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Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety in Three Virtual Exchanges

Students studying foreign language and speaking in a classroom.
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    Foreign Language Class… surely you remember, right? It was supposed to be the “fun” class, where your teacher brought in food, where you celebrated holidays and maybe learned a few verbal bagatelles like counting to five, ordering from a menu, greetings, and of course ascertaining the whereabouts of the bathroom.

    Maybe you lucked out and got a really immersive experience in your language classroom, suffering the onslaught of total target language in the beginning of the course as you tried to drink from the fire house of fluency, intimidated at first by the sheer rapidity of the language and logorrhea of unfamiliar lexicon, only to ever-so-slowly develop a sense of the language’s rhythm and patterns, like a protagonist’s incremental training montage.

    Then, if you’re the luckiest of the bunch, maybe you were given the ultimate pedagogical prize: a chance to study a language that you could then immerse yourself in right out the door of your classroom. Maybe you did a semester of Spanish in Panama or studied abroad in Florence and learned to order your food and converse with your barista in Italian. Of course, the magic of being Someplace That Isn’t Home, and the intoxication of travel can help heighten your language learning and motivation, but it’s the rarest of learning methods.

    Now, as an educator, you’re more likely to be in charge of a group of language learners in the first or second scenario (though lucky you if you teach summer school abroad or have some arrangement in a bilingual school that could lead to the third scenario!). And aside from covering curriculum, teaching culture, and testing so that you can grade and assess in meaningful ways, you now have yet another hurtle to overcome: Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety.

    Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety

    Ok, you’re thinking to yourself, what even is that…. They’re just diagnosing everything that’s unpleasant now and adding “anxiety” to it. Well, FLCA has been plaguing students for time immemorial and has begun to haunt the pages of academic journals since the 1980s. The first notable definition I’ve found comes from the work of Horwitz, Horwitz, and Cope, and in their eponymous piece, they define Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety as experiencing apprehension, worry, and dread when faced with challenging activities in a foreign language class. It should come as no surprise that these symptoms cause even practiced and confident students to freeze up and suddenly forget their skills when faced specifically with…you guessed it…of the four skills, primarily Listening and Speaking tasks.

    So, it’s with great interest that I approached several teachers who are in the midst of virtual exchanges to see if this condition affected their students significantly. Well, the skinny of it is this: It did. And it’s interesting to consider the mitigating circumstances that really plagued the students with FLCA so that we can try to address the issues and help our pupils overcome these challenges. All three ran a Level Up Village virtual exchange in their classes, two for beginner and intermediate Spanish and one for intermediate French. Here are their accounts.


    The Symptoms:

    In her second-year Spanish classes, Yaiza and her students were excited about the potential of exchanging videos with kids in Mexico. “But then like everything became a thing with them,” Yaiza recounts. “So, we shot our first videos, but it seems like we were a little ahead of our partner schools because when my students saw that they were the first ones to upload, they didn’t want to! They were nervous and self-conscious, and they didn’t want to put themselves out there…it was so bad!”

    Unsurprisingly, the students in Yaiza’s classes got gun-shy when it came to putting themselves out there and introducing themselves in a language they had only used—at best—in classroom simulation. But it gets worse… “Then the videos from Mexico came in and there were a whole bunch of new problems with the kids…like things that shouldn’t have been issues.” The students, Yaiza told me, blamed background noise for being unable to understand the Spanish videos that came from their partners. And then when they had a subsequent week of videos in English, they felt defeated by seeing just how good the kids were in their second language!


    When I asked what might help her students, Yaiza had a few workarounds that she hopes will alleviate the stress her students are suffering. One involved prompting her pupils to focus on conversational subjects they knew well. “Once they found common topics, I think they felt better and more relaxed. They realized that they really aren’t that different from the kids in Mexico. They like the same music and use a lot of the same English expressions, and they had fun hearing the Spanish versions of these idiomatic expressions.

    Another tactic Yaiza hopes to employ involves strengthening the connection between the virtual partnerships. “I think if each of my students pick just a handful of kids to reply to consistently, they’re going to learn how those particular individuals express themselves.” Just like friends who learn how the other communicates, Yaiza hopes that over the course of the exchange, consistent pairing might help her students navigate the nuances of native speaker fluency and diminish the anxieties that go along with that challenge.


    The Symptoms:

    “My kids freaked out,” Natalie tells me. “The pacing of a video a week, responding to other kids’ videos, hearing how good their English was…everything stressed them out.” From her initial account, Natalie’s intermediate French classes sounded like the supposedly fun Virtual Exchange with a school in France had quickly turned into a labor of bereavement. And I’ve been around classes running virtual exchanges enough to know that it really should be a fun activity; this kind of reaction seems a bit much, and rather lamentable when we as educators know the value of this experience.

    And, of course, there’s the refrain of international students’ bilingualism rearing its ugly, polyglottic head again. “Yeah,” Natalie bemoans, “the fact that the French students are better in English than we are in French is discouraging to our students…like, almost debilitating…my kids were all saying, ‘I don’t want to make this video–it’s going to be so embarrassing.’” That level of embarrassment, of course, can certainly mitigate whatever excitement and fun comes with the experience, and I have no doubt that it increased the anxiety of Natalie’s students significantly.


    When asked how she approached her students’ chagrin, Natalie provides a formidable solution: “We set up a time to meet and practice!” she tells me. “We did several simulations with partners in the class, we started with scripts, and then I took the scripts away and let them improvise a little. Then, they had to have similar scenarios just one on one with me, and I think that helped a lot to ease them into it.” Notably, like any discomfort while learning, a gentle push from the educator, like in Natalie’s case, towards channeling the apprehension into productivity can work like a pedagogical charm.

    “Oh, and the French kids being so good at English that it scared them? Well, it might be embarrassing, but it helped us reflect a little on what our own culture is like,” Natalie continues. “Of course, we just push our culture out into the world, so kids everywhere are watching American films, American shows, American TikTok…” Natalie’s students hadn’t even thought about the multitude of resources available to them that they could consume in French. With the abundance of streaming services and internet content, they could quite easily begin an enjoyable journey down any number of internet rabbit holes and find bits and bobs of interest to them en français.  


    The Symptoms:

    “Anxiety? Yes. It’s a thing.” Unsurprisingly by now, Alma has much to say about her Spanish students. “They get so anxious whenever they have to speak in the target language. They’re so much better at writing than speaking. Without prepping, they forget everything when they’re speaking.” WIthout enough practice, and enough class time to fit in learning and speaking practice, Alma found that most of the kids resorted to leaning on the crutch of reading from a script in their virtual exchange videos.

    Just like in the other two classes, the Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety seemed to rampantly feed on a lack of realistic and meaningful immersion and usage of the idiom. “There’s no relevant practice for them outside school,” Alma diagnoses. “We don’t provide enough practice, and the speaking they do in the classroom starts out way too basic.” So naturally, when faced with a peer from abroad, in the first of a series of interactions that mattered to them, Alma’s students panicked and suffered.


    “I didn’t give them the option to back down,” Alma admits. “For better or worse, in real life, if you don’t try to communicate, then you lose the opportunity. So I pushed them.” Alma asked her kids to start finding opportunities to use Spanish in the “real world” so that it wouldn’t be so weird to employ the language in their virtual exchange. “There are a ton of faculty and staff here who speak Spanish,” she reminded them. “It’s not weird to practice with them!”

    In addition, Alma points out another excellent communication solution that she asked the boys to capitalize on: the power of visuals and nonverbal communication. “The videos where the boys from Mexico just sit and talk rapid-fire–no one wanted to try and respond to those videos,” she admits to me. “It was too hard for them to sit and try to understand what was being said. But the videos where our partners put in pictures, walked around, and pointed things out, like, you know, what was in their refrigerator, or the members of their family, or the rooms of their house…those are the videos that my kids enjoyed, even if they were challenging.” So, Alma asked her pupils to respond in kind: where their language skills might fall short, they could make up for in interesting videos with lots of visuals and interesting shots. “It worked,” she beams. “They totally went for it. When they were busy trying to make their videos interesting, they no longer worried about the narration being simple!”


    The trends in the three language classes that ran a virtual exchange, specifically the palpable presence of Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety, stand out. Even a supposedly fun project like exchanging videos with peers from abroad resulted in a great deal of initial discomfort to an unfortunate number of students. But FLCA does not need to halt all language learning: many of the educators took that nervous energy and disseminated it into action and productivity.

    Truly, learning lives where discomfort and mystery meet, on the confines of our routines and the liminal synapses of understanding. If we cannot take our students to the unfamiliar and teach them to survive there, to thrive, then we have failed them. Admitting their discomfort proves they trust us, and to that trust we owe them our steady, guiding hand. Push on, dear educators!