Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety

What it is and How You Can Overcome It

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What is Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety?

Your ESL instructor calls on you to answer an easy conversational question. You know how to respond, but your heart is pounding so much that you shake your head and say, “I don’t know.”

You have a solution to the problem your workplace team is trying to solve. However, you nod in agreement to an inferior plan to avoid putting yourself in the spotlight.

You are qualified for a new job in every way. However, when you see a Zoom interview is required, you click out of the application process.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? If so, you or someone you know has foreign language speaking anxiety or xenoglossophobia. While most everyone has some level of public speaking anxiety, foreign language anxiety (FLA) relates to feelings of unease, tension, and worry experienced while learning a non-native language. FLA can affect people who do not typically experience anxiety, creating a significant roadblock to their academic and professional success.

According to the University of Texas at Austin’s Elaine Horwitz, who began studying FLA in the 1980s, FLA is situation-specific anxiety similar to test anxiety or stage fright. Her research shows that there are three main parts of FLA that interfere with effective learning and communication.

  • Apprehension in speaking or listening to someone else speak
  • Fear of negative judgment if you make a mistake
  • Anxiety when taking an oral or written evaluation

While it is normal to experience any of these conditions to some degree when learning a new language, FLA leads to extreme symptoms, such as shaking, avoiding eye contact, breathing difficulty, and nausea. Many people report that their mind goes completely blank – even when they are well-prepared and don’t have a time limit. To avoid feeling these symptoms, people who suffer from FLA often cope by not speaking up, writing less, and, therefore, not improving in their comprehension and use of a non-native language. According to Horwitz’s research. In other words, FLA can create a downward spiral where good students become poor students.

Can you Overcome it?

The good news is that you can overcome this speech anxiety by changing the way you look at language learning. Many of us are afraid of being laughed at if we mispronounce a foreign word, or mess up on subject-verb agreement. We think others will laugh at our accent and judge us. This kind of negative thinking often is all in our imaginations. In fact, most people admire the effort it takes to learn a new language. Yet, FLA can have the same effect as not putting the work in to learn a new language.

The truth is that learning a second language as an adult is hard. It requires us to develop new brain functional-connectivity patterns. While research shows learning a new language is good for the brain and may protect against Alzheimer’s disease, the older we are, the more dominant our native tongue is in the way our brain operates. Scientist Norman Doidge, MD, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, says that after the childhood period for language learning ends, our native language begins to dominate our brain’s “linguistic map space.” Yes, we can carve out new space for speaking skills, but it takes more work than it did when we were younger.

So, instead of worrying what others think of you, be proud of what you are doing. Everyone makes mistakes when they are learning a new language.

Another contributing factor to FLA is the worry that you cannot express your ideas and meaning correctly. You lack fluency. When speaking in your native language, you can express yourself easily – the words flow freely. Some studies, such as this one by the University of Chicago, say that speaking in a non-native tongue can have its benefits. If we talk in another language, we may be more logical and less emotional when making difficult decisions, for example. Choosing fewer words, but actively choosing the right words, can be an advantage a non-native speaker has over a native speaker.

How to Overcome Foreign Language Anxiety

Listen more

Infants don’t speak for many months, but they are learning all the time by listening. Try to seek out TV and radio shows, podcasts, YouTube videos, and movies in your target language to develop your skills. You will improve your pronunciation and vocabulary this way. You also will be learning essential information about the culture upon which the language is based.

Be wary, though, of starting out with materials that are too advanced for your level. Speaking anxiety needs simplicity. It is easy to become overwhelmed when speakers talk too fast, and use colloquialisms you do not understand. It’s okay to begin with children’s programming that has simple sentence structure and slower talking rates. These lessons incorporate vivid imagery and examples that are excellent for a second language learner. As you gain competency, you can work your speaking skills up to programming for a general audience. Save the academic stuff for later.

Listening to music is another excellent way to immerse yourself in another language and culture. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh conducted a study that compared adult language learners who listened to words and phrases through song and with the spoken word. The participants who used music scored higher on retention than the other participants.

Research shows that lyrics enrich our vocabularies, introducing us to words and phrases we might not otherwise encounter in a formal language study. There’s a reason that early childhood educators put lessons about letters and numbers to music. Music has an impact on students’ memory through a process called “chunking.”

Chunking is when we take small pieces of information and group them together into bigger units (or chunks). Since our short-term memories can only handle seven units of information at a time, if we cram more information into each unit through chunking, we can retain more overall content.

Music allows us to chunk by linking words and phrases to melody and rhythm. In other words, the musical structure enhances our ability to commit words to memory. Add some songs in your target language to your playlists. It’s also a good idea to find the lyrics to help you learn as you listen.

Read Articles and Books

Reading print or online fiction or non-fiction allows you to learn vocabulary in its context. You will see the most frequently used and useful words in your target language in action. This repetition is important because research suggests that we need to encounter a new word many times before we learn it. It is the antidote for a lack of confidence and public speaking anxiety.

Reading also enhances learning by giving visual cues. That means that actually seeing the word in print helps us remember it better. When you begin your foreign language reading with children’s books, you add to this visual impact by seeing photos and artwork representing the word. There is absolutely no shame in reading children’s books. They are written for beginning readers, and that is precisely what you are in that new language. Some popular children’s books, such as those by Dr. Suess, are available in several languages. Having them side-by-side for comparison can be a handy way to get started in your reading adventure.

As you work your way up in skill level, try reading major news reports in your native language and then again in your target language. Have a translating dictionary handy nearby to help you as you read. You might want to keep a running list of new words you encounter each day. Overcoming foreign language anxiety is a slow, gentle process.

Reading out loud when you are alone can reinforce your efforts. You’ll have the opportunity to practice forming new sounds with your mouth, without the pressure – or speaking anxiety.

Engage in Conversation

Listening and reading will pave the way, but they are no substitutes for real conversations in your target language. You don’t have to start with public speaking either.

Conversation is the way to bring together the skills you are acquiring. According to a study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, language students that consistently practice conversational speaking with eye contact are more successful than those who learn without oral practice. It is through speaking a language in conversation that we fully combine the linguistic elements of grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary.

Is there someone from your language class, your neighborhood, or your workplace who would be willing to talk with you on a regular basis in person or online? Finding conversation partners is a great way to meet new people. Once you build up a relationship of trust and camaraderie, you will gain more confidence in yourself and your growing abilities.

Don’t worry about being perfect in everything you say. Concentrate on building a rapport through communication. Ask questions, and don’t take it personally when your partner corrects you.

Each of these steps is a building block toward fixing a lack of confidence. The more confident you are, the less speaking anxiety you will feel. And lack of confidence in a foreign language is fixed with practice, practice, practice.

Here are some final tips for combating FLA. Most of these apply to other forms of situation-specific anxieties as well:

Get Enough Sleep

Make sure you get enough rest the night before you need to make a presentation or take a test in your foreign language. Develop a soothing night-time routine that limits screen time and caffeine consumption.

Stay Hydrated and Eat Well

When we are stressed, we need to make sure we are drinking enough water and keeping up with our nutrition. The lack of either one can add to the stress our bodies are experiencing.

Focus on Breathing

When we are stressed, we tend to breathe in a shallow manner, giving way to a fight-or-flight mentality. Before you speak or take a test, focus on inhaling and exhaling deeply. You will be bringing oxygen to your brain and helping yourself stay calm.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that by 2028, the employment of translators and interpreters will grow by 19 percent, a rate that is significantly faster than the average for other occupations. The BLS website points to increased globalization and large increases in the number of non-English-speaking people in the United States as reasons for this explosive growth. The ability of public speaking in another language lets you stand out on job applications and expands your business and travel opportunities in other countries.

Don’t let speaking anxiety (FLA) keep you from learning and growing in this exciting way.


Frog reads

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety?

Foreign language speaking anxiety is a type of performance anxiety that can occur when speakers are required to communicate in a language that they are not confident in. This anxiety can manifest itself in a number of ways, including an increased heart rate, sweating, and difficulty speaking. In severe cases, it can lead to a complete loss of speech.

What are the Causes of Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety?

There are several potential factors, including:

– A fear of making mistakes: Many people who experience foreign language speaking anxiety are afraid of making errors and sounding foolish. This fear can be particularly acute if you are not confident in your language skills.

– A fear of being judged: When we speak in a foreign language, we may feel like we are being judged on our abilities. This can be especially true if we are speaking with native speakers or members of the target culture.

– Performance pressure: In some cases, foreign language speaking anxiety may be due to the pressure to perform well. This could be because you are giving a presentation or taking an important exam.

– Lack of confidence: Another common cause of foreign language speaking anxiety is simply lack of confidence. If you don’t believe in yourself, it can be difficult to speak confidently and fluently.

What is foreign language classroom anxiety?

Foreign language anxiety is a type of anxiety that can occur in individuals who are learning a new language. This anxiety can manifest itself in a number of ways, including feelings of nervousness, tension, and fear. The individual may also experience physical symptoms such as sweating, increased heart rate, and stomach upset. Foreign language anxiety can harm an individual’s ability to learn a new language.

How does anxiety affect language learning?

When individuals feel anxious, they often have difficulty concentrating and may be more likely to forget information. In addition, anxiety can lead to increased muscle tension, which can make it difficult to produce the correct sounds when speaking. As a result, anxiety can impede progress in both understanding and producing a new language.

What are some ways to overcome Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety?

First, it is important to remember that everyone makes mistakes when learning a new language. Second, it is helpful to try to relax and view the situation as an opportunity to learn rather than a test of your abilities. Third, it can be useful to practice speaking a foreign language with a friend or family member who is also learning. Finally, it is important to believe in yourself and your ability to communicate effectively in a foreign language.

How do you gain confidence in a foreign language?

One of the best ways to gain confidence in a foreign language is to practice speaking it as often as possible. If you live in a country where the language is spoken, try to immerse yourself in it by carrying out everyday tasks in the language, such as shopping or ordering food at restaurants. Alternatively, you can practice speaking with a tutor or native speaker online. It can also be helpful to watch movies and TV shows in the foreign language, read books and magazines, or listen to music. By exposing yourself to the language regularly, you will gradually become more confident and proficient in it.

Does everyone experience foreign language anxiety?

Though it is a common experience, not everyone experiences foreign language anxiety. Some people may feel nervous before giving a presentation in a foreign language, while others may feel anxious about taking a language test. However, many factors can contribute to foreign language anxiety, such as having negative attitudes towards the language or feeling like you are not good at speaking it. 

How can I overcome my fear of speaking English?

First, it is important to remember that everyone makes mistakes when learning a new language. Do not be afraid to make mistakes, as they are part of the learning process. Second, practice speaking English as often as possible. This can be done by joining an English conversation group or taking an online class. Finally, try to relax and have fun when speaking English. The more you enjoy the experience, the more likely you are to stick with it.

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Bethany MacDonald

Bethany MacDonald

Bethany MacDonald has contributed articles since 2020. As their Blog Lead, she specialises in informative pieces on culture, education, and language learning

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