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‘Negative emotions should not remain hidden’

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By Claudia Civinini

Many teachers worry about their students’ foreign language anxiety (FLA), and at times don’t really know how to deal with it, a survey of teachers across the world revealed last month (see the April edition of the Gazette).

But Dr Christina Gkonou from the University of Essex, who has researched FLA extensively, has some advice for teachers. Dr Gkonou confirmed that, according to her research, anxiety is the most common negative emotion among language learners, and that it is subjective and context-bound.


She said there are four factors at play to determine students’ foreign language anxiety: the immediate foreign language class, students’ past language learning experiences, the general beliefs about language learning and the structure of the foreign language education system.

Her key recommendation is to discuss anxiety as frequently as possible in class. ‘As teachers’ she said, ‘we should not imply that negative emotions should remain hidden, just because they are negative’.

What are, according to your research, the main triggers of foreign language classroom anxiety?
Peers can cause loads of anxiety in class. Peer relationships and peer pressure can lead to competitiveness among learners, low self-esteem, stronger social comparisons in class (usually downward social comparisons), and in general a tendency to deal with anything else other than the language task at hand.

In my research for example, students typically made references to their classmates by calling them ‘snobbish’ or the ‘know-all’, and further commenting that those students were not the best in class. Research findings such as these point to the need to work on and improve classroom relationships - between the teacher and the students, and also amongst the students themselves.

Emotionally and socially intelligent teachers attend to classroom bonds and positive and healthy group dynamics, and take conscious action to foster classroom relationships, alongside helping their learners to improve in their language skills.

Language anxiety is also associated with learners’ personality. I will illustrate this point by drawing on the well-known distinction in psychology between trait and state anxiety. Trait anxiety is viewed as a distinct personality trait, which remains stable over time and across a variety of situations. By contrast, state anxiety is the moment-to-moment experience of anxiety which is transient and can vary in intensity. Students who are trait-anxious will also be anxious in the language classroom, irrespective of what goes on in class.

In the article ‘When students cry I get anxious’, some teachers told us how they deal with their students’ foreign language anxiety. Could you pick three of those suggestions, and review their efficacy according to the current evidence?

I found the suggestion that we should foster trust and empathy between student and teacher very interesting and relevant – the teachers are absolutely right. Empathy, trust, respect and responsiveness are key ingredients of quality interpersonal relationships in the language classroom.

The second suggestion which is crucial is approaching error correction and giving feedback with sensitivity to students’ feelings. Student work should be dealt with in a non-judgemental and non-condescending manner. Teachers should also make clear to their learners that mistakes are an integral part of the learning process.

The third suggestion which is also evidenced by current research, is that learners should function in an emotionally safe and relaxed classroom atmosphere which could help to boost their self-confidence and self-esteem. Such an environment would be a mix of all of the suggestions discussed here and would make learners feel valued, both as individuals and as learners of a foreign language.

Can you give teachers some practical tips to help them deal with language anxiety more efficiently?

A key recommendation would be to discuss anxiety as frequently as possible in class. Although anxiety is a negative emotion, as teachers we should not imply that negative emotions should remain hidden, just because they are negative. If individuals in general are given the opportunity to discuss a negative emotion, they become more consciously aware of it, they understand its nature more fully, and they might also see that they share the same emotion with others and thus feel relieved. Only through candid and explicit discussions of anxiety we can enable our students to manage anxiety. I am a keen supporter of the concept of ‘know thyself’ and of reflection, and truly believe that self-awareness (which is a key component of emotional intelligence) can help us to address all of the above.

As educators, we need to remember that learning something new has a certain level of anxiety built into it, and our students should expect that! What we don’t want is exaggerated levels of anxiety which might seriously hinder academic performance and achievement and which might lead to strong reactions such as panic attacks etc.

We should also strive to accentuate the positive. There are indeed so many positive traits in our learners which we don’t often see and which our students are not able to uncover themselves, without our explicit support.

Unfortunately, managing emotions is often left implicit within teacher training programmes, with aspects such as teaching methodologies, lesson planning, materials design etc. being prioritised. Although the latter are undoubtedly important, stronger emphasis should be placed on how teachers should deal with their own emotions and those of their learners. This is where my research is now taking me...