Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Anxiety and the True Beginner-False Beginner Dynamic in Beginning French and Spanish Classes

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Anxiety and the True Beginner-False Beginner Dynamic in Beginning French and Spanish Classes

Article excerpt


This study considered true beginners and false beginners in first-semester university French and Spanish classes to: (a) determine whether true beginners and false beginners differ in anxiety, grades, and plans to continue language study; and (b) identify classroom factors that foster anxiety or comfort. Students completed a questionnaire that included the Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale (Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope, 1986), MaIntyre and Gardner Anxiety Subscales (1989, 1994), demographic information, grade expectations, and open-ended questions. Randomly selected students were interviewed about their experiences in the courses. Statistical analyses revealed that (a) although neither group was terribly anxious, true beginners were significantly more anxious overall and during processing and output stages than false beginners; (b) true beginners expected and received lower grades than false beginners; and (c) significantly more true beginners than false beginners planned to continue studying the language. Comments on one written open-ended question and in the interviews pointed to the key role of the instructor in reducing anxiety.

Key words: classroom environment, false beginners, foreign language anxiety, foreign language placement, importance of teacher

Languages: French, Spanish


When college advisors suggest to students that they enroll in first-semester French or Spanish, they often hear: "But I haven't had French [Spanish] yet. Doesn't 101 have students who took it in high school? I'm not sure I'd be comfortable with that."

This response may well be justified. Halff and Frisbie (1977) reported that in a study of firstsemester language classes at the University of Illinois in the 1960s, 74% of the students had at least 2 years and 30% had 3 years of high school study. In these classes, the true beginners received lower test scores early in the semester and had higher attrition rates than the false beginners. This problematic articulation continues to exist. Lange, Prior, and Sims (1992) noted that 42% of college students in beginning foreign language classes were starting over despite their 2, 3, or even 4 years of high school study. Other studies report even higher numbers of students returning to beginning language study: 44% in Spanish and 50% in French at Arizona State University (Guntermann, Hendrickson, & de Urioste, 1996); 82% in French at Emory University (Herron, Morris, secules, & Curtis, 1995). Given these figures, it is not surprising that Klee and Rogers's (1989) survey of college Spanish programs found the most critical problem to be "false beginners" (p. 766), a finding echoed by Oukada (2001). Responses to an inquiry on the FLASC listserv about false beginner enrollments in first-semester courses (July-Aug 2003) indicated that most coordinators recognized the problem at their institutions. Two Spanish coordinators even estimated false beginners in the 85% to 90% range. Klee (2002) suggested that college students mistakenly assume "that high school instruction does not count and they begin language instruction when they arrive at the university" (p. 248).

This situation with large numbers of false beginners taking beginning foreign language classes has the potential to become more acute. As more and more foreign languages are offered in high schools and more colleges require them for entrance, the potential for bringing false beginners to college classes grows. In Spanish the situation is aggravated by its rising popularity. Heritage learners, who might be considered a special case of false beginners, provide a new dimension in Spanish and in other languages as well.

This study investigates the effects of the true beginner/false beginner dynamic in French and Spanish courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which requires 2 years of high school study for entrance, has a language requirement in the largest college [Letters and Science] and, for logistical reasons, has no control beyond advising efforts based on placement tests to regulate who enters first-semester language courses. …

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