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Anxiety and Formal Second/Foreign Language Learning

Kenneth Williams


The SLA/FLA View of Anxiety

I will consider briefly the inverted-U model, facilitating and debili-

tating anxiety and state trait anxiety. I will also examine the relationship

of these concepts to second-language learning. Finally, I will present the work accomplished in the area of foreign-language classroom anxiety.

The inverted-U model is dependent on the concept of arousal, which

is defined in the Longman Dictionary of Psychology and Psychiatry (1984)

as &dquo;a state of alertness and readiness for action&dquo; (p. 60). The model

states that when arousal is low, performance is low. Then, for a time, as arousal increases, so does performance, to an optimal point. As arousal increases further, performance falls ultimately to zero (Lundberg, 1982).

It has been theorized that stress (anxiety) may function in a similar man-

ner (McGrath, 1982).

The inverted-U model has seldom, if ever, been tested in the second-

language classroom. But research has suggested and been interpreted in a way that indicates the presence of this uni-dimensional construct. For ex-

ample, Backman (1976) found that the two Spanish-speaking students

who had the most difficulty learning English also had the highest and

lowest scores on the anxiety measure she utilized. Chastain (1975) found

a negative correlation between scores on tests and anxiety in an audiolin-

gual French course. On the other hand, he found a positive correlation

between anxiety and scores in regular French or German courses. Chas-

tain (1975) resolves these conflicting results by saying, &dquo;perhaps some

concern about a test is a plus, while too much anxiety can produce negative results&dquo; (p. 160).

It is reasonable to assume that some level of brain arousal is neces-

sary for learning to occur and that learning is optimal somewhere bet-

ween a brain-dead state and an epileptic grandmal seizure. However,

Chastain’s terms &dquo;some concern&dquo; and &dquo;too much&dquo; are far too vague. Such definitions leave it up to the instructor to, more or less, arbitrarily decide what &dquo;a little&dquo; or &dquo;too much&dquo; anxiety is, and this could be very

difficult to accomplish. Another, and even more compelling, point is

presented by Krohne and Laux: (1982)

In our Western societies, stress and anxiety especially in achievement situations, have become important issues. There is a general concern


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about the adverse effects of stress and anxiety on academic achieve- ment and other aspects of human behaviour (p. xi).

Therefore, rather than depending on anxiety to stimulate students, it

would be wiser for ESL instructors to use, for example, motivation as an

alternative. For an excellent review of this topic, see Crookes and

Schmidt (1989).

One approach, which moves away from the unidimensional model,

is that of a facilitating and debilitating dichotomy for the description of anxiety. This construct was first theorized by Alpert and Haber (1960),

who view facilitating anxiety as a source of motivation. In contrast, debi- litating anxiety, a more commonly used definition, acts as a distractor.

Kleinmann’s (1977) work has been cited as an example of the pre-

sence of facilitating and debilitating anxiety in the language-learning set-

ting (Scovel, 1978; Long and Larsen-Freeman, in press). Kleinmann’s

primary intent was to examine the relationship between the syntactic

structures in English that are avoided by foreign students (Arabic and

Spanish) and the syntactic structures of the students’ native language. Of

secondary interest to him was the interaction between avoidance behaviour and anxiety. To evaluate the students anxiety, Kleinmann ad-

ministered a modified version of the Achievement Anxiety Test (Alpert

and Haber, 1960), which is designed to measure the facilitating and debi-

litating effects of anxiety and academic performance. The test statements Kleinmann used were adapted to the language-learning situation. Exam-

ple statements used by Kleinmann (1977) are:

  • 1. &dquo;Nervousness while using English helps me do better.&dquo;

  • 2. &dquo;Nervousness while using English in class prevents me from doing well&dquo; (p. 98). Kleinmann (1977) found that the Spanish students who scored high

on the items designed to measure facilitating anxiety also used various structures (such as infinitive complements and direct-object pronouns) in

English that other Spanish students in the same class tended to avoid.

The Arabic students showed similar tendencies, with the facilitating-

anxiety group tending to use the passive voice in English more frequently

than their peers. Kleinmann (1977) contends that some &dquo;second language learners resort to an avoidance strategy that cannot be attributed to a

lack of knowledge of the avoidance structure&dquo; (p. 106). He concludes by saying that anxiety, along with other affective characteristics, should be

researched further to help identify potential avoiders.

One possibility overlooked by Alpert and Haber, Kleinmann, Scovel


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and others, is that observations of facilitating and debilitating anxiety

are actually different ends of the same anxiety continuum (Hembree,

1988). In other words, the emotional state of facilitating anxiety may be

equivalent to a low-anxiety state that diverts the students’ attention only

slightly from the language-learning task. On the other hand, debilitating

anxiety would represent a high anxiety state that diverts a substantial (debilitating) amount of the students attention.

Although I have questions with regard to Kleinmann (1977) and

others’ general interpretation of anxiety as a facilitating stimulus, I agree

with Scovel (1978) that the &dquo;article by Kleinmann takes a step in the right

direction&dquo; (p. 132). This direction, in my opinion, is to look at our

students as individuals who have the potential to respond differently to


A closer look at the situation leads us to the Trait-State Anxiety

Theory. This theory separates anxiety into a transitory state and a rela-

tively stable personality trait. Spielberger, Gorsuch, and Lushene’s (1970) perspective is:

State anxiety (A-State) may be conceptualized as a transitory emo-

tional state or condition of the human organism that varies in intensity

and fluctuates over time. This condition is characterized by tension

and apprehension, and activation of the autonomic nervous

system .... Trait anxiety (A-Trait) refers to relatively stable individual

differences in anxiety proneness, that is, to differences between peo-

ple in the tendency to respond to situations perceived as threatening

with evaluations in A-State intensity (p. 3).

Individuals high in trait anxiety may perceive a second-language learning situation as more dangerous or threatening than persons low in A-Trait

and may respond to this threatening situation with A-State elevations of

greater intensity.

An important factor to consider is that when A-State anxiety is eva-

luated in a complex learning situation (as we would find in many language- learning classrooms), the A-State in an individual may vary with the

given situation (Spielberger, O’Neil, and Hansen, 1972). Therefore, it is

conceivable that the same person could score in one category on a test four

State-Trait anxiety prior to a learning situation and in another category if the test were given during a learning situation. The view that A-State

anxiety can play a significant role in complex learning situations is sup- ported by Heinrich and Spielberger (1982), who say: &dquo;The research

literature provides strong evidence that the impact of stress and task dif-

ficulty on complex learning is mediated by state anxiety&dquo; (p. 159).


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Another significant element in the State-Trait Anxiety theory is the

conditions that an individual perceives as threatening. The variable(s) that will increase anxiety and their interaction are still under investiga-

tion. However, a useful classification scheme at the macro

level is of-

fered by McGrath (1970). After reviewing numerous stress studies, he

identified the following stressful conditions: physical threat, ego threat

and interpersonal threat. In a more situation-specific setting, the formal

foreign-language classroom, Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope (1986) hypo-

thesize that anxiety may be seen as a combination of three components:

1. communication apprehension (a type of shyness characterized by

fear of or anxiety about communicating with other people)

  • 2. fear of negative social evaluation (a broad category that may occur in situations such as interviews or speaking in foreign-language classes)

  • 3. test anxiety (a type of performance anxiety stemming from a fear of failure)

Horwitz et al. (1986) also propose that most adults perceive themselves as

reasonably good communicators in their first language. Then, when a

student is asked to perform in a second language, the concept of being a competent communicator is challenged. This challenge may lead to reti-

cence, self-consciousness, fear or even panic. In Horwitz et al.’s (1986)

words, &dquo;The language learner’s self-esteem is vulnerable to the awareness that the range of communication choices and authenticity is restricted&dquo;

(p. 128). This hypothesis and information gathered from students study-

ing foreign languages led to the development of the statements on the

Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale (FLCAS) (Horwitz et al.


In an attempt to evaluate the theoretical framework of Horwitz et al.

(1986), MacIntyre and Gardner (1989) designed a three-phase study of 52

male and 52 female native English speakers. In the first phase, they

administered a three-part questionnaire containing a series of anxiety

scales. The first part contained the French-class anxiety, English-class anxiety and mathematics-class anxiety scales, which were answered on a six-point Likert scale. The second section contained the French-use anx- iety, trait anxiety and computer anxiety scales, which were also answered

on a six-point Likert scale. The final parts were the measurements of test

anxiety and audience anxiety, which required True/False responses- In the second phase, the students were given four trials to learn 38 English-

French pairs administered by computer and were tested prior to each

trial. Spielbergers (1983) State-Anxiety scale was administered after

three of these tests. The final phase involved French vocabulary produc-

tion and free recall of paired associations.


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MacIntyre and Gardner’s (1989) results support two of Horwitz et

al.’s (1986) hypotheses that communication apprehension and social eva-

luation are part of the elements of foreign-language classroom anxiety. However, their findings suggest that test anxiety is a general problem and

not one that is specific to the language classroom. Maclntyre and Gardner

also found that the students with high communicative anxiety tended to have lower scores on free recall on the paired-associates learning task and

oral and written vocabulary tests. MacIntyre and Gardner (1989) state that: &dquo;The results presented tend to indicate that anxiety leads to deficits

in learning and performance&dquo; (p. 271).

summarize: the majority of the early studies in second-language learning anxiety produced conflicting results (Scovel 1978, Maclntyre


and Gardner 1989). Maclntyre and Gardner (1989) consider these results to be &dquo;likely attributable to an inappropriate level of instrument speci-

ficity&dquo; (p. 272). Later studies such as Kleinmann’s (1977) are significant

because the implementation of a situation-specific instrument will produce scores that are more accurate than one based on a general (anxiety) scale

(Alper and Haber, 1960). Recently, researchers have attempted to analyze

anxiety-evoking situations in a language-learning classroom and build an

anxiety-evaluation instrument around their findings (Horwitz et al. 1986).

Operationalizing The Construct The following is one way to conceptualize the components that create


ESL/EFL classroom anxiety:

I. An external element:

A situation that is anxiety provoking.

II. A receptive element:

An acceptance or perception that a situation is anxiety pro- voking.

II. An expressive element:

A psychological and/or somatic response to number one and

two that is measurable or observable.

The external element, the second language-classroom setting, is, at

times, controlled by groups outside of the classroom (e.g., the community,

the government and the educational bureaucracy). Very likely, these and

other groups will decide on the content, the rate of presentation of the material used in the class and the amount of progress expected from the

students (Stern,

1986; Dubin and Olshtain, 1987). All three - content,

rate of presentation and expected progress - have the potential to be

highly anxiety provoking for students if the demands are beyond the

students’ abilities.


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The second element, reception, is still under investigation. It is not known why some people accept or perceive an external setting as threaten-

ing and therefore anxiety provoking and others do not. However, Dweck and Wortman (1982) have reviewed the literature concerning the major

differences in cognitive processes and coping strategies between in-

dividuals who show adaptive behaviour in performance settings and

those who are less successful at adapting.

Dweck and Wortman’s identification of the elements of adaptive

and nonadaptive behaviour can be organized as follows:

I. self-doubt and low-esteem versus self-confidence and high


  • A. those in the self-doubt group tend to:

    • 1. misinterpret or distort neutral or even positive external situations (Sarason, 1960; Diener and Dweck, 1978; Smith and Sarason, 1975)

    • 2. blame themselves for the situation (Doris and Sarason,

1955; Diener and Dweck 1978)

  • 3. have a high degree of concern and worry about evalua- tion (Mandler and Watson, 1966)

  • 4. have a negative attitude toward a given task (Neale and Katahn, 1968)

  • B. the self-confident group tends not to exhibit the traits listed above.

II. self focus (distracted) versus task focus

  • A. The self-focus group has a higher incidence of non-task- related thoughts than the task focus group (Weine, 1971; Sarason, 1975; Mandler and Watson, 1968)

If there is a key that suggests why some people accept or perceive a lan-

guage-learning situation as anxiety provoking and therefore manifest the

above symptoms, it most likely is fear of failure (rejection) to meet the

demands set in the external element plus the perceived self-perpetuating

nature of this condition. Generally, this apprehension includes the fear

of failure in interpersonal relationships and/or negative self evaluation

because of task failure (McGrath, 1970).

The expressive element, a measurable or observable psychological

and/or somatic reaction, is drawn from a classification of indices of

stress responses by McGrath (1970).


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This element may take the form of:

1. neuro-physiological response detectable through:

  • A. a biochemical analysis of body products (e.g., blood and urine)

  • B. an instrumental measure of physiological processes (e.g., GSR, EEG)

II. direct observation of behaviour (e.g., pacing, stammering,

facial expression)

III. observation of performance on a task (e.g., inability to attend

to task)

IV. reporting of a self-observed physical response (e.g., trembling,

increased heart rate)

V. reporting of a self-observed psychological state (e.g., fear,



of the above measurements


be impractical in the

second/foreign language classroom. Testing for trace elements in

students’ bodily fluids or, for example, measurement of the electrical

conductivity of the skin (galvanic skin response) seems out of place in the language-learning setting. Direct observation of symptoms of anxiety are

vulnerable to observer biases. Also, other factors, such as fatigue or dis-

interest, could produce behaviour that is indistinguishable from that of anxiety. The third option, self report, also has some limitations. For ex-

ample, it is dependent on the individual consciously accepting that anxiety

is present during a specific stimulus situation and/or that the physical or

emotional state represents anxiety. On the other hand, Wallbott and

Scherer (1986) argue that a self-reporting approach to the study of emo-

tional processes &dquo;may be a suitable way to study not only emotion- eliciting situations but also emotional reactions&dquo; (p. 765). Wallbott and

Scherer accept that recall and self-reporting processes may bias the

results and that the results are subjective, not objective measurements of

situations. However, even given the limitations, a self-reporting evalua-

tion appears to be the best option available at this time for the evaluation of anxiety in the ESL/EFL classroom.

Using the above analysis as a guide, I will define anxiety in the for-

eign-language classroom as a response to a condition in which the exter- nal element is or is perceived as presenting a demand that threatens to ex-

ceed the students capabilities and resources for meeting it. The accep-

tance of the situation as threatening then manifests itself as a psychologi- cal emotion and/or a physiological response which acts as a distractor

that divides and diverts the student’s focus and therefore lowers the


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amount of attention and effort that otherwise could be used to master

the task presented.


The role of affect in general and anxiety specifically has been over-

looked for too long in the field of second/foreign-language. The key to

changing this situation and having researchers, administrators and

teachers acknowledge the existence and negative effects of foreign-lan-

guage anxiety is further research. This research could take many for- mats ; however, a long-term study that would allow an evaluation of the

students’ foreign-language classroom anxiety and their progress in the

target language would be a very good one.

The FLCAS can be used or a situation-specific, culturally based

scale could be developed. Several methods are available for the develop-


of a culturally based scale. One way would be to adapt the question-

naire approach used by Matsumoto et al. (1988) to the formal language

setting. A second method would be to have students keep a diary study of

the anxiety they perceive during a semester (or longer) of studying a

foreign language. The results of studies like these could be evaluated and ued to design a culturally based scale.

Another interesting study would be to, along with the FLCAS, ad-

minister a scale that would evaluate the students view of their language-

learning skills. In this way more information could be gathered on why

students find a situation like a language-learning setting anxiety provok-



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