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The Anxious Elephant in the Room

(Previously published in the Mind, Brain, and Education JALT special interest group - website: Issues Archive – Mind Brain Ed Think Tanks+)

One of the most painful experiences for us as teachers is seeing students crippled by language anxiety. Halfway through the 2018 academic semester, one of my intermediate freshman communication classes was struggling to make progress, and there were signs that anxiety was taking a heavier than usual toll on the students.

We all have students who go red-faced, visibly tremble, or break out in a sweat when they communicate in a second language. When things get bad, weekly failures can reinforce learned helplessness that can be difficult to change. In my case, attempts to reduce apprehension, such as creating a warm and accepting atmosphere and being conscious of error correction methods, were not enough. Structured group and pair activities that other classes had taken to with relative ease were often met with unenthusiastic stares and I was afraid that attendance would begin to suffer.

Things most likely would have continued along this route were it not for a conversation I had with a group of outgoing fourth-year students just as the situation was at its worst. This mixed-ability group was always in the student commons, an area where students of different years and abilities can come to freely engage in the target language, speaking English boldly for all to see. I wanted to know what gave them such confidence.

After a few questions, the group told me that freshman year had been the most difficult because they felt as though their peers were judging them. They would often compare themselves to others, usually those who they viewed as having higher ability, which left them feeling isolated and reluctant to speak. They believed something was wrong with them. It was not until much later in their studies that they realized it was normal to feel the way they did, and those feelings of anxiety were often shared amongst their peers. How could what these fourth years had learned through experience be condensed into an effective message for my first-year class?

First, the fact fourth-year undergraduates reported an experiential process of recognizing their anxiety as normal led me to believe student-generated and organic discussion was more likely to stick than a statement directly from the teacher. It is one thing to say “Hey, everyone experiences language anxiety and it is perfectly natural” and another thing entirely for students to discover it themselves. Second, the methods I had attempted in the classroom before were often disguised as language learning in one way or another. For example, using student introduction activities to break the ice, or practicing the past tense to share childhood memories in the hope of building interpersonal relationships. This convinced me that the class needed to address issues of anxiety openly, not as an English learning activity.

From here, I developed a simple plan utilizing a questionnaire in both English and, thanks to help from an exceedingly kind Japanese member of staff, my students’ native language. The questionnaire asked students if the following statements were true for them and how this affects them in class:

1. I get nervous when I speak English in class.

2. I often compare myself to my classmates.

3. I feel like my classmates are judging what I am saying.

4. My mind sometimes feels blank and I cannot remember even simple words or phrases.

In the class, students responded to the questionnaire items individually, either writing down or taking time to reflect internally, then shared and elaborated on their answers in their native language with several classmates. After a few rounds of discussion, students gathered into groups and created a mind map of the key themes on the room’s whiteboards so groups could see the connections within all the discussions.

After devoting an entire 90-minute class to this, there was no clear indication of how students had reacted. They had seemed excited, energetic, and talked at length about the issues they were having, but I could not be sure there would be any changes. In the next class, there was no big explosion of conversation or drastic transformation. Had this activity done anything?

It was not until weeks later when reviewing their learning journals that I realized the impact it had. More than half of the individuals made a positive reference to the specific activity, some of their comments mirroring the thoughts that the fourth-year students had discussed with me. Students wrote that the experience made them stop judging themselves so harshly when making mistakes and reflected on the idea that they were not so different than their classmates after all.

In the future, if you have a class that seems especially reluctant to interact and participate, try activities that encourage students to address anxiety directly. Do not allow it to be the elephant that sits forever in the back of the room. Let them discuss how they feel and, hopefully, realize that there is nothing unusual about it. In all my first-year language classes now, this will continue to be a class activity I use after students have spent a couple of weeks in the course. I hope that it acts as a foundation for students to begin changing how they think about themselves as second language learners.

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