Language learning anxiety analysis

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Language learning anxiety has been investigated by researchers over the past thirty years and has been recognised and identified as being, and having, a negative impact upon second and foreign language learning (Aida, 1994; Horwitz et al., 1986; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991b; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991c). Researchers have indicated that for many students, speaking in the target language is the most anxiety-provoking aspect of language learning (Aida, 1994; Bailey, 1983; Cheng et al., 1999; Ely, 1986a; Horwitz et al., 1986; MacIntyre & Charos, 1996; Madsen et al., 1991; Young, 1990), and concern remains regarding the amount of anxiety present within language classes (Cope-Powell, 1991). Campbell and Ortiz (1991: 159; & In Young, 1999: 24) state that the levels of language anxiety within classrooms are 'alarming' and Horwitz (in Young, 1999: 24) estimates that at least one half of all language students experience debilitating levels of language anxiety. Overall, language learning contexts appear to be prone to anxiety arousal (Price, 1991; MacIntyre, 1995: 90).

Several independent studies have been conducted to identify the effect of anxiety on learners' language achievement, the affective factors of anxiety and the potential sources of anxiety within the language learning environment, and some have even gone as far as to offer temporary solutions to mitigate anxiety (Clement et al., 1977; Gardner and Lambert, 1972; Krashen 1985; Oxford, 1996; Horwitz et al., 1986; Horwitz, 2001; Swain & Burnaby, 1976). Overall, past literature on language learning anxiety indicates a negative relationship between anxiety and achievement (Bailey et al., 1998; Bailey et al., 2003; Chastain, 1975; Horwitz et al., 1986; Horwitz, 2001; Lalonde and Gardner 1984; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991a, MacIntyre, 1999; Onwuegbuzie et al., 2000), and performance (Horwitz et al., 1986; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991b, 1991c; Onwuegbuzie et al., 2000).

II. Background to Formal Chinese Education and Examination System and English Language Instruction within Technical Vocational Education

The present day formal Chinese education system was formed between 1977 and 1980 within the Deng Xiaoping governmental reforms as a means to facilitate the country's social and economic needs (NESO, 2005: 6), and is both 'extensive and complex' (Hu, In Silver et al., n.d). The national common language; 'P'u-t'ung-hua' (Chao, 1943: 63; MOE, 2001), is the official medium of educational instruction for the majority of the Chinese population; approximately 70% (Chao, 1943: 63), although 'autonomous regions' prescribe to their own languages[1] (Johnson, 2010).

Students' who undertake 'vocational' senior secondary school education, predominantly undergo a similar educational path to that of 'general' education students'[2], for which, the 'key core' curricular subjects are: Chinese, mathematics and a foreign language; usually English (Ibid.). The 3rd year majoring elective choice is restricted to alternative non-'general' education skill-based electives, i.e. electronics; computers; business English; tourism; secretarial management etc. Key core subjects and student chosen elective, form the 750 point maximum basis of the 'highly competitive' National College Entrance Examination (NCEE) (Hu, In Silver et al., n.d.); the 'Goakoa'[3]. The present components of the NCEE English paper (see Figure 2.1) represent the evaluation of students 'aptitude for language learning' (Johnson, 2010).

Figure 2.1 - Components of the NCEE; the 'GoaKoa'; English Test Paper

Examination Area

The Number of Points Allocated


30 points


15 points

Cloze [15 blanks in 1 passage]

30 points

Reading Comprehension [5 passages with the 5th passage being to fill in a form with 1 to 3 blank words]

50 points

Writing - news report / advertisement / pictures (4) - describe and write a story

25 points

* Table information supplied and confirmed by Johnson (2010)

All Chinese students undergo intensive and extensive NCEE examination preparation, for which, assigned provincial produced textbooks constitutes learning time constraints for both students and Chinese English teachers within the 3 year preparation process (Ibid.). Time constraints within a predominantly 'structure-based environment' (Lightbrown & Spada, 2006: 109) advocates the use of 'Grammar-Translation' methodology, by which '[t]he first language is maintained as the reference system in the acquisition of the second language' (Stern, 1983: 455 cited in Richards and Rodgers, 2001: 5) and exceedingly limited usage of 'Audio-Lingual' methodology, by which 'a tape recorder provides accurate models for dialogues and drills' (Richards and Rodgers, 2001: 63) within the Chinese ELT classroom.

Continual ELT time constrain pressure, constitutes a 'hostile' language learning environment pertaining to negative psychological aspects and outcomes for students. Students learn by rote and are expected to answer teacher fired questions 'immediately' and 'correctly' with no thinking time allowance (Johnson, 2010). Incorrect student answers, provokes teacher criticism and reprimanding in front of classroom peers (Ibid). Such action clearly violates principles set forth by Krashen for establishing a friendly English acquisition environment (Krashen 1989):

Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language - natural communication - in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.…The best methods are therefore those that supply 'comprehensible input' in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are 'ready', recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production. Stephen Krashen

Combination of Chinese ELT approach and 'hostile' learning environment, inclusive of large student numbers seated in rows and sparse educational surroundings and resources, constitutes 'Chinese immersion rather than English immersion' (Qiang & Wolff, n.d: 19). In addition, present cultural evaluation belief of 'good' teacher status relies upon student examinee marks and overall student number pass rates (Johnson, 2010). 'Good' student status relies upon 'the mark(s) they receive in their examination(s)' (Ibid.), for which, no other form of official governmental 'language skill evaluation' presently exists outside of the written form (Ibid.); as highlighted within Figure 2.1.

[1] Han people form the largest ethnic sector within the population of PRC; approximately 91%; with a remaining 55 ethnic groups representing 9% (Xia, 2001). Chinese dialects[1a] which are languages, are often mutually unintelligible unified only by the written word (Connell, 2009). Such linguistic complexity has presented many challenges to the education system within the PRC (Postiglione, 2000; and Cheng, 2000).

[1a] The varieties of spoken Chinese languages are generally divided into 7 dialect groups (Johnson, 2010). Beifang, Xiang, Gan, Min ;Hokkien, Kejia; Hakka, Yue; Cantonese, and Wu (Ibid. 2010).

[2] 'General' education students' are those who undertake middle school education, following a path of Chinese, mathematics, foreign language; usually English; and politics which are 'key core' curricular subjects within the 3 year educational cycle. The 3rd year elective for 'general' education middle school students' is either 'Humanities' or 'Science and Technology' (Ibid. 2010).

[3] The Goakoa is the highly competitive NECC preceding students' ascension; or not; to university level education (Ibid.).

III. The Importance of this study and thesis within the TESOL arena

I, the researcher/'Experimental Group' instructor decided to focus upon the relationship between anxiety associated with oral communication and performance, due to the need to develop Technical Vocational students' oral skills within majoring English skill-based subjects, i.e. secretarial, travel, business English etc in preparation for their ascension into the Chinese workforce. As most people who embark upon a foreign language course, predominantly do so, to develop their speaking skill, for which, appears to be the most problematic area in its relationship to anxiety levels, and the potential negative effect upon self-esteem and confidence (Onwuegbuzie et al., 1999), this clearly places students at a disadvantage within the classroom. Students truly believe that they are not in control of their own fate in the classroom and intuitively perceive anxiety as a negative influence upon their performance (Horwitz, 2001: 113) and on tests (Phillips, 1991: 2). Students' upheld beliefs and preconceived notions of the types of people who are good language learners and how languages are learnt, may in themselves be counterproductive for language learning (Horwitz, 1995: 576). This study is, therefore, very important with regards to the effects of anxiety upon oral performance and the relational influence of students' beliefs and subsequent attitude towards the classroom, the target language and culture, and language learning in general.

Past research and reviews of the predominantly imbalanced tandem of negative anxiety impact upon learning, achievement and performance within second and foreign language classes, portraits a complex anxiety-provoking phenomenon which is unequivocally distinguishable within foreign language learning. For which:

[w]e need to continue to examine the conflicts that may arise among teacher expectations, instructional practices, and individual student differences. Otherwise, we may unwittingly thwart those students who aspire to become genuinely proficient in a foreign language (Horwitz, 1989: 65).

Research has continued to show that anxiety remains a significant and very real problem within foreign language learning, and especially in relation to speaking, for which, many students who have experienced learning a foreign language, have expressed how stressful it was to be in the classroom as it provoked anxiety (Horwitz et al., 1986; Price, 1991). Language anxiety affects a wide range of students within foreign language learning due to the underlining basis which entails 'communication of personally meaningful and…appropriate messages through unfamiliar and unmastered phonological, syntactic, semantic and sociolinguistic systems' (Horwitz In Young, 1999: xiii). It is, therefore, no wonder that some students within the realms of their usual and culturally 'traditional' language learning procedures and abilities; there of, find learning, using and taking oral tests exceeding anxiety-provoking experiences.

Within consideration of the levels of anxiety students experience within classroom oral communication (Bailey, 1983; Horwitz et al., 1986; Phillips 1991; Price, 1991), many people claim that they have a 'mental block' against learning a foreign language (Horwitz et al. 1986: 125). It is, therefore, imperative that instructors take cognizance of foreign language anxiety phenomenon, and the elements that affect students' oral performance within the aim to help alleviate communication apprehension, feelings of language anxiety and test anxiety. Several teaching approaches have been put forward; community language learning, suggestopedia, total physical response, and the natural approach, to try to help reduce the level of anxiety during the process of foreign language learning (Scovel, 1991; Horwitz et al., 1986; Hadley, 2001).

Increased interest in the psychological motivation of adult foreign language and second language learners, especially in relation to their instructors and learning environment, and the relational anxiety-provoking impact upon student's skill of speaking in a foreign or second language (Scovel, 1978), has highlighted the significant array of problems within language classes. Influences of affective factors have also become a focus of many studies as, 'what the learner experiences in the language lesson is as important as the teaching method…and instructional materials' (Bailey In Phillips, 1991: 1). Instructor incognizance of teaching method and its relative affective relationship to varying degrees of anxiety-provoking experiences for students' within foreign language classes may, 'unwittingly thwart those students who aspire to become genuinely proficient in a foreign language' (Horwitz, 1989: 65).

Language anxiety may be influenced by the teaching methods, techniques and styles used within the classroom. These include seating students in traditional rows, concentration on 'correct' grammar and pronunciation, limited thinking time in relation to processing new information and finding the answer, exceedingly little time on discussion, and a lack of pair work or group work. Young (1991) proposes that the problem lie not with the student, but with the teaching 'methodology' (1991: 429) and that '[s]tudent language anxiety might be an indication that we [instructors] are doing something fundamentally unnatural in our methodology' (Ibid.). Instructor cognizance of the awareness of the potential relationship between anxiety-provoking classroom experiences; potentially initiated by student attitudes, emotions and subsequent beliefs toward language learning, and the influence of the teaching methodology employed, is therefore, imperative.

Brown (1994) states that the goal of education should be 'the facilitation of change and learning' and that teachers need to 'establish interpersonal relationships' with their students (1994: 86). Allwright (1984) claims that, 'the importance of interaction is not simply that it creates learning opportunities, it is that it constitutes learning itself' (1984: 9). A move toward humanistic approaches and techniques, may 'engage the whole person, including the emotions and feelings…as well as linguistic knowledge and behaviour skills' (Richards & Rodgers, 2001: 9) as:

[The techniques] help build rapport, cohesiveness, and caring that far transcend what is already there…help students to be themselves, to accept themselves, and be proud of themselves…help foster a climate of caring and sharing in the foreign language classroom (Mazkovsky, 1978: 2 cited in Richards & Rodgers, 2001: 90).

Samimy and Rardin's (1994) analysis of students' journals regarding their language learning experiences, discovered that if certain factors were present in a language classroom, the majority of students reported that their learning was facilitated. These factors include:

A supportive and nurturing environment.

An instructor who is non-judgmental, non-condescending and respectful.

Group support and sense of community.

Activities that the learner can relate to personally and that can relate to real life and real life situations.

Cooperative activities that promote a sense of community and individual achievement.

(1994: 387).

Samimy and Rardin's (1984) findings, therefore, highlights the importance of interactional relationships and roles between student(s) - instructor, instructor - student(s), and student(s) - student(s) within the balance of the language learning environment as a whole. The application of humanistic techniques may indeed help to alleviate language learning anxiety levels as there is, 'probably no other field that challenges a student's self concept in the way that language study does' (Horwitz, 1989: 63). Instructor cognizance of the application of humanistic approaches and techniques in relation to alleviating anxiety levels within balances of interactional affective variables may, therefore, allow for 'those students who aspire to become genuinely proficient in a foreign language' (Horwitz, 1989: 65).

IV. Research Questions

1. What aspects may elevate anxiety levels associated with oral performance within the TESOL classroom?

2. Can experimental and group awareness help to alleviate anxiety levels associated with oral performance within the TESOL classroom?

1. Within this research the following concentrated areas of anxiety associated to oral performance are physical, emotional, behavioural, and cognitive including language learning and speaking beliefs. Aspects were surveyed by means of:

Beliefs Associated with Language Learning Inventory (BALLI).

The Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale (FLCAS).

Personal Report of Communication Apprehension (PRCA).

Beliefs Associated with Speaking English Inventory (BASEI).

2. Experimental awareness is defined within this study as:

An emphasis on the holistic nature of language learning: engaging the 'whole person, including the emotions and feelings (the affective realm) as well as linguistic knowledge and behavioral skills' (Richards & Rodgers, 2001: 90).

Correction of student's erroneous beliefs associated within learning a foreign language. Students' beliefs regarding language learning were measured by means of the BALLI. Open group discussion challenging traditional Chinese beliefs associated with foreign language learning in addition to providing language learning literature as a means to change stereotypical beliefs of language learning within the Experimental Groups.

Personal and Classroom Journal writing.

Group awareness is defined within this study as:

A supportive community: helping to 'build rapport, cohesiveness, and caring' (Moskovitz, 1978: 2). Creating a secure non-judgmental and respectful learning environment, by means of cohesively working towards a common goal through cooperative learning activities, and group discussion within humanistic seating arrangements. Thus, focusing on collective learning and progress and not individual, thereby seeking to 'ameliorate the feelings of intimidation and insecurity' (Richards & Rodgers, 23).

Group work and collective Pair Work: helping 'students to be themselves, to accept themselves,…be proud of themselves' (Ibid.) and thus, build self-confidence. Increasing students' communicative opportunities and practice; there of, within initial course commencement structured-based and later commencement fluency-based activities.

Providing a supportive oral platform: helping to 'foster a climate of caring and sharing in the foreign language class' (Ibid.). Using the group for practicing oral communication by means of prepared and free-style dialogues and role-plays; discussions; practicing for oral examinations; and presenting prepared orals to the group in preparation for whole-class examination presentation.

What are the affective factors of anxiety associated with oral performance on examination results within the Chinese TESOL classroom?

Within this research the following concentrated areas of affective factors are:

Examination Results for two Experimental Groups: Experimental Group 1 and Experimental Group 2.

Examination results for two Controlled Groups: Controlled Group 1 and Controlled Group 2.

What approaches need to be implemented in order to help alleviate anxiety associated with oral performance within the TESOL classroom?

Within this research, two main humanistic approaches and one supportive humanistic technique were adopted and implemented within the Experimental Groups. In addition, two linguistic and pedagogical interventions were also implemented within the Experimental Groups as an aid to reducing a potential source of anxiety.

The two main humanistic approaches consisted of experimental awareness by means of:


Group; collective pair work

Journal writing: one individual personal journal and one class suggestion journal.

The one supportive humanistic approach consisted of experimental awareness by means of:

Group; collective pair work communicative ability balancing and rapport.

The two linguistic and pedagogical interventions consisted of:

A re-evaluation of the effectiveness of the English International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and phonetic scripting in aiding pedagogical development.

The introduction and usage of Paech Phonetics as an alternative to the English IPA and an aid to pedagogical development.

Aspects of speaking beliefs were surveyed by means of the researcher's Beliefs Associated with Speaking English (BASE) instrument. This was a post course questionnaire designed by the researcher to evaluate student's beliefs in relation to classroom discourse and to investigate positive and negative humanistic influences that may have occurred within the Experimental Groups in comparison to the non humanistic intervention and influence within the Controlled Groups.

Individual and Experimental awareness and exposure to selected humanistic approaches

Individual and Experimental humanistic approaches were applied to the Experimental Groups only and consisted of the following:

An emphasis was placed on the importance of the complete learning experience using the key four language learning skills in the following order of priority: Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing and the interdependence of using the key four skills of language within language learning in order to emphasis to Chinese students' that language learning is far more than just memorising grammar rules, rote calling / reciting words and learning an abundance of unconnected vocabulary. The aim was to increase the students' awareness of the language learning process by examining traditional Chinese learning beliefs with Western humanistic beliefs and techniques. Language learning awareness of how language is learned in China was elicited from Chinese students' and Chinese English teachers and selected Western humanistic approaches were presented to the students' by the instructor.

An evaluation of students' language learning beliefs and expectations by means of the introduction of the Beliefs of Language Learning Inventory (BALLI) in conjunction with the administration of a BALLI questionnaire. This was followed by whole class discussion and a re-evaluation of beliefs relating to language learning and expectations within the Controlled Groups.

Students were encouraged to take responsibility for their language learning by thinking about, sharing ideas with others and applying beliefs and realistic expectations of language learning.

Students were encouraged to take responsibility for language learning in terms of time management, study opportunities, goal and target setting skills. The researcher administered additional supporting material relating to the aforementioned and this was followed by group discussion and re-evaluation of student's time management skills and language learning responsibilities.

Students were encouraged to set their own language learning rules within the classroom. This included how much native Chinese language should be used to aid clarity of definition and expressing opinion.

Group awareness and exposure to humanistic approaches

Group awareness and exposure to humanistic approaches was applied to the Experimental Groups only and consisted of:

Creating belief of equal worth and belonging within a safe, supportive community which works towards a common goal of learning by way of cooperative; interactive; and communicative learning activities, a well balanced student group communicative ability mixture and seating structure for effective learning within the group, open group and class discussions, and creating a sense of collective learning and achievement as opposed to focusing on individual.

Providing a safe and supportive climate for oral presentation by using the group as a forum for practicing oral communication which included: discussions, debates, questions and answers, dialogues, role plays, practicing for oral examinations and giving oral presentations before presenting the oral to the whole class as both a dry run and within an examination situation.

Increasing students' exposure and widening opportunities for oral communication through enhancement and enrichment by means of group dynamics and the implementation of fluency based oral activities with the acceptance by all students' of spoken mistakes and the openness of student and instructor error correction.

Journal Writing - Individual and Class Suggestion Journal

Individual students within the Experimental Groups kept a journal in which they were encouraged to make an account of things that had taken place during the day. Student's were encouraged to express opinions about what they had learnt in lessons, whether they felt it had been beneficial to them, positive and negative experiences that they had encountered whilst using English both in and out of the classroom, what they felt could be done to resolve the problems and how the instructors present usage of humanistic approaches could be adapted to support their language learning needs more effectively.

Students within the Experimental Groups were encouraged to express their opinion regarding language experiences and feelings within set and general situations both in and out of the classroom.

Students within the Experimental Groups were encouraged to express their opinion regarding experiences and feelings in relation to self confidence both in and out of the classroom.

Students within the Experimental Groups were encouraged to exchange their journal with other students within the class in order to give advice and share suggestions of how to overcome some of the language learning difficulties that the students were facing both in and out of the classroom.

Students within the Experimental Groups were encouraged to be the primary source of making suggestions within a class suggestion journal, pertaining to which areas of language they wanted to learn and what language would be the most beneficial to them for their future everyday life and working environment. The class suggestion journal was placed inside the classroom and the instructor discussed with the class the order in which student language learning suggestions should be presented as lessons and the reasons associated with the students' decisions as to the order of the presentation of lessons.