Anxiety in a Second Language Learning

There are three types of anxiety in language learning. Anxiety is an affective factor and like most affective factors such as tiredness, boredom and emotional disorders, anxiety can have an adverse effect on second language learning.

One type of anxiety is trait anxiety as Rod Ellis refers to as ‘the disposition to be anxious’ (1994). This is a general characteristic within a person’s general personality. The second type of anxiety is known as ‘state anxiety,’ which is based on a learner’s reaction to a specific learning situation like taking an exam or reciting an oral presentation. This is anxiety based on a specific learning situation. The third type is situation – specific anxiety which is based on the general orientation of anxiety resting on certain learning contexts in which a learner does not perceive himself or herself fit or linguistically capable for acquiring proficiency in speaking and/or reading contexts. Anxiety can have either a debilitating effect (increasing anxiety on learning) or a facilitation (easing anxiety on learning). Ellis relates to anxiety as result due to the following factors:

1. Learners competitive natures

2. Teachers’ questions are threatening

3. Lack of a relaxed second language environment

Some learners tend to switch off when confronted with a potentially threatening learning context. Conversely, the switch off strategy can be employed by good learners who find the material of the language classes boring, not sufficiently challenging, etc. by using the switch off strategy, anxious learners

1. By trying to find a gap in the teaching methodology and learning opportunities and therefore, want to close that gap but are too anxious and therefore cannot close the gap.

2. By switching off, they can either make their learning more enjoyable and opportunist or switch off completely because of the perceived threat.

In addition, learners pursue the switch-off strategy in order to analyze a specific language learning task, function, element. Usually such learners are dependent on the learning process and often let their emotions interfere in the learning process. The degree of anxiety can also be intensified by a few factors, that often are overlooked:

1. age – varies between adults and children and the learning context at hand.

2. Motivated – How motivated is the learner to study the second language

3. Self-image. Does the learner have enough self-confidence?

Because anxious learners are generally tied up by the emotional element(s), they often do not have enough self-awareness to regulate their learning and cannot switch back to a specific learning context. They are also unable to remember the contents of the previous lesson.

Rod Ellis. (1994) Second Language Acquisition. Oxford University Press.

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