By Kelli Drummer-Avendano
Learning a new language can be exciting and enjoyable, but it can also be nerve-wracking even for the most confident student. Language learning anxiety is a very real thing; it even has a name, xenoglossophobia, and it could prevent some students from excelling or even participating in the language classroom. While you may not be able to take all the fear out of learning a new language, here are some ideas to help students feel more comfortable:
1. Talk about it
Confront language learning anxiety head-on and acknowledge that it’s normal. Have students write down their worries anonymously on slips of paper and hand them in. Then read out loud what students wrote and discuss as a class. It will be reassuring for everyone to know they all have similar fears.
2. Inspire passion
The antidote to fear is enthusiasm. If you have a strong desire to accomplish a goal, even the fear of failing won’t stop you. When students are passionate about a new language, the anxiety they feel will take a back seat to their aspiration to keep learning. Music, movies, children’s literature, and cooking are some ideas that incorporate culture, increase student motivation, and help students forget their fears.
3. Create a safe space
This may sound simple, but it’s an essential aspect of language learning. One way to create a safe space is letting students sometimes opt out of speaking in front of the class. This might not always be possible, and practicing in front of others is an important tool in building confidence, but some students with high levels of anxiety should be offered alternatives. For example, they could record their oral presentations or only present them to the teacher.
4. Follow routines
Ease student anxiety by keeping similar routines each day. This allows students to focus on practicing their language skills instead of figuring out what they’re supposed to do next. It’s ok to change it up every now and then, but it’s not a good idea to give unplanned speaking assessments, as this is by far the biggest fear language learners face. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do improvised speaking activities, which can be fun; just be sure students know that if it’s for a grade then they’ll always have time to prepare.
5. Encourage mistakes
Don’t just tell students that mistakes are ok; say that they’re expected. Make mistakes mandatory if you have to! Of course, you don’t want students to make errors on assessments, but at all other times, encourage students to take risks with their language output. This is how they learn and how an authentic experience with a native speaker would play out.
6. Play games
Games are natural stress relievers, especially well-known ones such as charades or Pictionary. Incorporate games into your everyday routines so students come to expect fun and not fear. Additionally, if you notice students are feeling particularly anxious about an upcoming assessment or speaking activity, take a break of ten minutes or so to play a favorite game that lets students review and practice.
7. Praise and appreciation
There’s no such thing as overusing the phrase, “Great job!” in the language classroom. We’re motivated by praise and feeling valued for our work. Students need to hear that you appreciate their attempts at communication even when it isn’t totally accurate. Make an effort to be overly expressive with your praise, especially if something is new or difficult.