency and accuracy, while in presentations and interviews people are often concerned about inaccuracies or a 'foreign accent'.

Fortunately, there are numerous ways to manage situation-specific anxiety. Firstly, simple breathing exercises such as breathing out for slightly longer than you breathed in have an instant calming effect and are a fantastic way to manage the physical symptoms of nerves. Secondly, mental rehearsal can be used while preparing for a big event. Doing this involves seeing the event in our mind and imagining a positive experience and outcome. Finally, practising positive self-talk to change thoughts from things like I hope I remember the vocabulary I have learnt to more positive statements like I have confidence in my ability to remember and produce language can have a big impact on our faith in our abilities.

Skill-specific anxiety

Although Second Language Anxiety manifests most strongly when people are speaking, it can affect any of the four language skills. I once worked with an exam client who was an English teacher and a highly proficient speaker of English, but who was terrified of writing. What was fascinating that the client was a talented creative writer in their first language, yet when it came to writing in English, they were so afraid of making a mistake that they could not write even one paragraph. In this case, what worked was to make the writing process more fun! We stopped doing exam writing and instead wrote short stories and funny dialogues together. This helped the client to relax and accept that it was okay for their English writing to be less than perfect. When we returned to exam tasks, we worked on them in sections to make them more achievable. Over time, this approach lead to lower levels of writing anxiety.

Permanent language anxiety

Some people experience permanent feelings of anxiety when they are using their second language and this is extremely debilitating. I have worked with clients for whom even a friendly conversation is a terrifying experience, let alone performing successfully at work or in an exam. Second language speakers who are permanently affected by anxiety tend to have an extremely low opinion of themselves and are very critical of themselves and their abilities, using phrases such as I hate myself or I hate my English.

With clients like this, reframing their view of themselves and their language is vital. There may be an expectation of 100% accuracy at all times with a feeling of failure when this is not achieved. Highly anxious learners often make unfavourable comparisons between themselves and native speakers, viewing native speakers as sophisticated and the learner as a fool who cannot express themselves.

These beliefs need to be challenged and changed into healthier alternatives that acknowledge the learners' unique strengths as a non-native speaker.

I hope this introduction to Second Language Anxiety has been informative and useful. To learn more about my work, please visit my website. Next month, I will write about the five most common problems anxious language learners experience and how these problems can be overcome.

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Sarah Henderson-Sharon, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Sarah Henderson-Sharon is an expert in helping non-native English speakers overcome Second Language Anxiety: the fear, shame and anxiety they experience when speaking English. A teacher with 17 years' experience, Sarah became aware of the damaging impact of Second Language Anxiety four years ago. Since then, Sarah has dedicated herself to helping her clients understand and move beyond their fears so that they can use English with confidence. She is the founder of Think Positive English where she offers 1-2-1 programmes and a community speaking club empowering members to improve their spoken English.



[1] (Gregersen and MacIntyres (2014:3) as found in New Insights into Language Anxiety, Gkonou, Daubney and Dewaele, Multilingual Matters 2017)



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