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How to Overcome Foreign Language Anxiety

Austin Meusch
July 7, 2021

You’ve probably heard other teachers, professors, and business professionals discuss the advantages of knowing a second language in the work world. Students are often advised that even if you’re not fluent, putting a second language on your resume will help you stand out, show that you’re more culturally aware, and open doors to jobs that you might not even know existed.

If this is true, why is requiring a second language so controversial? Some people even call it “a waste of time.” Most states do not have a foreign language requirement to graduate, and only 20% of students are learning a second language.

The reason so many people think foreign language requirements aren’t worth it is because few students become “fluent” in a second language by the time they graduate. What they fail to understand is that fluency isn’t necessary to provide the benefits of a second language. Rather, aiming for a conversant level of speaking is more reasonable and still highly useful in a practical setting.

How Long Does It Take to Become Conversant?

Of course, this varies. After four years of language learning, many students can reach a novice high or intermediate low proficiency. At these levels, you’re conversant; you can hold a conversation with a native speaker.

The Reality of Foreign Language Anxiety

When learning a second language, many students rely on the constant memorization of words and rules to prepare for a test. Rarely does their studying involve the language for communicative purposes.

For many students, speaking in a foreign language class is their most anxiety-inducing classroom experience. Often, they’re afraid of making mistakes and being corrected in front of the class. Teachers don’t always think twice before correcting students’ speech, but it comes across as harsh or embarrassing.

Years of memorizing vocabulary, grammar rules, and conjugations cause students to view language as something that requires formal accuracy. This is a huge problem; it’s not the reality for many native speakers. Many students in France don’t know how to use the subjunctive, but they don’t view speaking as something that must be perfect. Among other things, speaking should communicate emotion. If you’re stressed out by the act of speaking itself, you’re not going to reach that kind of intimacy.

This stress that surrounds speaking causes many teachers to struggle to get students to participate verbally at all. Even students who do speak when they have to are unlikely to practice speaking at home.

It doesn’t matter how well students know how to read or write in the language. If you’re not able to speak it, you can’t converse, which takes away the greatest benefits of knowing another language.

More than anything, speaking should be encouraged and prioritized. You need to shift its goal from accuracy to functionality. A low-stakes, stress free setting is the best way to promote conversation.

How to Approach Language More Practically

By focusing on the accuracy of communication students get the impression that they’re supposed to learn how to speak perfectly. If they don’t, they think they’ve failed. Few school programs give students enough time to effortlessly speak with accuracy by the time they’re through.

Speaking should be taught as the most important part of learning a language. Its value lies in its communicative function. If students are able to ask for directions, explain what the weather’s like, or express how they’re feeling, they’re succeeding. Even if their grammar isn’t perfect, they’re already communicating in another language, and that’s the most encouraging takeaway.

Speaking a language is very different from writing a paper in it. Speaking is a social skill.  Students should be able to talk to each other in another language without focusing on structuring the sentences. Everyone has different experiences, interests, learning styles, and learning rates. Encouraging students to speak before anything else facilitates more individualized learning.

In order to get here, students need to become comfortable speaking the language. They need to feel comfortable speaking in front of classmates, teachers, and by themselves.

Changing Study Tactics

Many students only focus on studying when it’s right before an important test. Tests often have listening, reading, and writing sections, but they don’t always have speaking. This throws the balance of speaking way off from what makes sense in terms of practicality.

Encourage more frequent, less-intensive speaking assessments. These can have a simple grading rubric. Reduce the volume of material. This can encourage students to practice speaking at home. Encourage them to speak flexibly. They should speak according to what they wish to communicate. The function comes first, then the words. Fluency and accuracy can follow later.

Study methods need to reflect the emphasis on speaking. Reading passages, grammar exercises, and vocabulary notecards help you learn words, but they don’t help you practice speaking and pronunciation. Many teachers try to encourage students to speak by reducing the emphasis on pronunciation and accent. This is often counteractive: students don’t know how to pronounce words correctly, so they don’t wish to speak.

Designate classroom time to pronunciation. The importance isn’t to strive for perfection, but enough practice will result in improvement. If students have more practice, they’ll be more apt to speak. Then find ways to encourage them to practice speaking at home.

Going Beyond Flashcards

We’ve developed a language app that uses voice recognition to promote at-home speaking practice. Teachers can customize the content to their specifications and keep track of student progress. A leaderboard encourages friendly competition between students, so they can push each other to keep improving.

It’s now easier than ever to move past out-of-date teaching methods. Placing an emphasis on practical, conversational language use will provide students with a valuable skill they can confidently put on their resume.

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