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‘When Students Cry, I Get Anxious’

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By Claudia Civinini

Teachers are worried about their students’ language anxiety. To find out how they deal with it, we surveyed ten EFL and Italian teachers the world over, from England to Australia. EFL teachers’ challenges seem to concern mainly students’ psychology and class dynamics: some reported that one student’s anxiety can affect the whole class, and that it is difficult to integrate an anxious student into a group.

EFL teacher Mark Jones added that anxiety can emotionally affect the teacher as well. ‘When students cry it escalates things and I also get anxious,’ he revealed. Others said it was more of a problem for individual students and that it was difficult to engage them and make them try. This translates to what Sara Cardenia, an Italian teacher in Australia, defined ‘a terrible loss for the students’ in terms of learning opportunities.

But foreign language teachers also battle against other types of beliefs, stemming out of the community’s or the school’s perspective on foreign languages. ‘Languages are pop culture: they are just normal skills, accessible and available to everyone. This is my motto,’ said Fulvia Galigani, a teacher of Italian in Australia. The view that foreign language proficiency is a luxury for a few gifted students, together with a sense of ‘otherness’ attached to foreign languages, can worsen students’ anxiety, she explained.

However different the challenges they face, all teachers agreed that foreign language anxiety is a fairly common occurrence. Some observed culture, age or proficiency effects – but the problem seems to be democratic. All teachers mentioned the need to foster a culture where mistakes are valued and students feel safe and self-confident. To foster trust and empathy between student and teacher, some interviewees reported using their own life experiences, encouraging students to relate to them as fellow language learners. Our teachers came up with a number of practical strategies as well: allowing students to speak or express themselves in non-intimidating situations (for example, allowing them to record speaking tasks, or work in small groups or in a separate room). They also used targeted praise and encouragement and a sensitive approach to feedback that didn’t single out any student. Sara Nesci, an EFL teacher in Italy, said that using the mother tongue can, ‘if necessary’, help students that feel overwhelmed.

However, most teachers confessed that foreign language classroom anxiety is not an easy problem to deal with. They would appreciate some help: practical strategies, teaching materials or tips to control anxiety that can be taught to students, for example. They are also eager to learn more about how to predict anxiety triggers and ease the cognitive load for anxious students.

Thanks to all the teachers that participated in the survey.

Pic courtesy: Brisbane City Council