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Can You Learn a New Language without Being Anxious?

By Dr. Taghreed M. Al-Saraj; Post Doctorate Fellow at UC Berkeley & Vice Chair of Berkeley Post Doctorate Entrepreneurship Program


When you read the title of this article, one question that might go through your head is, “What does anxiety have to do with language learning?” If this question came up in your mind, then you have already asked a really good question! If you didn’t ask that question, don’t worry. You will be enlightened by the end of this article.

Many of us wish we knew more than one language, or maybe even four or more languages. I know three languages and I still envy my research participants who know more languages than I. So, you see, greed does not pertain to only money. However, in this case greed might actually be good for you and your wellbeing. For example, research shows that knowing more than one language decreases your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease. A brain that is regularly shifting between languages, keeping those languages accessible to be used when needed, is staying active and agile. Now if this isn’t a great motivator to learn a new language, then I don’t know what is! Well, your job could depend on being fluent in a new language, and maintaining your job is certainly another great motivator, but for all the wrong reasons. In the end, that motivation is not for you—it’s for the job…

In any case, language learning has great benefits, and many people would love to learn a new language but become discouraged in the process. Some people even have little, nagging, negative voice in their own heads that reminds them of bad previous experiences with language learning in class. Maybe people laughed at their mistakes, or there were too many words to memorize and no time to learn the vocabulary. If this sounds like you, then let me break it to you gently but clearly: You have foreign language anxiety. You see, foreign language anxiety has many indicators, some of which are heart palpitations when entering the language classroom or called upon in class, headaches before classes, excessive fidgeting and/or excessive laughter in class, and even disruptive behavior in language class. All of these are signs of foreign language anxiety because these symptoms go away as soon as you leave the language class, and life becomes more beautiful again. But who says that language learning has to be this way?

I have developed the SPEAK method to ease anxiety in language learning and to make the process of language learning fun and accessible to everyone, even for people who are not taking formal language classes. The SPEAK method has been developed drawing on research, my own experience in language learning, interviewing countless language students, and my own coaching of language students. Research shows us that when language anxiety decreases, our achievement increases. And when achievement goes up, so does our motivation to continue learning a new language.

So what is the SPEAK method?

SPEAK stands for the steps that you need to take to learn a language in a non-academic setting. Research shows us that learning a language from friends and family is less likely to cause anxiety. When we learn languages from friends and family, the setting is non-academic and so grades are not involved, plus the language learner is likely less worried about saving-face because he or she is not learning among peers or competing in a classroom.

The SPEAK method is great for complete beginners or lower intermediate language learners. SPEAK stands for:

S – Select a language that interests you. The emphasis is on the concept that the language interests you, so you can keep the motivation going throughout the language learning process.

P – Prep yourself on how the language works and how the people who use the language (native speakers) interact with each other by watching them on TV and in movies. Start with subtitled movies or shows so you can understand what is going on even before your ears get familiar with the words and you understand what they mean. Slowly ease yourself out of subtitled movies and shows. See if you can follow the plot (without subtitles) and have fun doing it!

E – Expect and embrace that you may feel or look silly along the way – it’s OK! You will make mistakes and that’s normal in language learning. Actually, making mistakes is normal in our daily life, but what is important is that we learn from our mistakes.

A – Apply the words whenever you can and engage with others who speak the language. Try to incorporate the target language in your daily routine even if it is just saying it to yourself. This way you are checking whether you know what the words mean or how the sentences should be said. Correctness at this point is ideal, but not essential. Your real goal is to just speak and practice the target language!

K – Keep going and do not get discouraged!

If you follow these five simple steps, you will be more aware of the sounds and intonations of the language you are striving to learn as you speak in the language. Your ears will become familiar with the words, and soon enough the new, foreign words will become familiar due to repetition.

Finally, don’t under estimate your brain, as it is programming everything it hears, and that wealth of information and all the language you’ve exposed yourself to will come out when needed! In the end, keep calm and carry on learning a new language!


Photo credit: TobiasMik · WhatWeDo / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

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