My Mind Went Blank

Did you happen to see the story about the leader of the Green Party in the UK? Well, she went to give a live interview on the radio last week to kick off her party’s election campaign. About two minutes into the interview, she was asked a question about her party’s housing policy. Upon which she was suddenly struck down by what has been commonly called ‘mind blank’.

George Dvorsky (2015), a neurologist, says “catecholamine hormones, like adrenaline or noradrenaline, prime the body for violent physical action. This includes accelerated breathing and heart rates, the halting of digestive processes, constriction of blood vessels, releasing fat and glucose to fuel muscles, and tunnel vision”. The effect being that she was at a total loss for words. As she struggled to find the words she was frantically searching for, the more her stress levels soared through the roof. The more anxious she became the less she was able to pay attention to the actual words and information she was seeking. In effect, a vicious cycle of anxiety, misdirected attention and mind blank set in.

All of which brought to mind some learners of foreign languages I have taught, especially when they are called upon to speak in public. Even more so when those same people are asked to speak in front of people whose language they know is of a higher level of proficiency. On a one to one level you know that this particular student can hold their own in a conversation, but when you ask them the simplest of questions in the presence of other people, they look at you blankly, staring wide eyed like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

The effects of high anxiety levels on learners’ ability to learn a language are very well documented. Indeed, it has been given a specific name, Foreign Language Anxiety, or to use its scientific term, xenoglossophobia.  These feelings of anxiety may stem from any second language context whether associated with the productive skills of speaking and writing, or the receptive skills of reading and listening. Interestingly, measuring instruments for foreign language anxiety have also been developed. Perhaps the most well-known is The Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale (FLCAS) (1986), which is a 33 question, 5 point survey used in research studies. The measure investigates participants’ communication apprehension, test-anxiety and fear of negative evaluation; and focuses on speaking in a classroom context. Most of the research seems to suggest that foreign language anxiety specifically and mind blank in general is primarily caused by a fear of being judged negatively. Hence, a language learner might have lower anxiety levels if they know the people they are communicating with have a lower level of proficiency than themselves as they feel that they are less likely to be judged negatively.

So, if high levels of anxiety are such an impediment to communication, what can language teachers do? On the one hand, it is comforting to know that it is not only language learners who suffer from mind blank, but also ‘native’ speakers as well. On the other hand, it is easy to say that we need to try to help reduce the students’ stress levels, but the real challenge is, how?

 

David Shariatmadari (2015) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/25/the-anatomy-of-a-mind-blank-natalie-bennett-interview

 

Horwirz, E. K.; Horwitz, M. B.; Cope, J. (1986). “Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety”.The Modern Language Journal

 

Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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