quinta-feira, 21 de junho de 2012

Language Anxiety: Creative or Negative Force in the Language Classroom?

ByMark Daubney, Portugal

Mark Daubney is an EFL lecturer and teacher trainer at Leiria Polytechnic, Portugal.


"...é deplorável constatar que a maioria dos professores continua a proporcionar aos alunos aulas que, quanto a mim, se revelam chatas e desmotivantes, em que a leitura e interpretação de textos são rainhas."

(...it's deplorable that the great majority of teachers continue to treat students to lessons, which in my view, are boring and demotivating, lessons in which reading comprehensions rule.)

"...considero que, dentro da sala de aula, o desempenho de algumas pessoas não é tão brilhante, pois elas sentem-se um pouco inibidas por estarem em frente do professor. Pensam sempre que estão a ser avaliadas."

(...I think that the effort of some people in the classroom is not that great because they feel somewhat inhibited being in front of the teacher because they always think that they are being evaluated…)

"...acho que como alunos, como pessoas, também gostamos de dar uma resposta correcta e quando a professora nos diz que não está correcta se calhar sentimo-nos um pouco mal não é? Afinal eu falei, fiz isso errado portanto mais valia estar calado. Acho que por vezes pensamos assim."

(...I think that as students, as people, we like to respond correctly and when the teacher says to us that our answer is not correct, maybe we feel a little bad, don't we? Well, I spoke and said something wrong, it would have been better to have said nothing. I believe we think like this sometimes.)

"...acho que os professores que não conseguem valorizar a participação em si procuram mais a resposta correcta e se calhar não optam pela melhor forma de correcção e se calhar contribuem muitas vezes para que os alunos se arrependam de ter participado e evitem participar novamente…não é a correção em frente à turma é a forma como é a correção."

(...I think the teachers who are unable to value participation in itself look for the correct answer and maybe don't choose the best form of correction, which probably very often contributes to students regretting having participated and to them avoiding participating again ...it's not the correction in front of the class but the way the correction is done.)

(Comments made by third year students studying to be lower-secondary school teachers of English in Portugal.)

This is a reflection based on my research and experience as a teacher-researcher and on my experience as a second language learner. Language anxiety is a theme that has been researched extensively in North America and many European countries. However, for some reason it has not, until my own recent research (Daubney, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, Daubney and Araújo e Sá, submitted for publication), been a topic that has attracted much interest here in Portugal.

The background to language anxiety

Language anxiety can be defined as the fear or apprehension occurring when a learner is expected to perform in the second or foreign language (Gardner & MacIntyre 1993) or the worry and negative emotional reaction when learning or using a second language (MacIntyre 1999). Generally speaking, language anxiety has been viewed as a particularly negative psychological factor in the language learning process by many of the researchers and academics who have considered its impact on learners. In some cases, language anxiety has actually been cited as "possibly the affective factor that most pervasively obstructs the learning process" (Arnold and Brown, 1999:8), a negative energy that affects the brain, more specifically, our short-term memory, and hence our ability to hold words and ideas long enough on this creative table so to speak in order to mould them into suitably communicative sentences or utterances. In some cases we may freeze, unable to find the words. One of its effects is to lessen our ability to produce and, therefore, create linguistically. Perhaps the most well-known metaphor used to represent learners' negative emotional reactions to language learning is Stephen Krashen's 'affective filter', an imaginary emotional barrier which is erected when learners feel threatened by, disinclined to engage with or emotionally unreceptive to the language input available to them. On the other hand, if learners are relaxed and motivated, then this wall-like barrier will be lowered and the language input surrounding them will more likely be attended to and acquired.

Is language anxiety always negative?

Some researchers have questioned the notion that anxiety is always a negative influence. Indeed, some have pointed to the potential benefits of anxiety (Mathews, 1996; Spielmann and Radnofsky, 2001). For example, to take an experience that most of us here today may have had: writing under pressure. Sometimes it seems we are capable of writing more effectively and, indeed creatively, when we have to complete a dreadline and have little time in which to complete it. Sometimes the more time we have on our hands, the more ineffective, dull and uninspiring our writing seems to be; more often than not we may leave things until another day, allowing tension and anxiety to be cranked up to the necessary levels in order to spur us into action. As for speaking, and here I am essentially referring to public speaking, anxiety may actually push us on to greater effort and fluency, a motivational buzz that acts like a cerebral pump, pushing the creative juices around our brains and freeing up our creative instincts, as opposed to bringing our thought processes and ability to produce to a creative standstill. I am sure many have experienced the sensation of being nervous and tense before speaking, and when actually speaking this nervousness being reflected in stuttering, false starts and inaccurate pronunciation only to find these feelings and 'mistakes' giving way to more confidence and greater fluency, and in some cases a real reluctance to leave the floor!

This is why these two strains of anxiety, one a negative force the other a positive one, have respectively been referred to as 'debilitating' and 'facilitating' anxiety in the literature. The positive anxiety pushes you forward, motivates, helps, energises and facilitates whilst the negative anxiety weakens our resolve, creates doubts, encourages us to run away and debilitates.

Language anxiety and its relationship to creativity

So how does anxiety relate to creativity? Well, before we try to approach this question, perhaps it is worthwhile in considering what we actually think creativity is. Fehr and Russell opine when talking about emotions that "Everyone knows what an emotion is, until asked to give a definition" (cited in Oatley and Jenkins, 1996:96). Perhaps we are on the same ground when attempting to define creativity. I would like to ask you to think of five words which you associate with creativity. After giving this some thought I would imagine that you may have some, but not all, of the following words - or forms of these - on your lists: difference, new, novelty, imaginative, originality, freshness, inspiration, ingenuity, inventiveness, innovative and uniqueness. Now, these notions of creativity transferred to the language classroom may be perceived completely differently by different teachers. A reading comprehension implemented and overseen by certain teachers in their own particular teaching styles may well be seen as dull and boring by others. Conversely, other teachers' attempts to whip up students' interest by asking them to write down what they feel about a certain piece of music, for example, might be judged by others as trendy but boring. Creativity really is a case of one man's meat is another man's poison. Yet, leaving aside this question of taste in creativity, I think we can point to certain activities that are likely to be more inherently creative. Indeed, as Dörnyei has pointed out "creativity is inhibited by certain common classroom conditions and tasks (e.g., test-like activities) whereas activities that are presented in a 'permissive and game-like fashion' appear to release creativity" (2005: 242-243).

Communicative approaches, then, allowing for a greater focus on student-centred, interactive and open-ended activities are going to cater for greater student freedom and allow them to contribute to tasks and activities in their own particular way and express their own unique interests. All well and good so far. But what exactly do we consider to be creative activities? Role-plays, for example, do allow for spontaneous language input and communication but more often than not are 'spontaneously' put together, that is, they are unplanned and give students little support. Indeed, role-plays may well function best when students have a firm idea of what is expected of them, when they have had time to think about the vocabulary needed and possible ways of expressing their ideas. Therefore, creativity does not have to be utterly spontaneous, although it may well be. Conversations with groups of my own students in higher education are often largely spontaneous and, I like to think, frequently creative, so creativity does not de facto need to be planned or dependent on inventive materials, although creativity itself may arise out of such creative materials and well thought-out lesson plans. Word play, word games, inventing and playing quizzes, acting, (re)telling stories, singing and drawing may all lend themselves to creativity in the language classroom.

Creativity, then, is a slippery bar of soap, easy to cite as an important influence in the classroom but more difficult to pinpoint in terms of what it actually consists of and probably, for the majority of us, even more difficult to conjure up in the classroom. What we do in the classroom depends on the pupils or students and their relationship with each other as well as the teacher. Indeed, the fact that I have used the words 'pupils' and 'students' indicates that age is also an important factor in the equation of whether or not we can be creative in the classroom. Primary school pupils (I use the word 'pupil' for those in education up to 18 years of age, 'students' for those studying in higher education) are, generally speaking, less inhibited, willing to join in activities and very enthusiastic. Very often, secondary school pupils, especially teenagers, take more convincing of the relevance of activities if they are to partake in these, while students often want to see a direct connection to their futures and/or their courses before they are willing to complete certain tasks.

Indeed, it is perhaps no coincidence that as pupils move through the different cycles of education they may well see a decrease in creative activities in their language education. As the importance of marks and accurate performance are increasingly stressed and the types of exercises encountered in tests are repeated and carried out in the classroom, it is also likely that pupils and students become more aware of their own performance in a foreign language and are therefore more likely to experience anxiety as a result of this added pressure. If creativity is more likely to thrive in communicative, open-ended and student-centred activities, it is certainly open to question whether pupils and students will find themselves either being creative or in a creative environment when they are doing repetitive exercises that want the 'right' answers to closed questions - be it in written or spoken form. Indeed, teachers may gradually come to focus on form as opposed to content, devaluing the 'act of having tried' as one of my students memorably put it. In fact, it can be argued that success in language education does not, in fact, lie in creativity but in conformity and the ability to reproduce 'correct' answers in a grammatically acceptable way. I am not suggesting that all language classes are devoid of creativity. Of course, it is possible and desirable that creativity and accuracy are both encouraged and promoted. Task-based learning is particularly valuable in this sense. But an over-insistence on accuracy can chip away at enthusiasm for participation and spontaneous language use. For this reason teachers should not only think carefully about the classic when, how and how often to correct but why correct, who corrects and who is corrected.

Debilitating language anxiety has the potential of exerting a considerable influence on classroom dynamics. We can talk about how this anxiety can affect pupils and students on at least three levels, which are clearly interconnected. Firstly, anxiety may result from fear of negative academic evaluation. Mistakes, therefore, are feared. Better to keep within the limits of what you know as opposed to experimenting and creating. The more mistakes you make, the lower your mark will be. Secondly, anxiety may result from the fear of making mistakes in front of others, that is to say teacher and colleagues. What do people think of me? I look and sound stupid! are possible reactions. Given language learning is a social activity, creating with your peers in this state of mind is likely to be more difficult. Your mind is elsewhere. Thirdly, learning a foreign language means you are not expressing yourself as you want to, as you know you can in your mother tongue. Pupils and students therefore often fear looking stupid because of their inability to express themselves. Learning a language means engaging with and reflecting on our very identities and perceptions of who we are. Teenagers in particular are both susceptible and sensitive to perceived threats to their changing identities.

Striking the right balance 

Given these potential sources of anxiety, it is no surprise that creativity in language classes has to be achieved through hard work. In order to reduce the debilitating type of anxiety and hit the right levels of facilitating anxiety a positive working environment is helpful. Jerome Bruner has talked about one of the principle goals of teachers being that of creating the 'optimum state of learning', that is, not a classroom environment characterised by apathy or debilitating anxiety but one which is exemplified by curiosity, a sense of adventure and students who are eager to learn. A friendly relationship between the learners themselves as well as between learners and the teacher is a good base from which to move forward. If teachers are to encourage creativity, then students should feel happy about taking risks. Learning is about taking risks, making mistakes, thinking about difference and contrast and (re)constructing our own learning paths. It is not about teachers serving up slices of knowledge to be devoured and encouraging a 'feed me' syndrome. In language learning risk-taking is necessary so we can get to grips with the language. Teachers should also be encouraged to take risks. The pressures of completing the programme and getting good results often work against the creative instinct. As a teacher trainer in Portugal, I have often witnessed the class teacher initiate conversations that have pleasingly snowballed and diverged from the original topic - real conversation if you like - only for the teacher to get the learners 'back on track', that is, back to the programme and the ever-present student book. The seeds of creativity can often be found in simple class warm-ups, where often student enthusiasm is at a high but which is often repressed and bottled up by a focus on form and a somewhat slavish adherence to the PPP model.

A personal reflection on language anxiety

At the beginning of this paper, I mentioned my own experience as a second language leaner as a shaping influence on what I have to say here. I have learnt Portuguese both in and out of the classroom but, personally speaking, the greatest anxiety I have felt was while I was in the classroom studying the various disciplines on the Master's in Language Didactics at the University of Aveiro. It is pretty difficult to contribute let alone be creative when you are struggling to keep up with what is being said. I had always managed outside of the classroom and was in greater control of the situations I found myself in - I could change the topic of conversation, I could ask people, who I generally didn't know, to repeat what they had said, and I could have even made my excuses and walked away if I had wanted to. In the classroom, more eyes are upon us, ears are more attentive to what we say and we generally have far less time to make our contributions. Physical escape is not an option, although avoiding participation and nodding your head and smiling whilst not fully understanding is! Furthermore, these other learners are our peers and we see them regularly. At times, the anxiety I felt before, while and after speaking left me thinking unduly about what my peers and teachers thought of me. As a result, I sometimes avoided speaking although I really did want to contribute. Yet the anxiety I experienced - and at times it was uncomfortable - was a spur, an added incentive to understand and be understood. But gaining confidence takes time and learning languages is a lifelong process. I mention this experience as I think it is important for teachers to reflect on their own practices. Sometimes we are too close to our own classrooms to discern more clearly what is really happening in them. We should reflect on how we feel when participating in conferences, when taking part in in-service training sessions and other events. Even better, a return to the foreign language classroom as students comes fully recommended as an antidote to explaining away our own failings on students' lack of interest and motivation.


In the literature on language anxiety there is an overwhelming tendency to see anxiety as something that should be reduced at all costs, if not eliminated from the language classroom. Yet, this is a dubious notion. Surely we want to have classrooms where the students are anxious to learn, students who have a desire to participate. An anxiety-free classroom, for all its apparent appeal, may not, in fact, be conducive to learning, nor for that matter to a creative environment. Anxiety, then, as I have indicated elsewhere (Daubney, 2005), is part and parcel of the language classroom. Some learners - teachers even! - will feel more anxious than others. What is important is that teachers are aware that anxiety may complement creativity in the classroom and spur students on to perform better; on the other hand, it make take a more negative form, leading learners to avoid contact with the language, an anxiety that may discourage creative input and encourage feelings of inadequacy. Such perspectives of anxiety are best not viewed as direct opposites but rather as possible occurrences along an emotional continuum.

Whether language anxiety is a more negative or positive force in the classroom will largely be determined by the interaction between teachers, their objectives, methodology and the learners. However, an ability to forge a healthy working environment for language classes out of these factors will certainly give creativity a better chance of flourishing.


Daubney, M. (2002) Anxiety and inhibitive factors in oral in the classroom: a study of third year English language specialists at the Catholic University in Viseu. Máthesis, Viseu, 11, pp. 287-309.

Daubney, M. (2003) Language anxiety in oral communication: case studies of third year Portuguese polytechnic students studying to be second cycle state teachers of Portuguese and English. In C. Mello, A. Silva et al. (eds.) Didáctica das línguas e literaturas em Portugal: contextos de emergência, condições de existência e modos de desenvolvimento. Actas do 1º Encontro Nacional da SPDLL - FLUC - Fevereiro de 2002. Coimbra: Pé de Página, pp. 321-328.

Daubney, M. (2004) Language anxiety in oral communication in the classroom: a case study of future teachers of English. Unpublished Master's dissertation. Aveiro: University of Aveiro,.

Daubney, M. (2005) Language Anxiety: Part and parcel of the foreign language classroom.The APPI Journal, Year 5, no. 1, Spring 2005, p.10-15.

Daubney, M. and Araújo e Sá, M. H. Researching affect: Towards and understanding of language anxiety and its relationship to interaction in the foreign language classroom. Aveiro, Universidade de Aveiro. (Submitted for publication)

Dornyei, Z. (2005) The psychology of the language learner: Individual differences in second language acquisition. Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gardner, R. C. and Macintyre, P. D. (1993) A student's contributions to second-language learning. Part II: Affective variables. Language Teaching, 26, pp. 1-11.

Macintyre, P. D. (1999) Language Anxiety: A Review of the Research for Language Teachers. In D. J. Young (ed.) Affect In Foreign Language And Second Language Learning: A Practical Guide To Creating A Low-Anxiety Classroom Atmosphere. Boston: McGraw-Hill, pp. 24-45.

Mathews, T. J. (1996) A case for increasing negative affect in foreign language classes.Language Learning Journal, No.13, March, pp. 38-41.

Oatley, K. and Jenkins, J. (1996) Understanding Emotions. Oxford: Blackwell.

Spielmann, G. and Radnofsky, M. L. (2001) Learning Language under Tension: New Directions from a Qualitative Study. Modern Language Journal, 85, pp. 259-278

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