Anxiety in Oral English Classrooms: a Case Study in China

Interest in affective variables of second/foreign language teaching and learning, which had been emergent since the 1970s (Brown, 1973; Lozanov, 1978), was brought to the fore by Krashen’s (1982) hypothesis that stressful classroom environments contributed to a “filter” blocking easy acquisition of the target language. Krashen (1982) hypothesized that anxiety contributed negatively to an “affective filter”, which made an individual less responsive to language input. This principle exerted considerable influence on communicative teaching approaches in subsequent years. Since then, hundreds of research articles have touched upon the issue which invariably find that foreign language anxiety is more associated with public speaking and mainly functions as a inhibitor in language learning (Bailey, 1983; Gregersen & Horwitz, 2002; Horwitz, 1995; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1989; Onwuegbuzie et al., 1999).

In order to identify anxious university students and measure their anxiety, Horwitz et al. (1986) developed the Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale (FLCAS) which comprises three dimensions— communication apprehension, test anxiety, and fear of negative evaluation. The scale was administered to 75 Spanish learners of English at an American university. The study revealed that significant foreign language anxiety was experienced by many students in foreign language learning, which adversely affected their performance in that language. Thirty three percent of the subjects endorsed the item “I get nervous and confused when I am speaking in my language class”, and 28% agreed that “I feel very self-conscious about speaking the foreign language in front of other students”. Almost half of the students reported that they started to panic when they had to speak without preparation in the target language. Meanwhile, 47% of the subjects rejected the statement “I feel confident when I speak in foreign language class”. According to the researchers, language anxiety manifested itself when students avoided conveying complex messages in the foreign language, when they displayed a lack of confidence or froze up in role-play activities, and when they forgot previously learned vocabulary or grammar in evaluative situations. These findings were supported by numerous later studies using a similar research method (Aida, 1994; Bailey et al., 1999; Chen, 2002; Cheng et al., 1999; Gregersen & Horwitz, 2002; Kitano, 2001; MacIntyre et al., 1997; Onwuegbuzie et al., 1999; Wang & Ding, 2001; Yan & Wang, 2001). In order to explore the relationship among language anxiety, perceived competence and actual competence, MacIntyre et al. (1997) recruited 37 English learners of French at a bilingual university in Canada, all of whom had considerable exposure to French, their L2.

The participants completed a questionnaire followed by a series of French proficiency tests during the testing session. It was revealed that those students who produced more output tended to produce better output and that those who were more proficient tended to perceive themselves as more proficient. In addition, all the correlations involving language anxiety were found to be negative. As language anxiety scores increased, the ratings of ideas expressed, output quality, and self-rated competence declined. Moreover, these relations were consistent across speaking, reading, writing and comprehension tasks, indicating a strong relationship between language anxiety and measures of language achievement. It was also found that anxious students tended to underestimate their ability and more relaxed students tended to overestimate their ability. Highly anxious students did not perceive their competence to be as high as a more objective analysis revealed it to be. The arousal of anxiety probably made some students more reluctant to speak.

Meanwhile, many researchers have become interested in exploring causes for student anxiety in second/foreign language classrooms through qualitative data (Bailey, 1983; Hilleson, 1996; Jackson, 2002; Price, 1991; Tsui, 1996). They found that a multitude of variables contributed to student anxiety such as low English proficiency, lack of practice, competition, and task difficulty, which might vary from context to context. Bailey (1983) examined the diaries she kept while studying French as a foreign language in a low-level college reading class in America. She found that there was quite much competitiveness on her part and that she often compared herself to the other students in the class. This comparison caused or aggravated her fear of public failure. She concluded that competitiveness was often accompanied by anxiety and hindered her French learning though sometimes it appeared to be facilitating. The same conclusion was drawn when the researcher reviewed other people’s published diaries. Hilleson (1996) investigated 5 young international students attending a college in Singapore in way of diaries, interviews, observations, and questionnaires.

He found that the awareness of performing badly in English seemed to indicate a loss of self-esteem. The students were aware that their performance was being evaluated by their peers and teachers, which made them very anxious in learning. The fear of missing important information was also a source of student anxiety. As a result, the students did not participate in any debates or artistic performances in the early part of the term. Furthermore, speaking was frequently mentioned as an anxiety-provoking event. Some students felt very self-conscious about their pronunciation when speaking English; some found it frustrating to “jump into” a discussion. Apparently, foreign language anxiety existed and interfered the students’ learning and affected reactions, although it might motivate some students to work harder sometimes. All these findings reveal that foreign language anxiety is a phenomenal issue and mainly a negative factor in language learning. The differences in foreign language learning situations and variance in underlying causes for foreign language classroom anxiety require that more research be needed to examine students’ anxiety levels, causes for and consequences of anxiety, and their relationships with language proficiency in various second/foreign language learning contexts.

Name : Meihua Liu

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