Blocked, frozen and blank when you need to speak a second language? You may have foreign language anxiety…

Foreign language anxiety is when a person feels extremely nervous when speaking a second language. While some nerves are to be expected when learning a new language, people suffering with foreign language anxiety are overwhelmed by strong feelings of unease. Sufferers find that the words they need just won’t come to them in situations where they need to speak up spontaneously. What happens is that their anxiety causes the mind to go completely blank. Even everyday vocabulary that the person surely already knows such as greetings may be forgetten in the very moment that they are needed.

Not being able to remember words and phrases that are already known and have previously been learnt leaves the anxious student feeling embarrassed of themselves and/or feeling stupid. This serves to make them become increasingly nervous and blocked in speech. Most students who feel such overwhelming anxiety related to learning a language end up quitting because strong determination and the right speaking-focused approach is needed for them to finally triumph over the nervousness.

People suffering from foreign language anxiety (xenoglossophobia) face many challenges when learning a foreign language because the process brings to the surface shyness and awkwardness the person has buried deeply within his/her character. In many cases, people with foreign language anxiety are not shy in their native language because they have learned how to mask their communication-related fears. However, when attempting to speak in a second language, these deeply buried fears rise to the surface to make the person feel nervous, shy and uncomfortable to the same extent they once did in the past. It’s like going back in a time machine – the sufferer feels as if they have returned to the same younger, shy self they mistakenly thought they left behind in the past. This is an uncomfortable realisation which most people prefer not to confront.

When foreign language anxiety is severe, the sufferer develops strategies to avoid situations where they may need to speak the language. For example, an anxious student may decide to skip class or sit at the back of the classroom where they are hoping not to be noticed by the teacher.

Some students with strong anxiety are so avoidant of speaking the language they are otherwise trying to learn that they will go to the bathroom whenever speaking activities are set in class. Another avoidance strategy is that is commonly used is to look busy when speaking group work or roleplays are happening. In this way they avoid having to speak in front of other people.

Having foreign language anxiety often results in a students with good reading and writing skills who at the same time have poor speaking and listening skills. Teachers often underestimate the overall language skills of such students because they so rarely speak up in front of the class.

If you suffer from foreign language anxiety, I recommend a speaking-focused approach to lanaguage learning in a supportive context. Find a teacher who is understanding of the difficulties you have actually speaking the language you are learning. You may also find private tuition more effective for you since you will not be required to speak in front of a group of students.