Learning a foreign language is one of the hardest things a brain can do. What makes it so difficult is the effort we have to make to transfer between linguistically complex structures. It's also challenging to learn how to think in another language, and it takes time, hard work, and dedication.
I have tried several times – unsuccessfully – to learn Portuguese. I get so far, learn lots of useful nouns, and think, ha, I have cracked this, but then the verbs and other sentence structures come in. I couldn’t even cope with the word for ‘speak’: falar, falando, falante, falam, dizer, conversar, discursar, etc– it fried my brain sorting out which was the correct one I was looking for. I have tried Italian too - having had a holiday in Italy, I fell in love with the sound of the language, and German was another failed attempt a long time ago to appease the boyfriend I had at the time.
My biggest fear is trying to speak it (the foreign language) and getting it wrong. I once was in a rush in a certain German supermarket here, having forgotten to buy eggs while my groceries were already piling up on the belt, being beeped along at a speed faster than that of light. I found a security guard and repeatedly (and angrily, I am ashamed to admit) asked for what I thought was for eggs (ovos), when in fact I was asking for grandparents (avós) and then wondered why he was bewildered.
It turns out this fear is called ‘foreign language anxiety’, and is a real thing. Well, that’s good news! It is also known as xenoglossophobia – ‘the feeling of unease, worry, nervousness and apprehension experienced in learning or using a second or foreign language’. The feelings may stem from any second language context whether it is associated with the productive skills of speaking and writing or the receptive skills of reading and listening.
I am now secretly pleased to know it’s not just me being an idiot. Research has shown that foreign language anxiety is a significant problem in language classrooms throughout the world, especially in terms of its strong relationship to the skill of speaking a foreign language. Some individuals (me, me, me) are more predisposed to anxiety than others and may feel anxious in a wide variety of situations (especially supermarkets). This foreign language anxiety can also affect individuals who are not characteristically anxious in other situations.
The language lessons I once took for Portuguese were evening classes, and were quite intense, to the point the teacher stopped giving instructions in English/German/French and only gave them in Portuguese, so by the time I had worked out what she had said, I still didn’t know what page we were on, or indeed what l was supposed to be doing.
The main causes of foreign language anxiety are communication apprehension, test anxiety, and fear of negative evaluation. Oh yes, I remember that – the speaking test, waiting outside the classroom with my mind a complete blank. I couldn’t remember my name, let alone how to greet the teacher intelligently.
Effect on Foreign Language Performance
Foreign language anxiety has a variety of detrimental effects on foreign language performance, but both the student and the teacher can adopt strategies to minimize the anxiety. Well, blow me down with a feather, I didn’t know that – and I don’t think my teacher knew either.
Well, I am sorry to say I am still muddling along with part sign language, sometimes drawing (for a puncture, a childishly drawn picture of air coming out of a tyre worked a treat at the garage), and mumbling the few words I can say in Portuguese – but whoever I am speaking to invariably speaks back at me in English, so it must sound pretty abysmal, and not worth the blank confused stare if they respond in Portuguese, as they know I won’t understand.