Relationship Between Anxiety And Second Language English Language Essay

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"Anxiety is a basic human emotion consisting of fear and uncertainty" (Sarason, 1986). Anxiety has both good and bad sides. Its goodness is that helps avoid dangerous events that can be life threatening. But on the other hand, it causes people to freeze as they avoid non-dangerous situation. Testing is one of such event that causes mind to freeze but it not dangerous. "This is certainly not surprising, for second language learners are attempting to map meaning onto structure with which they are not wholly familiar" (Kern, 1988).

Foreign language anxiety is the feeling of uneasiness, worry, nervousness, and apprehension experienced by non-native speakers when learning or using a second or foreign language. All aspects of using or learning a foreign language can cause anxiety. Listening and speaking are usually considered as the most popular ones. The causes of foreign language anxiety have been broadly separated into three main components; "communication apprehension, test anxiety and fear of a negative evaluation" (Tittle, 1997, p.1).

This literature review will explain the relationship between anxiety and academic reading performance on English as a second language comprehension test.

Differences in NL and FL Reading

Linguistic factors

"The most obvious and essential differences between reading in ones native language and in reading in a foreign language is that the code one is dealing with is entirely different. The writing system, lexicon, syntax and semantic relations of the foreign language may differ greatly from those of the native language and even in the case of closely related languages it may take a considerable amount of time and study for FL readers to develop the same sense of familiarity with the code that they enjoy when reading in their own native language. Understanding relational meaning at the phrase, sentence and discourse levels is a second area in which the FL reader will likely experience linguistic difficulty. A third problematic area or the FL reader is the way in which information is organized in FL discourse. A forth linguistic consideration is the influence of the native language on FL reading. Several studies have suggested that the native language can sometimes interfere with FL processing at the phonological, syntactic, and semantic levels (Cowan, 1976; Hatch, 1974 ;…). It seems that the learner's proficiency in the foreign language is clearly related to successful FL reading." (Kern, 1988, p.3-4)

Affective Factors

"All aspects of reading are highly influenced by affective factors such as attitudes, interests, and values." (Mathewson, 1976, 1985; Ruddell, 1979). Anxiety may be experienced when the reader is pressed to perform in a limited period of time, when he must perform a task in a social group, or when he must comprehend material which he perceives to be too difficult.

Anxiety may disrupt the normal functioning of the met cognitive component by impeding both the establishment and the implementations of goals, effectively paralyzing the reader's control center.

Krashem (1981) discusses the phenomenon in terms of what he calls the" affective filter." When the affective filter is raised through anxiety or low self-confidence, input will not be processed at a deep level, and in turn, FL text comprehension will be reduced.

"Self-confidence is critical to effective reading in that it determines the reader's willingness to take risks. Reading that is conceptually- driven and meaning-centered demands that the reader takes risks, for not all of the visual information which is implicit in a text is thoroughly processed. Rather, visual information is sampled judiciously, providing just enough cues to confirm predictions and elaborate the reader a text representations. Furthermore, information which is implicit in a text can only be accessed through inference based on given information the reader's prior knowledge. Because the FL reader is often insecure about the FL culture, and the text itself, the risk of making inferences is often too great. Thus, a low level of self-confidence may limit the reader in (1) the goals he sets (e.g. literal comprehension only) and (2) his flexibility in utilizing a variety of strategies. In other words, students may assume that they have insufficient background knowledge as a result of low self-confidence and thus may hesitate to make guesses and inference. In the case of the FL reader this state of affairs may produce a vicious circle of poor comprehension and frustration which may result in termination of FL study."(Kern, 1988, p.7)

Dealing with phonetics and reading comprehension is a tough job for ESL learners. A study done on the phonological working memory and reading in text anxiety situation, demonstrated that "anxious subjects showed poorer comprehension than non-anxious subjects" (Calvo, 1996, p.12). The study indicates that there is" an interaction between anxiety and interference on reading comprehension performance" (Calvo, 1996, p.23)

Anxiety over tests makes parents nervous. Children's anxiety is reflected by how their parent's" react to their child's performance on tests" (Anderson, 2002). Parents are models on how their children feel. Parents should "make sure their child does not equate grades on a specific test with being smart" (Anderson, 2002, p.56). Tests do not evaluate how a student or person is.

Fear of failure is what stops students from performing well on tests. "The test anxious person generally believes that not succeeding on a test means he will be judged unworthy. This feeling of unworthiness translates into increased test anxiety which in turn lowers performance on the test" (Jackson, 2001, p.56). Jackson warns that parents can double their children's chance of being anxious unless they learn how to manage their own anxieties. Jackson claims that since" tests are not going to go away learning good test-taking thoughts and behaviors will help children keep a healthy perspective about test, better control anxiety during tests and help to perform at a more successful level because they are not crippled by anxiety"(Jackson,2001, p.57-8). "Positive thinking is a very powerful means of turning thoughts of failure into thoughts of success" (Deutsch, 2004, p.4).

A study done on "the relationship between exposure to a relaxation response curriculum and academic achievement … examined … middle school students" to see if there was connection between school performance and relaxation exercises (Benson et al, 2000, p.7). "Teachers were trained in how to teach relaxation response exercises and self-care strategies to their students" (Benson et al, 2000, p.12). The result of the study showed that "students who had more exposures to the relaxation response curriculum showed an improvement in academic scores over the course of a two-year period" (Jackson, 2001, p.13). This indicates that relaxation exercises are an excellent way to relieve anxiety.

"The best predictors of how a child will cope with stress are how the parents cope" (Stolberg, 2002, p.1). Parents can be role models for their children. Their reaction can teach their children stress management or mismanagement.

Harmful or helpful!

Can some anxiety actual be helpful? There is debate among researchers as to whether and how much anxiety is helpful or harmful. There are who believe that some anxiety is actually is helpful for students. Most language research shows a negative relationship between anxiety and performance. This negative kind of anxiety is sometimes called" debilitating anxiety" because it harms learner's performance in many ways.

How is anxiety manifested in the students?

What are the signs of anxious students? Renee Von Worde in Student's Perspective on Foreign Language Anxiety interviewed students from a diverse set of language classrooms to determine those factors that contributed to anxiety, and those that may reduce anxiety. She found three distinct categories of anxiety symptoms: physical behaviors and symptoms, internal and functional, and avoidance. Some common types of physical behaviors include squirming, fidgeting, playing with hair or clothing, nervously touching objects, stuttering or stammering and displaying jittery behavior. Physical symptoms, on the other hand, may include a headache, tight muscles, and feeling unexpected pain or tension in any part of the body. The second category of anxiety symptoms is labeled internal and functional. In this category, students mentioned that they projected their nervousness days in advance of the class, thus affecting classroom performance. And the last category of anxiety symptoms is avoidance which includes behaviors such as forgetting the answer, showing carelessness, coming late, arriving unprepared, and lack of volunteering in class.

Suggestions and techniques

What can be done to alleviate anxiety for students? There are a lot of suggestions and techniques to reduce anxiety when it comes to language learning. This section will mention the most noteworthy: the role of the teacher.

It is an understatement to say that the role of teacher is paramount in alleviating anxiety perhaps may be even more than a particular methodology. In general, teachers have two options when dealing with anxious students: they can help them cope with the existing anxiety provoking situation; or they can make the learning context less stressful.

The teacher must first acknowledge the existence of foreign language anxiety. They must let go of the myth that it is necessary to induce anxiety in order to stimulate learning.

Teachers can make the learning context less stressful by providing a supportive environment to encourage nonthreatening teaching methods. Some specific activities that can be done to improve classroom climate are the use of pair work, small group works, games, simulations. That alters the communication patterns of the classroom.


We have seen that linguistic and affective factors interact in complex ways to influence FL reading comprehension. And anxiety as an affective factor plays a noticeable role in this aspect.

"Testing anxiety affects every student at least occasionally" (Toronto. Star, 2003, p.1). ESL learners exhibit anxiety when doing reading comprehension tests. The reasons have been stated. Positive thinking and encouraging words will go a long way to helping relieve stress. Relaxation exercises will trick students' minds into believing that they are relaxed learners. And relaxed learners will be able to get higher scores on reading comprehension tests.