Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Foreign Language Learning Anxiety in Upper-Level Classes: Involving Students as Researchers

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Foreign Language Learning Anxiety in Upper-Level Classes: Involving Students as Researchers

Article excerpt


While both the causes and effects of students' language learning anxiety have been a frequent focus of many investigations, few have explored anxiety in the context of upper-level language classrooms. Through a qualitative analysis of questionnaire data obtained from 21 advanced students of Spanish, this study found that, indeed, many of these students did report experiencing anxiety in upper-level courses, perhaps an unanticipated setting given students' relatively higher levels of proficiency. Students highlighted many issues related to their anxiety and confirmed findings of previous investigations; specifically, they pointed to the key role of the teacher in producing and relieving anxiety, in addition to considering anxiety in an unexplored context, this study serves as a model for involving students in research related to language learning.

Key words: action research, advanced students, anxiety, student research, upper-level language study

Language: Spanish


I do worry because I feel like these [upper-level] classes are very important and I want to do everything "right." (Student 1)

There are times when I feel sure of myself, but it seems the times of uncertainty outnumber the times of certainty. (Student 2)

There is a little panic. I cope with it. (Student 3)

Since the mid-1960s, researchers have suspected that anxiety inhibits foreign/ second language learning. Though the findings of a number of studies indicate that some tension can motivate students and even enhance their learning (see Spielmann & Radnofsky, 2001, for one example), a larger number of studies (e.g., Elkhafaifi, 2005; Gregersen, 2003; Gregersen & Horwitz, 2002; Horwitz, 1995; Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope, 1986; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1989, 1991; Young, 1986) emphasize the negative effects of anxiety in the classroom. Most experienced language teachers intuitively recognize that anxiety is not a positive ingredient of successful learning and, in fact, often go to great lengths to avoid creating undue tension for their students. To that end, language teaching methodologies include specific activities and practices aimed, directly or indirectly, at reducing students' anxiety in foreign language1 classrooms.

For example, communicative language teachers include small-group work to help students form relationships and create a higher comfort level in class. Those language teachers who are interested in input and output processing try to expose students to language they can understand and challenge them with situations they can handle linguistically without unnecessarily increasing their level of anxiety. Although the term low affective filter, which was introduced by Krashen (1982) to describe a decreased level of anxiety in the classroom, is not used as frequently as it once was, language teachers who introduce practices (e.g., kinesthetic activities or relaxation techniques) from methods such as Total Physical Response or Suggestopedia seek to keep tension at a minimum and, in effect, lower students' affective filter by decreasing their feelings of anxiety.

Most investigations of foreign language learning anxiety have focused on beginning levels of language classes in which students' oral proficiency typically ranges from Novice-Low to Intermediate-Mid/ High (Magnan, 19862) (rated according to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines [ACTFL, 1999]). Though crucial for understanding and improving the overall experience and success of language learners, these introductory course levels are not the setting for this study. Rather, this investigation responds both to Horwitz's (1996) suggestion that "greater attention should be paid to more advanced stages of language learning" (p. 370) and to Phillips' (2003) call to focus research attention on the higher levels of proficiency. To that end, this study investigates anxiety in the context of upper-level Spanish classes in which students' proficiency level typically ranges from Intermediate Mid/High to Advanced/ Advanced High (Magnan, 1986), thereby offering a new perspective on a long-recognized problem. …

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