Anxiety symptom of a lack of self-confidence due to

Anxiety as a term has
quite an array of meaning, and in every situation where it might be used its
meaning is different, it adapts to the setting at hand. As such, it covers many
aspects which lead to a similar, though not identical, feeling of unease and nervousness.
In the circumstance of language use, more specifically use of a foreign
language, the proposed term for the type of anxiety specific to foreign
language use is language anxiety. It is closely connected to the question
whether or not a person will choose to engage in oral communication or try and
avoid situations where such actions would be expected of them. Language anxiety
has a significant influence on people’s willingness to communicate (MacIntyre,
2007), and it is one of the most important factors that discourage and inhibit
people from speaking. As to what this negative feeling might stem from, one
might be inclined to propose that the English proficiency level of the speaker
is the determining factor; the higher their level of proficiency, the lower
their level of anxiety will be, as it must be a symptom of a lack of
self-confidence due to an inability to express themselves in the target
language. However, this does not seem to be the case, as people with varying
levels of proficiency experience anxiety of differing severity regardless of
their knowledge of the language; people with low language competence might
gladly use it for communication regardless, and those on the high end of this
spectrum might be crippled by anxiety and avoid such situations to the best of
their ability (MacIntyre,
P., Dörnyei, Z., Clément, R., & Noels, K., 1998). Based on such findings,
language anxiety appears to be a more complex issue than being direct correlate
of the person’s language competence. A further elaboration of this phenomena
proposed by researchers in the field is to divide it further into three smaller
categories, namely state, trait and situation specific anxiety (MacIntyre,
2007). State anxiety is what refers to a person’s anxiety in a given moment,
unrelated to past experiences and the expectations formed towards the situation
they are in; trait anxiety, as the name suggests, is a part of a person’s
personality, how anxious they are in general, independent of the situation or
other external factors; and situation specific anxiety is the anxiety induced
by the person’s past experiences with the specific setting that they are in, in
this case for example, using their L2 for communication would evoke such
emotion, but not when speaking their native language (MacIntyre, 2007).

Investigating this
issue, a study by MacIntyre, Clément and Noels (2007) examined how introvert
and extrovert high-school learners’ willingness to communicate changes
depending on the situation in which they studied. As expected, the results
showed that the most important factor is the familiarity that the students had
with the situation, introverts showing higher willingness in more familiar
settings and extroverts in new and unknown ones. In another study, by
MacDonald, Clément and MacIntyre (2003), conducted in the bilingual environment
of Ottawa, Ontario, university students were asked to describe situations where
they would be most and least comfortable speaking their L2. A frequently
mentioned phenomenon was, although responses differed depending whether the
particular student’s L1 was English or French, error correction. Based on the
responses, when received from a teacher it was perceived having a positive and
encouraging effect, but when the same event occurs out in the public, this
effect is reversed, and has a negative impact. This, again, supports the idea
that specific situations change the way certain events and reactions affect the
person’s emotional response to them; what might be beneficial in a particular
setting induces anxiety in other cases. Interestingly, mostly those students
with English as their L1 claimed that they would be uncomfortable when speaking
in their L2 with strangers or when they were unsure of the sufficiency of their
language competence, due to the worry that they would be judged for their
pronunciation or grammar. Those students with French as their L1 mentioned
settings where everyone spoke fluent French, for example family and friends, as
ones where they would be least willing to speak English, but did not mention
often the same stage as their English speaking peers, that of speaking to strangers,
although some of them did indicate that conversations which would require
specific terminology would be a source of distress for them. This discrepancy
is most likely due to the fact that they had come across such situations more
often than the English L1 students, they had more exposure, and due to this,
their situation-specific anxiety is lower. This is a key point in ensuring that
more students choose to participate in L2 conversation, enabling them to
experience situations that closely mimic real life ones. It is far from
obvious, however, as to how can educators achieve this, since the setting of a
language classroom is very specific, and different from casual conversation, as
we have seen from the responses of the students who experience much less
anxiety and are more comfortable speaking in the former. As MacIntyre, P.,
Dörnyei, Z., Clément, R., & Noels, K. (1998) exclaims as well, a concise
way of defining what a language education program should achieve by its end is
students who look for occasions where they can use their second language, and
when such an occasion arises, choose to actively participate in it.

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The fact that
students, based on the difference in what their native language is, experience
similar situations quite differently also points to another issue: the
sociopolitical standing of the L2. Based on the audience, or peers, that
surrounds the speaker and the attitudes of these people towards the target language,
anxiety levels in said speaker change significantly. At the core of this
phenomenon might be the urge to belong to a community, and using a different
language when in a group can be looked down upon for a number of reasons. This
might be the case for those French students who remarked how they would be
unlikely to speak in their L2 in a family setting; it would be considered an
act of demeaning the native language of those present. People might come to the
conclusion that the speaker considers their language inferior, lacking in some
aspect, for otherwise they would not have elected to use a different one. This
feeling of being attacked by someone’s deliberate choice of code switching can
be enhanced in a situation where language preservation is an important issue,
as some students mentioned themselves (MacIntyre, p. 570), where a group’s
native language and another fill the same role and thus said group feels
threatened in their habits. Another example might be the question of how
prestigious the given L2 is in the given community. If the group, or even the
majority of the speech community the speaker in question is a part of, deems
the language the person uses or wishes to use as lower-class and beneath their
social standing, this can cause unease in the speaker. The same issue arises
when the opposite end of the spectrum is concerned, and in an established
lower-class language group a person elects to speak a language which is viewed
as belonging to the ‘elite of society’.

An issue of similar
nature is that of control in a conversation, of power between the participants.
A speaker in a commanding, high power position might be reluctant to switch to
a language in which they have less experience speaking or a more limited
vocabulary due to their anxiety over appearing less intelligent or well-spoken
than their conversational partner(s), and a less controlling person will likely
acquiesce. According to MacyIntyre’s (2007) journal article, overly trying to
adapt to another speaker’s needs, such as switching to their native language
even when they open the conversation in their L2, might also lead to
embarrassment and anxiety in the initiator, possibly not even only in the
moment, but further into the future, in a similar situation. Such an event
causes a feeling of inadequacy; the refusal of the proposed form of
communication indicates that the first speaker’s level of proficiency was
deemed insufficient. All of these issues relate to the common notion of
judgement and failing to meet expectations placed by others upon the speaker,
although these expectations are often only of such high importance in the
speaker’s mind.

A crucial observation
that MacIntyre (2007) mentions is that the state of the speakers’ minds
continuously changes, from one moment to the next, in situations where they
have the choice to speak or to stay silent. For this reason, analyzing the
phenomena that influence a given speaker as unchanging and constant throughout the
event is a fallacious approach; the research methodology must be able to provide
an analysis of the dynamics in any given moment. Even with that said, it is
nigh impossible for someone to report the changes in their mental state as they
are in a situation where they have to make a choice between speaking and
staying silent. Another issue with self-reports is the potential for bias and
inaccuracies, both of which tendencies get stronger the more time passes
between the event in question and the speaker making the report (MacIntyre,
2007). It is also important to note that it requires higher levels of
motivation to start an action, in this case speaking, than to maintain doing it
(Dörnyei, Z., & Ottó, I., 1998), and anxiety levels are also higher before
choosing their course of action. The forces that would promote action and those
that would do so inaction are both active at the same time, and the outcome,
whether or not conversation happens, is the result of these forces’ net balance.
In moments when these two forces are close to each other in intensity, the
speaker hesitates whether or not to cross the threshold and engage in the
action or avoid it. In addition to the already mentioned sources of
restriction, MacIntyre mentions an additional one, that of cultural norms;
speakers from different cultures might have a further set of inhibiting
factors. The example given by MacIntyre in his article is that of Chinese and
United States students: a Chinese person might have more of an ingrained value
for “thoughtful silence” and “deference to authority” (MacIntyre, 2007, p. 571)
than someone from the US, and as such needs higher levels of motivation before
choosing to speak. While the cultural aspect of this phenomenon definitely
exists, remaining silent out of respect for, or fear of, an authority figure in
the group is hardly unfamiliar in any culture. This is another case of the
already mentioned issue of expressing power and control; someone who feels, or
is made to feel, inferior is less likely to speak their minds and engage in
conversation in such situations.

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