You’ve probably experienced these scenarios, but never linked them to foreign language anxiety:
- Suddenly, you can’t grasp any of the words you’ve spent hours memorizing, and you’re tongue-tied.
- Someone asks you a question, and while you understand everything, you can’t think of how to respond.
- Sitting down to take a quiz in your target language, you have a feeling of dread, and you freeze. You know the words, but you can’t connect them to their meaning.
For a language learner, these bouts of foreign language anxiety often make it seem like mastering another language is impossible. In fact, it’s common for learners, especially younger students, to link their anxiety with an inability to learn.
But that’s far from the truth.
Second language learning comes with baggage, whether we like it or not. But it’s also a chance to realize and confront our own communication apprehension, whether that stems from internal stressors or a challenging environment.
And it’s something I know too well.
First: Do You Have Clinical Anxiety or Foreign Language Anxiety?
Before we dive into the causes and remedies for learning anxiety, I want to be clear that there is a difference between anxiety and situation anxiety. In some cases, an individual may need medication prescribed by a doctor.
In this blog, I won’t be covering this condition. We want to cover why people who don’t usually have anxiety get stuck when learning a language—specifically when speaking. What is recommended here may help identify triggers and offer coping strategies for clinical cases, but not as helpful as speaking with your doctor and other healthcare professionals.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s continue!
Why Foreign Language Learning Anxiety Happens
There are many reasons learners begin to feel anxious. I’ve experienced several different pressures over the past decade. Identifying the cause of each one can help you nix your triggers and help you retain and practice your target language more easily.
Generally, there are three main categories to think about:
We are often our biggest enemies, I’m sorry to say. Before looking into your environment or other factors, it’s helpful to consider if you’re putting too much pressure on yourself. Unrealistic goals, comparisons to polyglots, perfectionism, and a fear of failure all contribute to internal pressure.
In particular, the desire to speak almost instantly can put unnecessary pressure on learners and foster anxiety.
Back in college, I studied all summer so I could test into intermediate Russian. And I made it! My score was only ten or twenty points away from advanced.
But when I entered the classroom, I felt ill-prepared. I doubted myself, my skills, and my comprehension. Even if I recognized a word when reading, when called upon in class, my mind would blank. I was too embarrassed to speak, fearing I would make a fool of myself.
While my teachers were supportive, I felt that I should be better. After all, I tested into the class, right? I just had to get it right.
The issue was, for the most part, with me.
If I had just found a way to chill about it and focus on the process of learning, I might have had a better experience (and retained much more).
What I should have literally told myself every day:
Next, I want to talk about discouraging environments outside of the classroom. Because this is far more common than most of us think.
Some examples could be:
- Unsupportive or even critical family and friends, i.e., “Why are you learning something so useless?”
- Family members teasing, bullying, or condescending because you can’t speak your heritage language “well enough”
- General lack of boundaries or discriminatory remarks.
- Living abroad or in a target language community but lacking connections or help.
When you’re studying a language, whether academically or on your own, many people just don’t get it. And sometimes, they are the people closest to us.
In some cases, it may be difficult to form relationships with others who speak your target language due to significant differences in political beliefs and values. This may not sound like a big issue—but imagine living in an area where all of your neighbors held the exact opposite viewpoints.
For example, maybe you believe LGBTQ+ marriage should be legal, but everyone in your locality is very vocally homophobic. That would make it harder to create trusting connections and be able to practice your target language without stress. And, really, your language skills would be a minor issue compared to the toll on your mental health.
That’s not even counting the external pressure to speak your heritage language, which often contributes to internal anxiety. Suddenly, you are at fault for not being like your other family members. The inability to speak fluently marks you as an outsider. As a result, many learners feel anxious, and it may take them even longer to speak comfortably.
Traditional Foreign Language Classroom Setups
Finally, traditional classroom setups can trigger significant anxiety. The emphasis on results over the learning process can prompt students to study for exams, not long-term proficiency. When combined with strict or unreasonable instructors, poor class pacing, and funding that hinges on academic performance—there are a lot of potential stressors!
I loved my language professors in college. But, to be honest, the foreign language classroom setup allowed me to rely on grammar over vocabulary acquisition and speaking practice. And, as someone who relied on scholarships for the bulk of my college education costs, the anxiety of even the possibility of losing funds due to a GPA drop—no matter how unrealistic—ensured I studied for the tests more than the language.
At the same time, instructors who overemphasize corrections may be hindered rather a helping students improve. Linguist Roger Brown has suggested in his study on early childhood language acquisition that correcting mistakes is not a primary factor in learning grammar. Meaning that many common models of learning may be inefficient at best and harmful at worst.
How to Combat Foreign Language Anxiety
So, what can you do to overcome these issues? All of them take time to resolve. You likely won’t be able to stop pressuring yourself overnight, and often we can’t choose our instructors or family environment.
However, once you can identify your specific triggers, you can use strategies to improve the situation.
Many of the tips below are discussed in length (and with studies) in Language Two by Heidi Dulay, Marina Burt, and Stephen Krashen. I highly recommend any learner who really wants to better understand the acquisition process read this book. It’s short, easy to understand, and incredibly insightful.
Accept the silent period
Many linguists and language acquisition scholars note the importance of a silent period. Children and adults alike both go through a silent period in the early stages of language learning, although the timeframe varies from person to person. Generally, it can last a few weeks to several months.
In other words, it’s okay to not speak, and for many people, not speaking might be better.
I tried this with Modern Greek. While I had some familiarity with it from listening to my yiayia and a brief Greek School class where we learned the Our Father and how to say, “I’d like a glass of water, please,” I had only a vague knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. I will say that a few years ago, I used Language Transfer, and I could still remember a few phrases. But that was about it.
So, for about nine to six months, I leisurely practiced through reading on LingQ, completed the Rosetta Stone levels, and Duolingo. I didn’t use a tutor immediately, nor did I laboriously pour out a textbook. Sometimes I read some poetry out loud, but that’s about it.
I capped off my silent period by watching Eisai To Tairi Mou, a famous romantic sitcom, with English subtitles.
And so when I did start speaking with a tutor and using a textbook…it felt like a breeze. Did I still struggle? Yes. Did I forget words? You bet. Is my grammar perfect? Not at all.
But I felt zero stress or embarrassment. I could understand quite a bit, and I felt confident in my learning ability.
It really makes all the difference.
Use real-time prompts to build your language proficiency
One issue many second language learners have is focused on abstract concepts before they have foundational knowledge. Trying to discuss topics you don’t have the foundation for can create foreign language anxiety, because you think you know less than you do.
For example, the worst questions I remember from taking language classes in college tended to relate to future-based questions, in particular.
- What will you do tomorrow?
- Why do you like this movie?
- What do you want to do after college?
- What did you like doing in childhood?
For beginners/A1/N5 learners, who may be learning the basic future or habitual tenses, these are actually very complicated questions!
I often had to consider time, manner, place, tense, and mood all about abstract or non-immediate scenarios. No wonder I’d forget the words or sentence order!
The fact is that most early-stage foreign language learners excel when focusing on concrete, immediate cues.
Using a picture or a movie clip and then describing them is one example. Or looking at a menu, listing what you want to eat, and how you would ask for it. Role-play, games, news articles, songs, and other real-time prompts can help accelerate vocabulary and grammar acquisition.
For learners who are taking an official course, consider doing a “warm-up” before starting your more abstract assignment questions. For example, you can describe where you are studying, what you are currently thinking about, or what you are doing (studying).
Find tutors and native speakers you relate to
Social identification is a core motivator for language learners. And many successful learners can point to family, friends, and work relationships that kept them accountable.
Our communities matter. If your current foreign language teachers are killing the joy of language learning, consider finding a native speaker either as an outside tutor or friend.
Most learners tend to dislike unreliable tandem apps. I suggest finding native speakers who enjoy the same interests on social media, forums, blogs, and the like. Simply doing a search on Google, TikTok, Facebook, and the like using vocabulary in your target language should help.
On platforms like Twitter, Mastodon, and other circles, you can follow organizations you like—such as movie networks, news, actresses, and so on. And then see who they follow.
Make comments on other people’s posts and have fun.
Guard your learning space
Dealing with negative or toxic people is a more complex issue. But they can certainly contribute to foreign language anxiety. Generally, I recommend not telling them about your language goals or interests at all. Find other learners who “get’ you and native speakers you enjoy speaking to.
In the case that you want to communicate with other family members in your target language, wait until you feel confident. Go through the silent period, make friends, build your knowledge to B1, or N3 for Japanese, and then take the plunge. This way, you at least have a positive culture around the language and your interests, even if your family or friends are critical.
Filter negative comments
Negative comments can come from just about anyone. They may not even relate to your language ability or to you specifically.
Consistently hearing how “difficult”, “hard,” or “stupid” a language is can erode your motivation over time and make it harder to focus.
If you can’t avoid such behavior, you may be able to ask the individual to stop. In the case that it’s impossible, you’ll need to filter it out and try to outweigh it with positive reinforcement. Finding things that you love related to your target language can help significantly.
Prepare before speaking
I’m nervous about speaking in my own language half the time, let alone another one. One thing that helps is to develop a script for yourself. A list of questions and answers you can use when making conversation.
Ideally, practice in front of a mirror. Record yourself and listen to it, so you can get used to hearing your own voice.
But aversion to speaking can go deeper than simply foreign language anxiety.
It’s also possible that you learned some limiting mindsets as a child contributing to your anxiety around developing your speaking skill. If you were bullied, told to be quiet, ignored by authority figures, and so on…it’s quite possible that you developed speaking anxiety. For learners who feel like that’s the case, it’s a good idea to speak to a therapist and unpack that baggage.
You’ll also want to affirm that you have the right to speak and you are interesting. If you can foster friendships with other learners and language speakers and filter current negative comments, this fear of speaking should improve over time.
Yet, preparation continues to help, regardless of the reason behind the speaking anxiety.
In a recent study on foreign language anxiety and medical students, researchers found that English listening activities provided more stress and apprehension than other skill sets.
Listening, like speaking, tends to be a real-time skill. If you miss something that is said, you must be asked for it to be repeated or rewind the recording. Personally, as a language learner, I feel that audio-only recordings are the most stressful activities, which can provide visual cues and make comprehension easier.
When looking at Ye Pan’s study, Analysis of Listening Anxiety in EFL Class, she lists all the potential issues in her introduction. Some include:
- Invisibleword boundaries
- False starts
- Irregular pauses
- Speaker-specific intonation
- How fast the speaker is talking
- Dialects and accents
In other activities, there are many factors, including native speaker mistakes, that can make listening difficult. And listening is essential for developing your speaking skill since you need to be able to comprehend the speaker.
In other words, working on your listening comprehension may also help reduce your speaking anxiety. It’s helpful for foreign language learners to spend time listening to their target language, even if they can’t understand everything. You can use elementary-level recordings or videos to learn might and write down what is said. You can also watch intermediate and advanced-level programs with English subtitles, so long as you are actively listening for words you already know.
This will not only improve multiple language skills, but you’ll also begin to internalize how the language sounds-making it easier to complete listening assignments in class.
Focus on the material, not the test
Traditional language class settings and overly ambitious goals often have us studying for a test rather than the material. And listen, if you’re focusing on taking an official test—do practice the exam! If I were to take a B2 or C1 Goethe exam for German, I would 100% take practice tests once a week for months.
That said, for most learners, especially from A1 to B2, or N5 to N2, focusing on the material itself will be far more beneficial. Listen and relisten to audio recordings, watch fun content, and read interesting articles and books, all in your target language. Spend a little time a week or a day on grammar, and focus on what points you need to learn to say what you want to say.
Test anxiety occurs because we are being watched, measured, and evaluated. And for many learners, we’ve had negative experiences with that. We begin to associate our scores with our self-worth and effort. But these things are not connected.
Keep the material relevant and interesting for you, and the language will stick, no stress is required.
Do interesting things outside of second language learning
I studied languages before, during, and after college. But one problem in college is that I studied nearly all the time. In part, it was due to stress, and thus being slower to retain information and needing to study more. In addition, I didn’t want to spend money, so I didn’t sign up for many hobbies or clubs. This, indirectly, contributed to my foreign language anxiety.
But if talking about life is a considerable part of the language learning process. Sharing what we love and do with our tutors, friends, and acquaintances is how we grow our vocabulary. And also how we build relationships and begin to understand others.
So, make sure to have another hobby or two you can weave into your learning journey. And, if I may, hobbies outside of policies and religion can create a lot of friction. These topics can always come in later and in other ways, but you should add something that really gives you joy. Art, gaming, knitting, gardening, outdoor exploration, cars, whatever. Just make it an integral part of your experience.