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Foreign Language Learning Is Like Dating: It Spurs Anxiety

Can anxiety facilitate communication in a foreign language?

Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

Learning a foreign language is a bit like dating: your tongue is tied in knots, as you tiptoe anxiously around the object of your desire, afraid that the smallest transgression could incur enormous costs. In affairs of the heart, this anxiety may be helpful, making you bite your tongue just as you are about to mention the previous love of your life. But what about speaking a foreign language, where habits of the tongue are not as easy to control? In her book, Lost in Translation, Polish-English bilingual Eva Hoffman offers a compelling description of frustrations and loss of face that accompany such communication:

"… it takes all my will to impose any control on the words that emerge from me. I have to form entire sentences before uttering them; otherwise, I too easily get lost in the middle. My speech, I sense, sounds monotonous, deliberate, heavy—an aural mask that doesn’t become or express me at all. … I don’t try to tell jokes too often, I don’t know the slang, I have no cool repartee. I love language too much to maul its beats, and my pride is too quick to risk the incomprehension that greets such forays. I become a very serious young person... I am enraged at the false persona I’m being stuffed into, as into some clumsy and overblown astronaut suit." (pp. 118-119; see also here)

Psychologists studying language learning and use distinguish between two main types of anxiety, trait and state. Trait anxiety is a personality attribute exhibited in persistent and sometimes unrealistic worry about mundane things. This pervasive worry also underpins many excuses we come up with to avoid foreign language learning and use: "I am not good at languages," "I am too old to learn a new language," "My memory is poor," "I do not have a good ear for languages," "I have forgotten everything I learned," and so on.

The other type, state anxiety, is experienced by all of us, triggered by a job interview, a visit to the dentist, a conference presentation or a particularly hard test. Communication in a foreign language – especially one in which we have limited competence – is one such situation. Foreign language anxiety, in this view, involves fears and apprehensions of goofy slips, silly errors and mortifying stumbling and mumbling that trigger sweating, shaking and palpitations, and permanently tie our tongues: "I will sound dim-witted," "Everyone will laugh at me," "I am really ashamed of how poorly I know the language I ought to know much better by now," etc.

To understand the effects of anxiety on language learning and use, University of London professor Jean-Marc Dewaele and his colleagues analyzed responses to foreign language anxiety questionnaires. Their results revealed several groups particularly affected by foreign language fright, including girls, perfectionists, and introverts. Girls experience – or at least report experiencing – foreign language anxiety more intensely than boys. Perfectionists may set impossibly high performance standards and then feel debilitating anxieties that lead them to procrastinate and put off angst-inducing tasks. As for quiet and reserved introverts, they may outperform everyone else on pen-and-pencil tasks but become tongue-tied when required to speak.

At the other end of the anxiety spectrum are a few lucky extroverts who fearlessly ask for directions, order meals and make jokes using a vocabulary of a dozen words. Their exploits show that anxiety also colors our perceptions of how good we are: highly anxious speakers tend to underestimate their language competence, and speakers with low levels of anxiety tend to overestimate it. Research findings also show that some types of foreign language communication are more anxiety-provoking than others. Talking on the phone or speaking with strangers stirs more worries than communication in the same language with friends.

The angst is not limited to the second language (L2). In a study with Turkish immigrants in the Netherlands, Yeşim Sevinç and Jean-Marc Dewaele found that some immigrants may experience anxiety in the slowly deteriorating or incompletely acquired first language (L1) and the non-native L2. These findings suggest that at the heart of anxiety is not the situation itself but our perception of it: if we think that we should have a better mastery of a particular language, we may become tongue tied out of shame and guilt. Future studies in highly multilingual contexts may add an additional twist: foreign language anxiety may turn out to be a uniquely Western construct, triggered by unrealistic expectations of monolingual or native-like language use (for a discussion of a multilingual setting in Cameroon, where “native-likeness” is not an issue, see here).

Yet not all is doom and gloom. When they expanded the scope of their studies, Dewaele and his team found that many learners experience both anxiety and enjoyment, and that, in small doses, anxiety doesn’t hurt language learning, as it focuses our attention on the task at hand. The key is to articulate realistic expectations and to strike a constructive balance between foreign language anxiety and positive emotions intrinsic in language learning, including pride in one’s achievements, excitement about new challenges, and confidence that comes with practice.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo of a man talking on the phone from Wikimedia Commons.


Dewaele, J.-M., MacIntyre, P., Boudreau, C., & L. Dewaele (2016). Do girls have all the fun? Anxiety and enjoyment in the foreign language classroom. Theory and Practice of Second Language Acquisition, 2, 1, 41-63.

Hoffman, E. (1989) Lost in translation: A life in a new language. Penguin Books.

Sevinc, Y. & J.-M. Dewaele (2016). Heritage language anxiety and majority language anxiety among Turkish immigrants in the Netherlands. The International Journal of Bilingualism, DOI: 10.1177/1367006916661635.

Aneta Pavlenko's website.