Foreign Language Anxiety – What It Is And 6 Easy Steps To Overcome It

foreign language anxiety

Today I'm delighted to feature a guest post by Emily Johnson about Foreign Language Anxiety.

Many language learners suffer from anxiety and nervousness about their learning. In this post, Emily explains how this manifests itself in the form of Foreign Language Anxiety. You'll learn:

Over to Emily…


“Sometimes what you’re most afraid of doing is the very thing that will set you free” – Robert Tew.

You’re walking down the street and you notice a group of tourists.

You’re sure they’re tourists because they’re carrying cameras, and a map.

But they look confused and frustrated.

Each person is pointing a different direction. They’re lost.

Suddenly, they notice you and start approaching.

You think, “God! Why? Why me!? Isn’t there anyone else around?”

You start sweating.

Your heart rate goes through the roof.

“I’ll just pretend I can’t see them”, you think. “There’s a metro station! Perfect hiding place!”

Too late, they are already standing next to you and smiling.

“Hi…” says a person with a strong foreign accent, “we no English…”

And now comes the question you fear the most:

Parlez-vous Français?

¿Hablas español?

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

Вы говорите по-русски?

Nǐ huì shuō Zhōngwén ma?

You open your mouth to respond and…

… nothing comes out.

No sound at all.

In this very moment you wish you could communicate telepathically.

After all, you have no problems with answering “Yes, I speak French/Italian, etc.” in your mind.

And if you can do it in your mind, why can’t you say those words out loud?

Does this situation sound familiar?

If so, you may be suffering from Foreign Language Anxiety.

“Foreign… what?” Let me explain.

What Is Foreign Language Anxiety (FLA)?language learning stress anxiety fear

Foreign Language Anxiety is the feeling of tension, fear and apprehension associated with such foreign language contexts as speaking, listening and learning.

It is a serious problem because it keeps you from reaching your language learning goals.

Researchers divide FLA into 3 components:

1. Communication Apprehension – People with communication apprehension have difficulty in expressing their thoughts and ideas in their target language. It’s hard for them to speak and comprehend the messages of others.

2. Fear Of Negative Social Evaluation – This form of FLA arises when you believe you need to make a positive social impression on others and you fear that you won’t.

3. Test Anxiety – This type of FLA affects students and foreign language learners who attend courses and have to do exams. In short, test anxiety is the fear of academic assessment.

Scientists assert that one in three foreign language learners experiences at least some level of anxiety. However, FLA has the most detrimental effects.

It can make you:

But what triggers FLA?

Does it occur by itself? Or, maybe something causes it?

Let’s take a look at why some people suffer from FLA.

What Causes Foreign Language Anxiety?

FLA appears if you have unrealistic or erroneous beliefs about foreign language learning.

For example, you can convince yourself you’re not gifted at language learning, or that you haven’t achieved the progress or level you should have.

Such thoughts trigger FLA.

Another thing that causes FLA is being exposed to too many negative experiences in a foreign language context.

For instance, being laughed at when mispronouncing a word or being reprimanded for making the same language error multiple times.

Such situations can lower your self-confidence when speaking a foreign language and hinder your progress.

A third thing that triggers FLA is setting standards for your foreign language learning that are too high.

For example, aiming for and expecting to achieve native like perfection.

Often, learners compare their skills with their peers’ skills, or those of native speakers, and this leads them to assess themselves too harshly.

Thus, they begin to believe their language level is never good enough.

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

Let's take a deeper look at how to know whether you suffer from FLA.

Do I Struggle With Foreign Language Anxiety?language learning questions

It’s easy to check if you suffer from FLA. All you need to do is answer these key questions:

  1. Are you afraid to speak even though your language level is good enough to communicate (your hands could be shaking, your heart rate might be raised, you might start sweating, etc.)?
  2. Do you find it hard to say a single word out loud even though you can construct perfect sentences in your mind?
  3. Does the mere thought of saying something in a foreign language make you feel scared and shaky?
  4. Do you tend to avoid any conversation with native speakers because you fear being assessed or laughed at?
  5. Do you panic when you can’t express yourself in a foreign language or don’t understand someone?
  6. Do you find talking with a native speaker the worst thing that can happen to you?
  7. Do you feel nervous or tongue-tied and stumble when trying to say even simple things in a foreign language?

If you can answer “yes” to most of the above questions, you probably suffer from FLA.

“So, I Struggle With FLA. What Now?”

First of all, you need to realize that struggling with FLA is not unusual.

There are many people who struggle with the same foreign language learning problems that you have.

I know how it feels.

I know how hard it can be.

I also know that others might not understand it or say that FLA is a joke.

But FLA is not an imaginary problem.

And it can be hard or even seem to be impossible to overcome.

However, the good news is that FLA can be conquered.

Keep on reading and I’ll tell you how.

6 Tips On How To Overcome Foreign Language Anxietyovercome foreign language anxiety

1. Give Yourself Time

Some people feel motivated when they're under stress.

Others clam up, get nervous and panic.

If the second situation sounds like you and speaking in a foreign language significantly raises your stress level, then don’t feel pressed to speak right away.

Practise listening, reading and writing instead.

Many foreign language learners are pushed to their limits and expected to start speaking immediately.

Don’t allow others to decide when you should start communicating in a foreign language.

The decision has to come from you.

Start speaking when you feel confident and ready to do so.

Also, avoid comparing yourself to others.

Just because your friend started talking with native speakers after a few weeks of learning, doesn’t mean you should too.

Language learning is not a competition.

You might need more time to get accustomed to how the language sounds and gain more self-confidence before you even consider speaking.

And that’s okay.

Don’t hurry!

Give yourself enough time to practice the language, and build your speaking confidence slowly, for example by having short conversations with your close friends (i.e. people you trust).

2. Change Negative Thoughts Into Positive Thoughts

Being trapped in negative thoughts is something that fuels FLA. Avoid thoughts like:

“I’ve been learning French for 2 years now and I’m still making so many mistakes. I’m a failure!”

Or…

“He laughed and corrected my error. What a humiliation! Now the whole world will know how stupid I am!”

If those kinds of thoughts have appeared in your head before, then next time they do, write them down.

Why?

Because when we write our thoughts down, we can reflect upon them more easily.

Let’s try it now.

Take another look at those 2 thoughts above.

Don’t they sound ridiculous when you really think about them?

After all, language learning is all about making mistakes and learning from them, isn’t it?

So, don’t get caught up in the net of negative thoughts.

Instead, find something positive about every language learning situation.

For example, let’s try to change the 2 negative thoughts above into positive ones, shall we?

“I’ve been learning French for 2 years now and I DID manage to get the message across. With mistakes, but I communicated successfully!”

Or…

“My language mistake made him laugh, but he was kind and corrected me with a smile on his face. Next time, I’ll know which form of the verb I should use. One conversation, and look how much I’ve learned!”

That’s a much better attitude now, isn’t it?

Try to think positively about your foreign language experiences and they’ll boost your self-confidence and help eliminate anxiety.

3. Accept That It’s OKAY To Make Mistakes

Some people, especially perfectionists, tend to avoid communicating in the target language if they think their language level is not sufficient enough.

But, the truth is, in order to speak a foreign language fluently one day, first, you need to start speaking a broken version of it.

You can’t learn everything in theory and then expect to immediately perform it perfectly.

You need to start making mistakes before you can correct them.

It’s a part of language learning, so accept it.

Moreover, remember that native speakers appreciate that you’re trying to learn their language.

They won’t be counting your mistakes and they won’t be laughing at you!

Instead, they’ll focus on your message and understanding what you’re trying to communicate.

4. Change Your Learning Method

There is no one single ‘best way’ to learn a language. So, if one method doesn’t appeal to you or brings no results, try another.

If you don’t like using textbooks, that’s ok.

Try to discover the easiest and most fun way to learn that works for you.

It might be watching foreign language movies with subtitles, listening to music and translating lyrics or reading a story and checking keywords in a dictionary.

Language learning should be fun. If you’re feeling anxious about it, you won’t progress as much.

So, find a way to enjoy your experience!

5. Small Steps Firstspeak online

Talking with a bunch of native speakers after very little time learning can be terrifying for anyone who suffers with FLA.

So, don’t jump into deep water before you learn how to swim.

Small steps first.

In the beginning, try one-on-one conversations with people you know.

They are less stressful and will help you gain confidence.

Also, consider creating an account on platforms that allow you to find friends all over the world and practice your language skills with them.

InterPals and iTalki are two good sites for this.

Once you create an account, you can start searching for friends who speak your target language and connect with them.

The huge advantage of such websites is that you don’t have to speak and reply immediately.

You can communicate in written form first and have time to proofread your messages.

This way, you’ll not only improve, but you’ll also help others improve and receive positive feedback – something that people with FLA need in order to gain confidence.

6. Talk With People You Don’t Know

If you find it stressful to talk with your family members, colleagues or friends in your target language then try speaking with strangers instead.

There are huge advantages of talking with people you don’t know:

You’ll may well go on to form friendships with some of these people and continue to speaking with them regularly – and that’s great!

But at the beginning, speaking with new people can seem much less intimidating than a conversation in a foreign language with a friend or family member.

It can do miracles for your self-confidence and help you to notice what type of mistakes you make most often so you can correct them quickly.

Overcome FLA Once And For Allfriends talking in a foreign language

FLA can seriously hinder foreign language learning, but there are ways to overcome it.

It’s not easy.

It takes time.

But, it’s worth it.

Work on yourself, practice positive thinking and make new foreign friends who encourage you!

It’ll help you progress and boost your self-confidence.

As your confidence improves, your language skills will follow suit.


Emily Johnson is a blogger and a content strategist at omnipapers. She’s passionate about language learning and writing. You can find more of her latest work on Twitter.

Have you ever suffered from anxiety in relation to language learning? If so, what did you do to overcome it? Let us know in the comments below.

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