Abstract few years from, secondary school. //factors


In this thesis I investigate
the possible factors that may hinder people’s ability and willingness to use
their second language (L2) in certain situations. In addition I explore the already
existing body of research and academic discussions about anxiety connected to
the use of a foreign language, focusing mainly on English, and apply it to the
topic at hand. While a vast amount of studies and research has been done on the
effects that anxiety has on the students and the ability to learn in a classroom
and ways to influence and mitigate it, my focus was on scenarios outside of the
language classes, where the setting for students’ second language use is
everyday life, rather than a very specific, more controlled environment. The
research that was carried out involved people who are in their final two years
of, or have graduated within the last few years from, secondary school. //factors observed to influence it//

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Reasons Behind Teenage Foreign Language Learners’ Anxiety in Oral
Performance Settings

While more and more people
strive to achieve higher and higher levels of language competence, a
significant portion of such people prefer not to be put in a situation where it
would be required of them to use said proficiency, especially verbally. The
main reason for this reluctance is anxiety, an emotion that has been observed
to accompany speaking in a foreign language more so than any other form of
communication. This issue is clearly of great importance, since if a student is
too anxious to use the knowledge they acquired during their studies, then said
studies have failed in their very core goal: “A program which fails to produce
students who are willing to seek out and communicate in situations where they
can is a failed program” (MacIntyre,
P., Dörnyei, Z., Clément, R., & Noels, K., 1998, p. 545). It is rather interesting how the
concerns people have when it comes to their communication skills take different
forms than when it comes to any other skill. Especially in the case of oral
communication, many people feel the need for their style, their pronunciation
to be perfect, otherwise they feel ashamed and as if their surroundings will
definitely judge them for their folly (Hewitt, E., Stephenson, J., 2012). In very few other skills does
people’s lack of competence evoke such a unique set of fears, worries and
anxieties as in spoken language. The explanation for this might be the fact
that verbal communication, or more broadly the skill to convey information
directly to another person, is one of the most inherent skills a person can
have. It is one of the first skills people must master, and when someone
perceives themselves to fail at a task they consider almost as natural as
breathing, they feel embarrassment. This effect is further exacerbated if there
are people around the L2 speaker who have already “mastered” the target language
and their accent and pronunciation is ideal in the speaker’s opinion, and they
might not even be willing to speak in such settings due to their anxiety.

Previous research has
found that willingness to communicate, the concept which can be defined as “the
probability of speaking when free to do so” (MacIntyre, p.564), depends on a
multitude of positive, or driving factors and negative, or restraining factors.
While the positive forces consist of a multitude of different aspects, most of
the inhibiting ones, which discourage speakers from speaking in their L2 not
only in the immediate situation but in those in the future as well, are
connected to some form of anxiety. One of the main questions this thesis
investigates is the similarity between the anxiety people experience when faced
with an everyday situation where they could, or are even supposed to, use their
L2, and the language anxiety experienced by students in the L2 classroom.
Language anxiety can be defined as “the worry and usually negative emotional
reaction aroused when learning or using an L2” (MacIntyre p. 565), but as the
research demonstrates, there are some key differences between what a student
experiences inside and outside the classroom. The goal of limiting the focus of
the research and having mainly teenagers and young adults as participants is to
minimalize other, individual-based circumstances which might lead to
difficulties in L2 communication, such as not having used said language in many
years. In the present study an overt distinction has been made between students
who study English as their L2 and those who do so as their L3, the reason being
that it is common practice to place less emphasis on the L3 than on the L2,
mainly by the students themselves, and partly by the institutions. This becomes
apparent not only by observing the admittedly very diverse attitudes of the
students, but by looking at the end goals institutions and educators propose to
the pupils, by the lower number of L3 classes and the significant difference in
the number of years during which L2 and L3 are taught; in some secondary level
schools only one foreign language is compulsory for students to learn. Due to
these factors L2 English and L3 English and the challenges their respective
speakers face are too different to be treated as the same, and doing so might
cause the research to be inconclusive or inaccurate.

Literature Review

Anxiety as a term has
quite an array of meaning, and in every situation where it might be used its exact
meaning is slightly different, based on the setting where it is applied. As
such, it covers many aspects which lead to a similar, though not identical,
feeling of unease and nervousness. Although it has been observed by researchers
that a distinction can be made between facilitating and debilitating anxiety (Hewitt, E., Stephenson, J., 2012), the
former referring to a low level of anxiety that might enhance the performance
of L2 learners and the latter detracting from it, most often the effects fall into
the category of the latter; for this reason research and studies most often
focus on these negative effects. In the circumstance of language use, more specifically use
of a foreign language, the proposed term for the type of anxiety specific to
foreign language use is language anxiety. It is closely connected to the
question whether or not a person will choose to engage in oral communication or
try and avoid situations where such actions would be expected of them, and has
been shown to be directly related to L2 competence (MacIntyre, P., Dörnyei, Z., Clément,
R., & Noels, K., 1998). Although not exclusively, the majority of research has found the
correlation between anxiety and oral language competence to be negative, anxiety
levels being inversely proportional to performance. Language anxiety has a
significant influence on people’s willingness to communicate (MacIntyre, 2007),
and it is one of the most important factors that discourage, or even inhibit,
people from speaking. As to what this negative feeling might stem from, one
might be inclined to propose that the English proficiency level of the speaker
is the determining factor; the higher their level of proficiency, the lower
their level of anxiety will be, as it must be a symptom of a lack of
self-confidence due to an inability to express themselves in the target
language. However, this does not seem to be the whole truth, as people with
varying levels of proficiency experience anxiety of differing severity
regardless of their knowledge of the language; people with low language
competence might gladly use it for communication regardless, and those on the
high end of this spectrum might be crippled by anxiety and avoid such
situations to the best of their ability (MacIntyre et al., 1998). Based on such findings, language
anxiety appears to be a more complex issue than simply being a direct correlate
of the person’s language competence. A further elaboration of this phenomena
proposed by researchers in the field is to divide it further into three smaller
categories, namely state, trait and situation specific anxiety (MacIntyre,
2007). State anxiety is what refers to a person’s anxiety in a given moment,
unrelated to past experiences and the expectations formed towards the situation
they are in; trait anxiety, as the name suggests, is a part of a person’s
personality, how anxious they are in general, independent of the situation or
other external factors; and situation specific anxiety is the anxiety induced
by the person’s past experiences with the specific setting that they are in, in
this case for example, using their L2 for communication would evoke such
emotion, but not when speaking their native language (MacIntyre, 2007). Furthermore,
the situation specific aspect of anxiety is heavily varied, as there are marked
differences between the emotional responses of speakers depending on the
different social situations, physical locations, the purpose of the
conversation and the topic that is discussed (MacIntyre et al., 1998). It is
important what the social position, such as employer and subordinate, of the
conversational partners are, in what location does the event take place, such
as at a workplace, in a classroom or at a café, what are the speakers’ goals in
the situation, such as maintaining social relations and making small talk or
conveying important information and orders, and whether or not the participants
are well acquainted with the topic or not. Some overarching themes can be
observed in all the different combinations of these factors, for example, the
type of register to be used; in a formal setting more emphasis is put on the
speakers’ choice of words, just as in a conversation with one’s superior. In
such situations anxiety levels are more likely to rise, since the appropriate
behavior is more specific, and mistakes carry more weight than in a casual
chat. Since a L2 is concerned, a distinction between native speakers (NS) and
non-native speakers (NNS) can also be made, where NNSs are more comfortable
speaking to other NNSs than NSs, but this phenomenon can be generalized by
considering language competence, where a large difference between the
participants’ language proficiency can be a cause of heightened anxiety.

Investigating this
issue, a study by MacIntyre, Clément and Noels (2007) examined how introvert
and extrovert high-school learners’ willingness to communicate changes
depending on the situation in which they studied. As expected, the results
showed that the most important factor is the familiarity that the students had
with the situation, introverts showing higher willingness in more familiar
settings and extroverts in new and unknown ones. In another study, by
MacDonald, Clément and MacIntyre (2003), conducted in the bilingual environment
of Ottawa, Ontario, university students were asked to describe situations where
they would be most and least comfortable speaking their L2. A frequently
mentioned phenomenon was, although responses differed depending whether the
particular student’s L1 was English or French, error correction. Based on the
responses, when received from a teacher it was perceived having a positive and
encouraging effect, but when the same event occurs out in the public, this
effect is reversed, and has a negative impact. This, again, supports the idea
that specific situations change the way certain events and reactions affect the
person’s emotional response to them; what might be beneficial in a particular
setting induces anxiety in other cases. Interestingly, mostly those students
with English as their L1 claimed that they would be uncomfortable when speaking
in their L2 with strangers or when they were unsure of the sufficiency of their
language competence, due to the worry that they would be judged for their
pronunciation or grammar. Those students with French as their L1 mentioned
settings where everyone spoke fluent French, for example family and friends, as
ones where they would be least willing to speak English, but did not mention
often the same stage as their English speaking peers, that of speaking to strangers,
although some of them did indicate that conversations which would require
specific terminology would be a source of distress for them. This discrepancy
is most likely due to the fact that they had come across such situations more
often than the English L1 students, they had more exposure, and due to this,
their situation-specific anxiety is lower. This is a key point in ensuring that
more students choose to participate in L2 conversation, enabling them to
experience situations that closely mimic real life ones. It is far from
obvious, however, as to how can educators achieve this, since the setting of a
language classroom is very specific, and different from casual conversation, as
we have seen from the responses of the students who experience much less
anxiety and are more comfortable speaking in the former. As MacIntyre, P.,
Dörnyei, Z., Clément, R., & Noels, K. (1998) exclaims as well, a concise
way of defining what a language education program should achieve by its end is
students who look for occasions where they can use their second language, and
when such an occasion arises, choose to actively participate in it.

The fact that
students, based on the difference in what their native language is, experience
similar situations quite differently also points to another issue: the
sociopolitical standing of the L2. Based on the audience, or peers, that
surrounds the speaker and the attitudes of these people towards the target language,
anxiety levels in said speaker change significantly. At the core of this
phenomenon might be the urge to belong to a community, and using a different
language when in a group can be looked down upon for a number of reasons. This
might be the case for those French students who remarked how they would be
unlikely to speak in their L2 in a family setting; it would be considered an
act of demeaning the native language of those present. People might come to the
conclusion that the speaker considers their language inferior, lacking in some
aspect, for otherwise they would not have elected to use a different one. This
feeling of being attacked by someone’s deliberate choice of code switching can
be enhanced in a situation where language preservation is an important issue,
as some students mentioned themselves (MacIntyre, p. 570), where a group’s
native language and another fill the same role and thus said group feels
threatened in their habits. A direct correlation can be shown between a
person’s fear of losing their ties to their L1 community and their reluctance
to engage in interaction with the community surrounding their L2, or even their
L2 itself (MacIntyre, P., Dörnyei, Z., Clément, R., & Noels, K., 1998).

Another example might
be the question of how prestigious the given L2 is in the given community. If
the group, or even the majority of the speech community the speaker in question
is a part of, deems the language the person uses or wishes to use as
lower-class and beneath their social standing, this can cause unease in the
speaker. The same issue arises when the opposite end of the spectrum is
concerned, and in an established lower-class language group a person elects to
speak a language which is viewed as belonging to the ‘elite of society’. Other
intergroup relations might also have an impact on people’s anxiety levels, such
as the desire to integrate into the target language community. While this is a
crucial factor concerning motivation when it comes to learning another language
(MacIntyre et al., 1998, p. 552), it can also be a source of anxiety; if the
speaker notices, or just feels, that their pronunciation or general language
use is not on the same level as the community they wish to affiliate with, they
might be unwilling to engage in communication and thus are unable to integrate
into the group.

An issue of similar
nature is that of control in a conversation, of power between the participants.
A group or a person in a commanding, high power position might be reluctant to
switch to or use a language in which they have less experience speaking, or a
more limited vocabulary, due to their anxiety over appearing less intelligent
or well-spoken than their conversational partner(s). When losing face is to be
avoided if at all possible, otherwise common situations, such as a
conversation, become a source of high anxiety, especially if using an L2, and
thus the speaker is likely to use their native language, and a less controlling
person, or group, will likely acquiesce if they are able. According to
MacyIntyre’s (2007) journal article, overly trying to adapt to another
speaker’s perceived needs, such as switching to their native language even when
they open the conversation in their L2, might also lead to embarrassment and
anxiety in the initiator, an effect which can transition into situation
specific anxiety and cause further problems in the future. Such an event causes
a feeling of inadequacy; the refusal of the proposed form of communication
indicates that the first speaker’s level of proficiency was deemed
insufficient. All of these issues relate to the common notion of judgement and
failing to meet expectations placed by others upon the speaker, although these
expectations are often only of such high importance in the speaker’s mind.

A crucial observation
that MacIntyre (2007) mentions is that the state of the speakers’ minds
continuously changes, from one moment to the next, in situations where they
have the choice to speak or to stay silent. For this reason, analyzing the
phenomena that influence a given speaker as unchanging and constant throughout
the event is a fallacious approach; the research methodology must be able to provide
an analysis of the dynamics in any given moment. Even with that said, it is
nigh impossible for someone to report the changes in their mental state as they
are in a situation where they have to make a choice between speaking and
staying silent, making the research of this concept far from trivial. Another
issue with self-reports is the potential for bias and inaccuracies, both tendencies
that get stronger the more time passes between the event in question and the
speaker making the report, and for this reason, a closer to optimal way of
examining the changes and tendencies happening in an L2 speaker’s mind, for the
lack of a better way, would be recording the event and having the participant
explain what emotions they were experiencing what thoughts crosses their mind
at different points in the conversation with the help of this recording, immediately
after said event took place. (MacIntyre, 2007). This presents a challenge to
most quantitative forms of research, however, since the use of such methods
requires more time and flexibility than usual.

A different, yet equally
important observation is that it requires higher levels of motivation to start an
action, in this case speaking, than to maintain doing it (Dörnyei, Z., &
Ottó, I., 1998), and speakers’ anxiety levels are also higher before choosing
their course of action than after. However, being motivated to speak or being
too anxious to do so are far from being a binary notion; the forces that would
promote action and those that would do so inaction are both active at the same
time, and the outcome, whether or not conversation happens, is the result of
these forces’ net balance. In moments when these two forces are close to each
other in intensity, the speaker hesitates whether or not to cross the threshold
and engage in the action or avoid it. In addition to the already discussed
sources of restriction, MacIntyre mentions an additional one, that of cultural
norms; speakers from different cultures might have a further set of inhibiting
factors. The example given by MacIntyre in his article is that of Chinese and
United States students: a Chinese person might have more of an ingrained value
for “thoughtful silence” and “deference to authority” (MacIntyre, 2007, p. 571)
than someone from the US, and as such needs higher levels of motivation before
choosing to speak. While the cultural aspect of this phenomenon definitely
exists, remaining silent out of respect for, or fear of, an authority figure in
the group is hardly unfamiliar in any culture. This is another case of the
already mentioned issue of expressing power and control; someone who feels, or
is made to feel, inferior is less likely to speak their minds and engage in
conversation in such situations.

Up until this point we
have seen what the effects of anxiety are in correlation with whether or not
the speaker chooses to participate in communication, and some of the reasons why
a person might experience it. However, even after the initial choice is made in
favor of speaking, language anxiety still has detrimental effects not only on
people’s mental and emotional state but on their language proficiency as well.
One of the most frequently investigated situations where this phenomenon
becomes blatantly apparent is that of oral language testing. Multiple studies have reported that language anxiety has
a significant impact on the results of such tests, and the self-reports made by
the students confirm that such situations cause severe mental distress. It
would be ignorant however, to dismiss the fact that these students are being
tested, which inherently causes the participants to be anxious, even without
the foreign language aspect. For this reason it might be beneficial to consider
people’s language competence from a more general point of view, not necessarily
based on a test’s results. For this purpose, considering the Common European
Framework of Reference for Languages’, or CEFR’s, guidelines to categorize
language competence is a possible solution. Starting from intermediate and
upper-intermediate levels, all of the statements describing what a speaker of
such level should be capable of doing refer to a continuous flow of speech
without longer pauses: “There is little obvious searching for expressions or
avoidance strategies”, “Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity
that makes regular interaction, and sustained relationships with native
speakers quite possible without imposing strain on either party” (Common
European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment).
//maybe include the charts in the
appendix?// This effortlessness is one of the most likely aspects that is
missing in the case of a speaker with high anxiety levels. Searching for the
right word, hesitating before speaking and in between sentences are all
symptoms of language anxiety; as mentioned above, high anxiety can delay the
decision of starting to speak as motivational forces that affect the speaker
are undulating. For this reason an outside observer will assess the person in
question, if these guidelines are followed strictly, as of lower language
competence than they would in an anxiety-free situation.