On tenterhooks

I went for a meeting last week with a woman who was interested in having English lessons. She said she needed to improve her English as the company she worked for had just signed a lucrative contract with an American firm. In all respects, she was an uninhibited and confident person who held a high flying position within the company. She was used to dealing with people on a daily basis and speaking in public forums was part and parcel of her job.

However, she said that when it came to situations where she had to communicate orally in English, she could physically feel her heart rate increase, her breathing become more uneven, her muscles tense up and the sweat rise to the surface of her skin. It was therefore of little surprise that she had lost most of her confidence in speaking English, for what she was suffering from was foreign language anxiety, which is a form of anxiety psychologists describe as a specific anxiety reaction. Apparently, it even has a scientific name, which is xenoglossophobia.

We can define anxiety as a subjective feeling of tension, apprehension, nervousness and worry associated with an arousal of the automatic nervous system.

Psychologists have identified a taxonomy of anxiety based upon where its origins lie:

1) trait anxiety, which is a personality trait;

2) state anxiety, which is apprehension experienced at a particular moment in time;

3) situational anxiety, which is experienced in a well-defined situation.

It has been well documented that anxiety, whatever the source, can have a detrimental effect on an individual’s communicative competence.

This communication apprehension is much more common than we might think, and I would hazard a guess that most learners suffer from some form of anxiety to a greater or lesser extent at some point or other. If this is the case, then we can do our students a great service if we are able to identify the roots of our learners’ anxiety. By doing so, we will be in a better position to adopt and suggest coping strategies.

In the event, my discussion with the woman in question revealed some interesting particularities which will help me when it comes to mes to planning future lessons. Firstly, it was evident that she was not suffering from ‘trait anxiety’. There was nothing in her history or physiology which made her naturally apprehensive. However, it turned out that she did suffer from ‘state anxiety’. For example, she said that she was scared stiff of initiating a conversation in English because she feared that she would not understand the response. It also appeared that she was predisposed to experiencing ‘situational anxiety’, especially in meetings where she believed that other participants’ English was  better than hers.

This will prove to be invaluable information because it will help me to incorporate anxiety coping and confidence building strategies into my teaching, and as a result her language development will hopefully be much quicker and much more pleasurable.

Maybe it’s time that schools, along with a placement tests, give prospective students some form of test for anxiety as well.

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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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