Assertiveness

What is it about having self confidence issues, social anxiety or perfectionism that makes some of us inefficient language learners? I used to think this was related to introverted or extrovertedness, but now I’m not so sure. I think the measure of how strong, clear and assertive someone is in their first language may give us clues concerning other languages.

I said in my previous post how I was perplexed by the fact that many people are extremely motivated to learn or improve another language, but can’t seem to break through that invisible barrier blocking them from engaging in the kinds of activities that would lead to strong and rapid acquisition, such as language exchanges online or face to face. I know myself that I’ve had problems with social anxiety in the past, and although my self confidence is now strong and I consider myself quite assertive, there are still communicative scenarios that cause me serious anxiety. I don’t consider myself an introvert, as I’ve always needed to bounce new ideas off others before putting them into action (hence this blog…). I’ve never been good at working on projects alone, and I’m often compelled to seek out collaborators. This may come from growing up with the aforementioned anxiety, in the sense of worrying that I was unfit to judge the quality or success of my own exploits without someone else’s reassurance. Although today I do most of my personal projects alone, I still have difficulty suppressing that little voice in my head saying, “Is this really any good?”

As a language learner, this makes me avoid situations where my language competence will be obviously lacking compared to others. I remember how long it took me to really get over this phobia with French, and how illogically resistant I was to doing any live practice in front of people whose opinions I valued. Now, however, with my level approaching fluent, I feel pride when able to demonstrate my ability, especially to others less competent than myself when they ask for my help. As good as that is, it still sounds scarily like looking to others for validation. I’m starting to wonder how much this accounts for my similar present aversion to German practice.

So I’m brought back to my own point from ‘EFL Materials,’ that there simply isn’t enough support for language learners to cope with the very specific anxiety created by live language practice. We need to develop a student’s voice, that is, the embodiment of how they express their thoughts, feelings and beliefs. As language trainers, we dare not delve into the realm of psychological evaluation, but perhaps we can focus on this one specific idea: assertiveness of the student’s ‘voice.’ We will cannot claim to provide relief from social anxiety in general, but perhaps localised relief for scenarios demanding live performance of the target language. If done through the target language, great, but it could also be done in the students first language for low level learners. With simple, clear instructions on how to identify negative beliefs related to language performance, as well as how to design activities and experiments to expose students to their fears in a controlled way, we might be able to slowly diminish their anxiety.

I’d love comments from peers on this (obviously, if you’ve been reading what I said above!) and I look forward to sharing results from my own students in this project.

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