Capitalizing on Language Learners' Individuality: From Premise to Practice

Capitalizing on Language Learners' Individuality: From Premise to Practice

by Tammy Gregersen, Peter D. MacIntyre


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Capitalizing on Language Learners' Individuality: From Premise to Practice by Tammy Gregersen, Peter D. MacIntyre

This book closes the gap between theory and classroom application by capitalizing on learners’ individuality in second or foreign language learning. The book examines the existing literature and theoretical underpinnings of each of the most prominent learner characteristics including anxiety, beliefs, cognitive abilities, motivation, strategies, styles and willingness to communicate. This strong foundation, coupled with the wide variety of activities that are suggested at the end of each chapter, arms the reader with ideas to conquer the problems created by negative affect and to capitalize on positive, facilitative emotions. The tasks are unrestricted by language and can be modified for use with technology, emergent learners and large classes, making this book a useful resource for both in-service teachers and pre-service teachers in university language teacher education programs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783091201
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 12/15/2013
Series: Second Language Acquisition Series , #72
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Tammy Gregersen is Professor of TESOL at the University of Northern Iowa, USA. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of language teaching methodology, language teacher training, learner variables, emotion and nonverbal communication in language learning.

Peter D. MacIntyre is Professor of Psychology at Cape Breton University, Canada. He has published widely in the areas of the psychology of communication, motivation, emotion, willingness to communicate, language acquisition and dynamic systems.

Read an Excerpt

Capitalizing on Language Learners' Individuality

From Premise to Practice

By Tammy Gregersen, Peter D. MacIntyre

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2014 Tammy Gregersen and Peter D. MacIntyre
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78309-120-1



From Premise ...

Unchecked debilitating foreign language anxiety has destructive consequences on the language learners who suffer from it. Negative self-comparisons, excessive self-evaluations, worry over potential failures, concern over thoughts of others: these are some of the self-related thoughts that have anxious language learners focusing on their flaws rather than on their achievements, thus limiting the positive interaction and community-building that characterizes supportive language learning environments. In the following story, the 'cracked pot' is somewhat analogous to language anxious learners. He feels distress and shame over his flaws and even with evidence of the positive outcomes in the form of beautiful flowers, still needs to be encouraged.

To make an even stronger connection with how foreign language anxious students feel, take a moment to think about how you projected yourself in your TL as compared to your L1 as you first attempted to communicate. If you were like many other beginning TL speakers, while you probably considered yourself somewhat articulate in your first language – kind of funny ... sort of intelligent ... authentically you – you may have feared that others thought your jokes were not quite as funny, that they questioned your intelligence, and that the 'self' you communicated in your TL was somehow not the same person you were in your L1. It is this very awareness of the inability to authentically communicate who we are in our first languages when using our second languages that is the impetus for foreign language anxiety. These feelings can leave learners apprehensive about communicating, fearful of negative evaluation, and suffering from test anxiety (Horwitz et al., 1986). In the classroom context, anxious students have reported that the greatest source of their anxiety comes from speaking in front of peers (fearing being laughed at or ridiculed), making errors, and not communicating effectively (Price, 1991).

This self-realization might not be so bad if the manifestations of it were not so influential in the language learning classroom. There is nowhere for learners to hide when they freeze up during oral classroom activities, experience memory loss, or refuse to participate (Horwitz et al., 1986). Anxious students do not seem to handle language errors as effectively as more relaxed peers (Gregersen, 2003) partly because of the tendency to engage in negative self-talk and brood over poor performance. Doing so takes up space in working memory, which tends to reduce information-processing abilities (MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991c). Anxious learners exhibit avoidance behaviors by skipping class or putting off assignments. Some language learners tend toward perfectionism, adding unrealistically high personal performance standards to an already challenging learning process (Gregersen & Horwitz, 2002). Over time, the effects of language anxiety may culminate in lower proficiency and course grades, or in dropping out of language learning all together.

Although few specific classroom activities for reducing anxiety are outlined in the literature, researchers do give general guidelines for teachers to follow. Among these are the creation of student support systems and encouraging classroom environments that focus on sensitively correcting errors (Horwitz et al., 1986); encouraging the overhaul of unrealistic expectations and counter-productive beliefs about language learning; incorporating more supportive, small group activities, and focusing on the meaning of the message rather than accuracy (Price, 1991). Language methodologists have also tried to remedy the maladies of debilitating anxiety by creating specific approaches that target negative affect. For example, the method, Desuggestopedia, attempts to 'de-suggest' the psychological barriers that are erected against the language learning process, and still another method, The Natural Approach, is designed to mimic as accurately as possible the way that children acquire their first language.

Throughout this chapter, we will examine what language classroom anxiety is, where it comes from, and by assessing its stigmatizing effects, draw some conclusions about the importance of this variable to language learning. After appraising how anxiety influences the four skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening, the chapter will conclude with what research suggests are general guidelines to consider for lessening anxiety's debilitating effects, followed by the introduction of specific activities teachers can implement in their classrooms.

Exploring Foreign Language Anxiety, Its Origins and Its Significance

What language anxiety is

Self-expression is intimately linked to self-concept. Language anxiety reflects the worry and negative emotional reaction aroused when learning and using a second language and is especially relevant in a classroom where self-expression takes place. Horwitz et al. (1986: 128) identify this phenomenon as 'a distinct complex of self-perceptions, beliefs, feeling and behaviors related to classroom language learning arising from the uniqueness of the language learning process.' To understand its origins, MacIntyre and Gardner (1991c: 297) propose that 'initially, anxiety is an undifferentiated, negative affective response to some experience in language class' and that 'with repeated occurrences, anxiety becomes reliably associated with the language class and differentiated from other contexts.' In other words, foreign language anxiety is situation-specific; learners may be anxiety-free in other environments, but upon entering the language classroom, they become anxiety-ridden.

Horwitz et al. (1986) discuss three interrelated concerns that work together in the specific milieu of the language classroom: communication apprehension, fear of negative evaluation, and test anxiety. The interacting parts consist of the realization that target language (TL) messages often are incomplete at best and incomprehensible at worst, leading to frustration and aborted communication. This tendency is exacerbated by the apprehension that nuanced self-expression in the TL is limited by impoverished vocabulary and inexperience with the nonlinguistic aspects of intercultural communication; self-expression is not as authentic as it would be in one's native language. This recognition of disparity is further intensified by frequent and often unreliable evaluations of learning, particularly the performance-based type of testing that occurs in the language classroom.

With this network of negative arousal jockeying for attention with plans to escape the misery, it is no wonder that language anxiety interferes with acquisition, retention and production of the TL. In its infancy, research into language anxiety centered mostly on speaking, as this was the skill that seemed to generate the most worry and concern for language learners. However, with further investigations and the realization that input and processing were also negatively impacted, researchers also began to look at anxieties in listening and reading as receptive skills providing input to the rest of the system, and writing skills that are linked to speaking as another avenue for language production.

At the input stage, anxiety arousal can produce shortfalls in attention and distraction as learners divide their energies between emotional drama and cognitive engagement, limiting the amount of linguistic information that is received and available to be processed. Thus, we encounter learners who hear or read new words but because of their inability to concentrate and encode, those words do not become part of their working vocabularies – the words seem to bounce off a wall of negative emotion and never enter the cognitive system. The effects of anxiety on processing the input are relative to the complexity of the task at hand – if the learners' abilities are commensurate with the task, little interference is likely to occur; but if the task is cognitively taxing, the combination of challenging task and high anxiety will result in difficulties during processing. In this case, learners may receive input in the form of a new word, but interference at processing does not allow them to mentally rehearse it or connect it to prior experience, again resulting in ineffective learning. Finally, interference occurring during the act of retrieving previously stored information typifies problems at the output stage (MacIntyre & Gardner, 1989). In these situations, learners may have processed the input and have it stored for future use, but because language anxiety is aroused, they sit with blank looks on their faces and mouths gaping, as they struggle to find that ever-elusive vocabulary item that they know they know.

Where language anxiety comes from

Sources of foreign language classroom anxiety abound. The causes of anxiety are at times closely associated with the learner and at others with the teacher; but the interaction between, and incompatibility of, learners' and teachers' styles may also be the trigger. Instructional practices, classroom procedures and language testing are also identified as anxiety generators (Young, 1991). Concerning those sources that reside in the learner, Bailey's (1983) study took aim at students' negative self-comparisons with other learners, the learners' perceptions concerning their relationship with their teachers, and their desire for teachers' approval. Beyond learners' competitive natures, which can prompt anxiety, MacIntyre and Gardner (1991b) noted that anxiety is often exacerbated by negative, self-degrading thoughts. They cited learners' own counter-productive reactions to a task as exhausting the cognitive energy necessary for the task itself, ultimately leading to an inability to process information. Excessive self-evaluation, worries over potential failure, and concern over what others think, divide their attention between the task and their own self-thoughts, thus sapping the learner of the cognition necessary for learning.

Young (1991) also cited learner beliefs and teacher beliefs as major contributors to foreign language anxiety, particularly when student beliefs collide with those of their teachers and with the reality of the nature of language learning. In terms of instructor beliefs, Young (1991: 428) contends, 'Instructors who believe their role is to correct students constantly when they make any error, who feel that they cannot have students working in pairs because the class may get out of control, who believe that the teacher should be doing most of the talking and teaching, and who think their role is more like a drill sergeant's than a facilitator's may be contributing to language learning anxiety.' (For a more extensive discussion on learner and teacher beliefs and how their mismatch creates negative effect, see Chapter 2.)

Error correction also can be a significant source of anxiety if it is not handled in ways that are welcomed by learners (Gregersen, 2003; Young, 1991). Students have reported that they feel teachers are on a mission to eradicate errors at all costs, and carry out the corrections with sarcasm or embarrassment. Gregersen (2003) contends that the relationship of errors and anxiety is cyclical: that as errors are made, learners become more anxious, and the more errors they make, the less they are willing to participate as they try to protect their social image. Without interaction in the language, anxious students support the cyclical impasse of negative emotion and decreased performance. Anxious learners tend to focus on the negative, believing their performance is riddled with more errors than they actually produce. MacIntyre et al. (1997) showed that non-anxious students overestimate their abilities and anxious students underestimate their abilities; in each case a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy is triggered.

Finally, some types of activities and testing formats used in language learning classrooms provoke more anxiety than others. Activities and assessments that demand speaking in front of others have been reported by students as generating uneasiness. Oral class presentations, oral skits, oral quizzes and oral responses in class were the most anxiety-producing (Koch & Terrell, 1991). In the assessment arena, Young (1991) also counsels teachers that students are more comfortable when tests reliably measure classroom performance and target material covered in class with question formats and tasks that they have encountered before. Otherwise, frustration and anxiety are likely to ensue.

Significance of anxiety in language learning

Foreign language classroom anxiety results in a litany of specific manifestations that work together to debilitate learners' progress. MacIntyre and Gardner (1991c: 96) go so far as to say that in language learning, 'anxiety is one of the best predictors of success.' The multiplicity of anxiety manifestations cited in the literature, and their chicken-and-egg quality, makes the task of organizing them into a comprehensive and comprehensible framework daunting. However, four natural categories emerge: physical, emotional/affective, cognitive/linguistic and interactional/social. This typology helps us to think about how the symptoms of foreign language anxiety are expressed, but we must remember that the categories interact and work together dynamically. For example, an anxiety-provoking catalyst causes a physiological manifestation with increased heart rate and sweating palms, which in turn creates negative expectations that lead to worry and emotionality. This leads to cognitive interference from self-derogatory cognition, thus eliciting performance deficits. This whole cycle reinforces expectations of anxiety and failure (MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991c).

The physical realm

Anxious language learners report physical symptoms of increased heartbeat, tension, and trembling (Horwitz et al., 1986). The question as to whether these physical sensations are the precursors to cognition or it is the other way around, is difficult to answer. According to MacIntyre and Gregersen (2012a), it might work either way, or both ways, but it is a quickly occurring process. Because it happens so quickly, it might not matter too much whether the 'jolt' comes from an external cue which causes the heart to race and unpleasant feelings and cognition to ensue, or if the thoughts of failure create an emotional response which then leads to physiological reactions, thus causing further unpleasant feelings and coping cognition. Either way, the key observation is that reaction quickly becomes coordinated between cognition, emotion and physiology. A variety of automatic physical processes are triggered, some that increase arousal and other that reduce it, but cognition in the sense of thinking or problem solving is slower than physiology. For this reason, deliberate attempts to control run-away emotion are like trying to herd the cats back into the barn.

The unconscious physical reactions of students are also observed in their nonverbal behavior. With the purpose of giving teachers a starting point for identifying which students struggle with anxiety, Gregersen (2005) investigated the differences between how high anxious and low anxious learners communicate nonverbally. After decoding and interpreting learners' responses, she cataloged the following physical manifestations of anxiety: limited facial expression including brow behavior and smiling; less eye contact with the teacher; postures that were rigid and closed; and hand movements used more for self-touching and manipulating objects than in using gestures that enhanced meaning and turn-taking. With these observations, Gregersen (2005) was hopeful that teachers would take the first step of identifying who their anxious students are, so that with this information, remediating measures would be taken to help diminish anxiety's debilitating grip.

The emotional/affective realm

Anxious learners also have emotional or affective manifestations that hinder language progress. Among the counterproductive feelings anxious learners experience are: insecurity about speaking; fear of not understanding the teacher; panic at being unprepared; worry over the consequence of failure; embarrassment in volunteering responses; fear of teacher correction; confusion when studying for tests; incompetence in self-comparisons with other students; worry about being left behind as the class moves quickly; self-consciousness when speaking; feelings of being overwhelmed by grammatical rules and fear of being laughed at (Horwitz et al., 1986). Other emotional manifestations include nervous laughter (Young, 1991), higher performance standards, procrastination, worry over the opinion of others, concern over errors, and negative reactions to imperfection (Gregersen & Horwitz, 2002). Finally, Phillips (1992: 22) discusses the 'influence of anxiety on the attitudes of students toward language learning and on their intentions to continue the study of a foreign language'. Anxious learners who are disturbed by evaluation are less likely to demonstrate positive attitudes toward language class and are less likely to continue language studies.


Excerpted from Capitalizing on Language Learners' Individuality by Tammy Gregersen, Peter D. MacIntyre. Copyright © 2014 Tammy Gregersen and Peter D. MacIntyre. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents

Introduction1. Anxiety: From Premise… to Practice2. Beliefs: From Premise… to Practice3. Cognitive Abilities: From Premise… to Practice4. Motivation: From Premise… to Practice5. Learning Strategies: From Premise… to Practice6. Learning Styles: From Premise… to Practice7. Willingness to Communicate: From Premise… to Practice

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