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WHAMPOA - An Interdisciplinary Journal 63(2012)75-90


The Factors Cause Language Anxiety

for ESL/EFL Learners in Learning Speaking
Shu-Feng Tseng
Cheng Shiu University
Department of Applied Foreign language
Assistant Professor
Feeling of anxiety, apprehension and nervousness are commonly expressed by
second/foreign language learners in learning to speak a second/foreign language.
These feelings are considered to exert a potentially negative and detrimental effect on
communication in the target language .
The use of modern communicative language teaching approaches in the language
classrooms and the wide-spread use of English language have increased the demand to learn
good communication skills but existence of such feelings in the learners may prevent them
from achieving the desired goal.
Consideration of learners anxiety reactions in learning to speak another language by a
language teacher is deemed highly important in order to assist them to achieve the intended
performance goals in the target language.
The purpose of this study is to provide a review of related literature on studies on
foreign language anxiety, Asian studies on anxiety, factors associated with learners own
sense of self and language classroom environment, self perceptions, social environment and
limited exposure to the target language, culture difference, social status and self-identity,
gender, strict and formal classroom environment, presentation in the classroom, fear of
making mistakes and apprehension about others evaluation, important causes of anxiety
among the language learners, ways of the learners to reduce speaking anxiety, and ways of
the instructors to reduce speaking anxiety.
This study has attempted to investigate the factors that language anxiety can possibly
stem from, both within the classroom environment and out of classroom in the wilder social
context, and has recommended a variety of strategies to cope with it.
The past researchers have suggested to use a variety of perspective and approaches to
investigate the subject.
Key words: apprehension, communicative language teaching approach, target language


Traditionally, the focus of
research in second language
acquisition (SLA) has been primarily
on issues such as language pedagogy
(Grammar Translation method,
Audio-lingual, etc.), contents of
pedagogical instruction, and ways to
improve them. Consequently, the
implications of this research
remained restricted to the learning
and teaching of the language itself;
that is to say, to the cognitive domain
with little attention being paid to the
affective variables learners bring
with them into language classroom.
It was only in late twentieth century,
in the 1970s, that the SLA
researchers began to study the
significant role played by personally
and motivational variables in second
language acquisition (Shams, 2006).
In order to gain a holistic
understanding of his process,
learners affective variables need to
be taken into account to cater for
their needs and interests (Samimy,
1994). In addition, as the focus of
L2/FL instruction has shifted from
the narrow concern for developing
learners linguistic competence to the
need for communicative competence,
learners are challenged to be able to

studying the role of affective

variables like learning styles
motivation, personality traits, etc.
that can impede the process of
learning and speaking a
second/foreign language. Among
these affective variables, learner
anxiety has come to be recognized as
an important area of study in second
language acquisition because of the
negative influence it can have on
students performance.
The chapter reviews literature
on language anxiety from two
broader perspective: psycholinguistic
and socio-cultural.

speak in the target language

spontaneously in various social
contexts. In order to meet this
challenge, attention has diverted to

relationship, or a positive
relationship (Pimsleur, Mosberg, &
Morrison, 1962, Backman, 1976,
Scovel, 1978: cited in 1999). More

Literature Review
Studies on Foreign Language
The academic literature has
offered a somewhat confusing
account of language anxiety.
Researchers have been unable to
draw a clear picture of how anxiety
affects language learning and
performance. Some researchers
reported a negative relationship
between language anxiety and
achievement, e.g. the higher the
anxiety, the lower the performance,
(Clement, Gardner, & Smythe, 1977,
1980: cited on Onwuegbuzie et al.,
1999). Others reported no

Shu-Feng Tseng: The Factors Cause Language Anxiety for ESL/EFL Learners in Learning Speaking

recently, Horwitz (2001) has

reiterated that issue of understanding
the relationship between anxiety and
achievement is unresolved. The
relationship between anxiety and
second language learning is
presenting some conflicting evidence
and illustrating that anxiety is a
complex, multi-faceted construct.
In addition to the negative
effects of anxiety on language
learning and performance, anxiety
has occasionally been found to
facilitate language learning.
Anxiety serves simultaneously to
motivate and to warn the learner.
Facilitating anxiety motivates the
learner to fight the new learning
task; it gears the learner emotionally
for approach behavior (Scovel
1991). Debilitating anxiety, in
contrast, motivates the learner to
flee the new learning task; it
stimulates the individual emotionally
to adopt avoidance behavior (1991)
Asian studies on anxiety
While the above to be a
comprehensive set of source of
anxiety, high frequency sources may
differ for different culture groups.
Truitt (1995) founded that Korean
university students studying EFL
held different beliefs than those of
Young (1991) and other studies
carried out on American language
learners and international students
studying in the U. S. Truitt suggests
that the difference for Korean
students may be partially culture


based, granted that they may also be

somewhat influenced by the relative
status of language learning and
social, political, and economic
In a study of Japanese ESL
learners in a U. S. setting, Ohata
(2005) found that the characteristics
of language anxiety that they
exhibited, while falling into the
categories identified by Young
(1991), seemed to be strongly
influenced by Japanese culture. It
is believed that this is also quite true
for Korean EFL learners. Young
(2004) conducted an interview study
on eight Korean EFL university
students and found that their main
causes of anxiety were caused by (a)
low self-esteem, (b) competitiveness,
(c) state (situation-specific) anxiety
or personality characteristics, (d)
lack of group membership, (e) overt
explicit error correction, (f) speaking
English in front of the class, (g) little
declarative (explicit) knowledge, (h)
lack of class preparation, and (i)
uneven allocation of turns.
Factors associated with learners
own sense of Self and Language
classroom environment
All the components of
language learning are strongly linked
with learners sense of self, as it is
learners self which is at risk of
failure or being negatively evaluated
in any test-like situation or a
situation which requires


communication in front of others.

This risk to ones sense of self
frequently occurs in a L2/FL
Self perceptions
According to Horwitz
(1986), perhaps no other field of
study poses as much of a threat to
self-concept as language study does.
They believe that any performance in
L2 is likely to challenge an
individuals self-concept is the
totality of an individuals thoughts,
perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and
values having reference to himself as
object (Laine, 1987). This
self-concept forms the basis of the
distinction, made by Horwitz et al.
(1986), between language anxiety
and other forms of academic
anxieties. They posited, the
importance of the disparity between
the true or actual self as known to
the language learner and the more
limited self as can be presented at
any given moment in the foreign
language would seem to distinguish
foreign language anxiety from other
academic anxieties such as those
associated with mathematics or
The term self-esteem has
been used in much the same meaning
as self-concept and has been found
to be strongly linked with language
anxiety. Krashen (1980, 15: cited
in Young, 1991:427) suggests, the
more I think about self-esteem, the

more impressed I am about its

impact. This is what causes anxiety
in a lot of people. People with low
self-esteem worry about what their
peers think; they are concerned with
pleasing others. And that I think
has to do a great degree with
anxiety. Individuals who have
levels of self-esteem are less likely to
be anxious than are those with low
self-esteem (Horwitz et al., 1986).
According to Terror Management
Theory (TMT), People are
motivated to maintain a positive
self-image because self-esteem
protects them from anxiety
(Greenberg et al., 1992: cited in
Onwuegbuzie et al., 1999:229)
Social environment and limited
exposure to the target language
In accord with the previous
research, the subjects expressed that
limited exposure to English in their
home countries is a serious obstacle
in the development of their
communicative competency, which
is troubling for L2/FL learners when
they are required to speak (see e. g.
Lightbown and Spada, 2006:30). A
Saudi male learner said in this regard,
we could practice English only in
the class, out of the class, no practice;
lack of chances or practicetrouble
when you find a chance to speak.
This could explain why ESL/EFL
learners feel anxious while speaking
English even when learning the
language in an English-speaking

Shu-Feng Tseng: The Factors Cause Language Anxiety for ESL/EFL Learners in Learning Speaking


environment. The use of

communicative language teaching
approaches demand students to speak
English who may not be used to it in
their previous learning experience
and therefore feel stress when they
are called upon to answer a question.
A male ESL/EFL teacher explained,
In L2 environment teachers expect
students to speak fluently and
spontaneously. Students from other
cultures may not have this
experience; their experience may be
to speak only when teacher asks to
speak but not any other time these
different practices in the classroom, I
know, are very upsetting for the
students. It indicates that language
teachers should consider the norms,
practices and the previous language
learning experiences of the students
as an attempt to reduce their
language anxiety.
With regard to errors in the
social settings, participants
responses were mostly positive.
They feel satisfied with the way their
errors are treated in the society,
which-in-turn encourages them to
speak. It is only occasionally that
they feel a bit nervous if people say,
as remarked by Brazilian female
ESL/EFL practitioner, Oh, you
mean this, and then you feel oh
because you just feel horrible that

correct someone who is having

conversation with them (Lightbown
and Spada, 2006:32).

you could not manage to say.

Generally, the subjects expressed
that people do not interfere because
they think it rude and impolite to

talk and how much they [people

from different cultures] should talk.
Her further comments in relation to
Japanese students correspond to

Cultural differences
The difference of cultures
between that of the learners and
target language appeared to be an
important anxiety-producing factor.
The more uncertainty or
unfamiliarity with the target
language culture, the more it is likely
to be anxiety provoking because, as a
Pakistani male ESL/EFL practitioner
explained, You dont know how
others are going to interpret what
you say; with reference to your own
culture and background which could
be altogether different.
Furthermore, an Omani female
ESL/EFL practitioner stated, It is
cultural aspect that you lose face if
you say the wrong things. The use
of the term losing face, by the
participant supports Johns (2004)
view that language anxiety is a
concern of face in different cultures.
Similar to Jones(2004) findings
about culture as a casual factor in
Asian context, an experienced
female teacher stated, It is not
anxiety just about language but
differences in cultural practices.
Even in one-to-one interaction, it is
not clear to me how much I should


Jones (2004) research that a specific

culture-bound syndrome, i.e., one set
of culturally distinguished features,
is a disorder apparently unique to
Japan: it is called taijin Kyofusho
(TKS), literally fear of social
relations. She maintained, Even
sometimes if you do manage to
encourage Japanese students to speak,
they have a very good grasp of
patterns, grammar, vocabulary, but
they are not confident to use it
because they are not sure of cultural
Social status and self-identity
In accordance with the
research on classroom interaction by
Pica (1987), the study found that
unequal status between students and
teachers can also be a source of
anxiety for the students. A Taiwan
female ESL/EFL practitioner
remarked, Absolutely, every time I
have a meeting with my tutor, I try to
speak perfect English, because I am
very nervous to talk to somebody
higher in status. Their English is
perfect. This indicates that lack of
confidence on ones linguistic
competence makes one feel inferior
and apprehensive to communicate
with someone having full command
on language, e.g. native speakers
(Peirce, 1995). It can also explain
the source of intercultural
communication apprehension where
unequal linguistic competencies of
L1 and FL/SL speakers can make the

communication event stressful for

L2/FL speakers.
Speaking in a foreign language
was found to be disturbing because
of the fear that it might lead to the
loss of ones positive self-image or
self-identity. The findings of this
study in this regard suggest obvious
similarity with the previous research
on social anxiety (Ohata, 2005).
This research assume social anxiety
as a feeling of losing ones
self-identity which is deeply rooted
in the first language. Rardin (1988
cited in 2005:149) posits, If I learn
another language, I will somehow
lose myself; as I know myself to be,
will cease to exist. This
apprehension was uttered by a
teacher participant who remarked,
People are very surprised to hear
the sounds of their own voice,
especially if they listen to their own
voice in another language, it sounds
like another person. I think they
find that disturbing because it is
another identity they did not know
they had. This finding is quite
different to Ohatas (2005) interview
study of ESL teachers where none of
the participants referred to such
theoretical perspectives. However,
in general, most of the basic
theoretical perspectives related to
social status and self-identity have
been replicated in this study.
The study yield conflicting

Shu-Feng Tseng: The Factors Cause Language Anxiety for ESL/EFL Learners in Learning Speaking


findings as was the case with the

earlier studies regarding
gender-related anxiety while
communicating in a foreign language
(e.g., Carrier, 1999:70; Kitano, 2001:
cited in Gobel and Matsuda,
2003;23). The subject appeared to
have different experiences of feeling
anxious or comfortable while talking
to the opposite sex. Some male
participants stated that it was only in
the initial stage when they started
studying in co-education at
university level that they felt a bit
anxious. However, this was not the
case in environments where both
male and female students study
together; as a Chinese female
ESL/EFL learner said, I dont worry
about guys and girls because in
China we study together. This
could suggest that only in those
cultures where males and females
students study in segregation, people
are more likely to feel
communication anxiety when talking
to the opposite sex. Conversely,
some participants from the same
cultures (e.g/ Pakistani, Omani,
Libyan, etc.) stated that they do not
feel any such anxiety. This
suggests that gender-related
communication apprehension is
entirely based upon ones personal

strict and formal classroom

environment as a significant cause of
their language anxiety. They view
the classroom a place where their
mistakes are noticed and their
deficiencies are pointed out. With
regard to this issue, a Saudi male
EFL/ESL learner expressed, In the
class if you say because I did not
know much of a language, you will
be blamed. That means you are not
hard to study. Another Saudi male
learner expressed, I feel more
anxiety in the class because it is
more formal but out of class I dont
feel stress, talk to my friends, not
afraid of mistakes. Such
expressions of the fear of being
negatively evaluated under formal
classroom environment lend support
to the previous research that learners
feel more anxious in highly
evaluative situations, particularly in
the L2/FL classroom where their
performance is constantly monitored
by both their teacher and peers (Daly,
1991: cited in Onwuegbuzie et al.,
1999:218). Thus, these perceptions,
can be considered a clear indication
that the teachers should recognize
that the language classroom could
become a highly anxiety-provoking
environment for students (Tsui, 1996:
cited in Ohata, 2005: 148).
These perceptions suggest that

Strict and formal classroom

Some participants blame a

learners feel more anxious and under

stress in the classroom environments
that follow the traditional
behaviourist theories of learning; for


instance, the classrooms where the

students as a whole class constantly
drill or repeat the learning tasks like
machine(e.g. audio-lingual language
teaching method) and thus the power
or status differentials between
students and teachers is upheld.
Contrarily, students feel less anxious
and stress in classroom environments
that follow the constructivist theories
of learning; these emphasize
collaborative activities by forming
learning communities including both
teachers and students.
Presentation in the classroom
Like discussion in
open-class-forum, giving a short talk
or presentation in the class has also
been reported to be highly anxiety
inducing, one which makes the
classroom environment more formal
and stressful for the learners. All
the participants agreed that speaking
in front of the whole class or in
public caused anxiety for most of the
learners. A Chinese female
EFL/ESL student expressed, In
class maybe I stand up and do the
presentation, I usually feel nervous.
I dont know when I talk to other
students in normal class, I think it is
ok. Maybe I lose confidence.
Thus, the study reinforced the
findings of the earlier studies by
Koch and Terrell (1991), Young
(1990, cited in Young, 1991:429),
and Price (1991), who found that a
large number of their subjects

considered oral presentation as the

most anxiety-provoking activity in
the class. Interestingly, the same
female EFL/ESL teacher further
stated, Students try to overcome
their anxiety by trying to remember
the presentation stuff and by
rehearsing it, and then they bring
another pressure on themselves by
trying to remember what they have
rehearsed and feel probably stressed
because they cannot remember
everything. This anxiety seems to
stem from learners/ perceived
inability to make themselves
understood or in Prices (1991:105)
words, from their frustration of not
being able to communicate
effectively. For instance, a
Chinese female EFL/ESL
practitioner said, I am afraid that
audience may misunderstand my
Fear of making mistakes and
apprehension about others
The evidence gained through
past research, both ethnographic
and empirical, supports the notion
that language anxiety, for untold
number of learners, has its origin in
the fear of making mistakes and
attracting the derision of classmates
(Jones, 2004:33). The findings of
this study were in agreement in this
respect too. The participants
frequently expressed that learners
feel afraid, and even panic because

Shu-Feng Tseng: The Factors Cause Language Anxiety for ESL/EFL Learners in Learning Speaking

of the fear of committing mistakes or

errors in front of others, or in Jones
words (2004:31) because of a fear
of appearing awkward, foolish and
incompetent in the eyes of learners
peers or others. As a result of the
fear of making mistakes, some
learners expressed that learning and
speaking a foreign language in the
classroom is always a problem.
One Saudi male EFL/ESL learner
expressed, Classroom is always a
problem you find many people
watching you and try to correct you,
laugh at you, you will be blamed for
any mistakes, and you have to be
correct because it is a class. 1+1=2,
you have to say 2, if not say 2, of
course, it will be wrong. Similarly,
a Chinese female EFL/ESL
practitioner expressed I am afraid I
may make mistakes in the classfor
me I dont want to make any
Even if teachers do not correct
their errors, they find it difficult,
particularly adults, to endure a
perceived high degree of inaccuracy
in their speech. Resulting from a
fear of negative evaluation, the
apprehensive students reported that
whenever they anticipate that
complete communication is not
possible and that they are unable to
express a particular point fully, they
either try to escape or end up being
quiet and reticent, contrary to their
initial intention to participate
(Ohata, 2005: 135, Jones, 2004:31).


I try to be silent, keep quiet so

that no body should notice me, I try
to escape try to keep my
conversation short as much as I can,
one Saudi male ESL/EFL learner
said. Thus, it appears, as Horwitz
et al. (1986;127) believe, that
frustration experienced when a
learner is unable to communicate a
message can lead to apprehension
about future attempts to
communicate. This would explain
why anxious learners tend to avoid
classrrom participation (Ely, 1986:
cited in MacIntyre & Gardner,
1991:297), because they are either
unsure of what they are saying or
lose confidence when giving an
answer to a question in the
Important causes of anxiety among
the language learners
Important causes of anxiety
among the language learners in the
present study appear to be:
1. Pressure by parents and
teachers to get good grades
at school in English.
2. Lack of confidence in their
ability to learn English
3. Fear of making mistakes
and subsequent punishment
or ostracism, i.e., fear of
losing face for not being
4. Conditioning in childhood
to believe that English is
an extremely difficult


language to learn.
5. Fear of foreigners and their
Because of the importance
of English on tests for
advancement in
education and in society,
parents and teachers press
students to not only attain
their potential, but to
actually produce results
beyond their ability.
MacIntyre and Gardner
(1991) write: he anxious
student may be
characterized as an
individual who perceives
the L2 as uncomfortable
experience, who withdraws
from voluntary
participation, who feels
social pressures not to
make mistakes and who is
less willing to try uncertain
or novel linguistic forms?
Anxiety causes less
practice and production in
the language being learned,
thus hindering the
language learning process.
It is obvious that
overcoming anxiety can
improve language learning.
Both the language learner
and the teacher can be
instrumental in overcoming
learner anxiety.

Ways for the learners to reduce

speaking anxiety
To overcome their
anxieties, it would be
helpful for the learner to
implement the following
A. Examine the thoughts that
cause the fear. Recognize
that the fears are
unfounded and
unwarranted. It is
necessary to think positive,
to realize that everyone
makes mistakes learning a
language and that making
errors is an integral part of
the language learning
process. It is also
important to realize that
perfection is an impossible
goal and that is not a
requisite for success.
B. Learn how to relax. The
more one relaxes, the more
anxiety dissipates. Sit
comfortably and straight in
the classroom seat.
Before class or during class,
take long, slow breaths,
hold it for four or five
seconds and release it
slowly. Stretch arms and
legs for additional muscle
relaxation. Exercise turn
nervous energy into
positive energy through a
calming release of

Shu-Feng Tseng: The Factors Cause Language Anxiety for ESL/EFL Learners in Learning Speaking

C. Know what you want to

say. Think through the
ideas that you want to
express that the vocabulary,
structures, and intonation
that are appropriate to
correctly express them.

Concentrate on the
message rather than on the
people. Do not worry
about what people may
think if you make a
mistake in the message you
are trying to communicate.
Instead concentrate on
producing a message to
make communication

E. Become familiar with you

audience. Get to know
your classmates. The
better you know someone
the easier it is to speak
with them.
F. Get to know the instructor
better. Greet them at the
beginning and end of class,
and ask questions that you
may have about English
after class. This will
make it easier to interact
with the instructor during
class time.
G. Avoid sitting in the rear of
the classroom. Gradually
move forward to the
middle or front of the class.
Closer proximately to the
person you wish to speak


to make speaking easier.

H. Gain experience to build
confidence. The more
you speak English, the
more confidence you will
have in speaking easier.
Ways for the instructors to reduce
learner speaking anxiety
To assist the learner in
reducing anxiety, the
instructor may implement
these suggestions.
A. Exhibit genuine
concern for your
students and their
language learning. If
students detect that
their instructor has a
true interest in their
language learning, they
will be motivated to
have an even stronger
interest in their own
B. Provide a warm,
reassuring classroom
atmosphere. Walk
around the room.
Make occasional
contact with students
by tapping them on the
shoulder or patting
them on the back.. Use
humor in sufficient
C. Provide students with a
maximum of speaking
time in a


small-group activities,
role plays, and pair
work into your lessons.
D. Incorporate into the
lesson classroom
activities that indirectly
get the student to think
about their own anxiety,
the cause of it, and
possibly ways of
alleviating it.
E. To create a more
relaxed and
comfortable classroom
atmosphere, song
activities may be
introduced into the
lesson. In addition to
the common
listening activity,
formats such as
multiple-choice word
selection, spotting the
differences, arranging
the lines, strip lines,
and matching sentences
halves may be used.
English speaking
competence is a
complex skill that
needs conscious
development. It can
be best developed with
practice when students

reflect on the process

of speaking without the
threat of evaluation.
It was found that by
focusing on the process
of speaking students
acquired a useful tool
to raise their English
spoken ability. The
result of the experiment
indicate that speaking
is foundational in
learning a foreign
language. Language
anxiety, it can be
postulated, may not
require any special
treatment but what it
does demand is the
careful attitude of the
language teachers in
order to understand and
to effectively diagnose
this phenomenon in the
learners. Then, it
requires the application
of modern approaches
that lay emphasis on
enhancing learning
opportunities in n
environment that is
conducive to learning.

Shu-Feng Tseng: The Factors Cause Language Anxiety for ESL/EFL Learners in Learning Speaking

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