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Don’t worry, be happy?

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Don’t Worry, Be Happy?

Teachers concerned about their students’ anxiety over foreign language learning should stop focusing on the negative feeling – and aim at helping students enjoy their lessons instead, a new study suggests.

New research on British students by Jean-Marc Dewaele et al (see here), says that teachers should take the focus off anxiety because they can have little influence over it. Teachers should ‘light their students’ fire’ instead of worrying about them being cold, the authors say. In short, they should focus on the positive emotion which they can control – enjoyment.

The study, which looked at how levels of student anxiety are affected by the teacher and other classroom factors, found that attitudes towards staff did not seem related to anxiety levels. In other words, students can feel anxious even with a well-loved teacher. How well the student is performing in relation to their classmates seemed to affect only enjoyment, and did not have a link to anxiety levels.

The proportion of time spent writing, listening and reading also seems to be unrelated to both anxiety and enjoyment. However, spending up to 60 per cent of class time speaking meant students enjoyed classes more. But any more than that and fun levels dipped. Speaking – perhaps contrary to popular opinion – was not linked to anxiety.

In general, high levels of enjoyment seem to be negatively correlated to high levels of anxiety. Some activities can boost students’ enjoyment – the use of L2 in class, for example, was positively correlated to it (although this may be a sample effect). Also, student-centred activities can help.

However, foreign language enjoyment won’t magically counteract a student’s anxiousness. Both feelings can quite easily coexist – especially in girls, who can experience both more enjoyment and anxiety. According to a previous study by Dewaele & McIntyre, girls tend to experience more enjoyment, excitement and pride in the foreign-language classroom but also more mild anxiety – whereas they don’t differ substantially from boys in the more severe manifestations of anxiety. The authors of that study also suggest that heightened emotionality (which can include a mild anxiety) can be conducive to good learning.

The sample of the latest research study included one selective and one semi-selective school where there was widespread bilingualism among learners. As the authors admit, their findings only relate to ‘good language learners’. Despite the limitations of its sample, the study offers teachers some good food for thought.

Dewaele, J.-M., Witney, J., Saito, K. & Dewaele, L. (2017)
Foreign language enjoyment and anxiety: The effect of teacher and learner variables