Learner Autonomy Can Lessen Language Anxiety

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We have advocated before for establishing a classroom environment that fosters learner autonomy as a more effective way to promote language learning. One reason why autonomous learning is good for language development is that it helps reduce the anxiety related to foreign language learning.

What are autonomous learning and foreign language anxiety?

Autonomous learning is not a synonym of self-teaching and it certainly doesn’t imply that teachers leave students fend completely for themselves. Autonomous learning is usually seen as a student-centered approach in which learners, with instructors’ guidance, set realistic goals for themselves, are expected to monitor their own progress towards those goals, and regularly engage in self-reflective activities. Far from letting students to their own devices, teachers have a crucial role in developing activities and interventions that foster this kind of learning environment.

Foreign language classroom anxiety is a subjective feeling of tension and worry, usually accompanied by negative reactions, that is associated with foreign language learning (Horwitz, Horwitz & Cope, 1986). This type of learning anxiety is common among adults learning a foreign language in a classroom environment and it can affect learners’ performance in a detrimental way. It is associated with fear of negative evaluation, nervousness about being the center of attention, and discomfort at being unable to present oneself to others in an authentic way (Horwitz 2013).

How can learner autonomy also lessen language anxiety?

Competitiveness and negative comparisons with other learners contribute to feelings of anxiety and negative perceptions of the learning experience (MacIntyre 2017, p. 21). Classroom experiences that foster autonomous learning, however, usually make students focus on their own performance. Rather than gauging how well they do in comparison to their peers, autonomous learning strategies lead students to measure their own progress in relation to previous work.

Activities in which students listen to themselves and self-evaluate how they talk in the target language (or in which they self-assess their writing) distract attention from individual speakers. As everybody in the classroom is concerned with their own performance, the fear of negative evaluation from others is attenuated.

Setting realistic goal for themselves, another common practice towards autonomous learning, also makes students become more aware of their abilities. With support from their instructor, students can focus on their strengths and their perceived weakness can be seen as opportunities to grow. Again, the focus is on the individual student and their degree of involvement in their own learning path, rather than on metrics that compare them to classmates with very different backgrounds and prior classroom experiences.

For more ideas on how to mitigate learners’ anxiety in the language classroom, see our previous blog.

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Horwitz, Elaine K., Michael B. Horwitz & Joann Cope, (1986). Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 70(2) 125-132.

Horwitz, Elaine K. (2013) Becoming a Language Teacher: A Practical Guide to Second Language Learning and Teaching (2nd edn). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

MacIntyre, Peter. (2017). An Overview of Language Anxiety Research and Trends in its Development. In C. Gkonou, M. Daubney & J.M Dewaele (eds.), New Insights into Language Anxiety, 11-31, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.