Today I have the pleasure of leaving the mic to Marissa Blaszko. She’s a language lover, learner and the creator behind “Relearn a Language.” Today, she’s sharing with you her experience and research about learning languages, anxiety-free. Enjoy!
When I was 15, my high school Spanish teacher gave me a choice:
…either give my presentation to the class (in Spanish)…
…or fail the class.
Instead, I vomited in the bathroom.
(Eventually, the guidance counselor and principal had to get involved. After a few meetings, they all agreed that I could hand in a paper explaining my research for credit.)
Half a lifetime later, I celebrated my 30th birthday dinner in Paris.
I spoke Portuguese with friends from the US when we met up and head to the restaurant.
I spoke French to the waiter to order for us (since I was the only one in the group who spoke it).
I spoke Spanish to another friend joined us for drinks a few hours later (since even though he spoke English, we knew each other from Mexico and had grown our whole friendship in Spanish).
So… how do you go from fear-vomiting in a classroom to a polyglot?
“Thanks to Jessica for letting me come onto her blog for this guest post! Here I am (right) visiting Paris for 30th birthday and meeting up with friends. This was a vision goal for two years of my French learning!”
Foreign language anxiety
Foreign language anxiety is such a common phenomenon that it’s an entire linguistic field of study.
It was first recognized in 1983 as a specific reaction provoked by specific situations learners were put into. You can read the original paper here.
The original symptoms researchers studied were much tamer than my own. But there are 3 general types of reactions:
- communication apprehension, arising from learners’ inability to adequately express mature thoughts and ideas;
- fear of negative social evaluation, arising from a learner’s need to make a positive social impression on others; and
- test anxiety, or apprehension over academic evaluation.
In short, language anxiety is the fear that because we cannot communicate well enough, that we will be socially or materially harmed.
In school, we can see how this would play out.
Social groups can be a lifeline for children and teens, but with cases of bullying exploding in the headlines [source] the negative consequences of making a mistake can be emotionally devastating.
Standardized testing and its effects on mental health also cause for concern, in both language classrooms and public schools in general. [source]
So in schools, we have students in high-stakes situations that feed anxiety. With time (and without treatment), that anxiety can grow and fester unnoticed in as much as 60% of students in the US [source] and approximately 50% in European countries [source].
Then, when it’s time to speak in the language, all of those terrible feelings begin to break through the surface in the form of racing hearts, dizziness, or in my case vomiting.
But what about now, as adult learners?
Can foreign language anxiety still strike even if we’re not studying in classrooms?
While there are no studies on language anxiety in independent adult learners, we can look at consumer activities as an indicator of what activities adult learners are choosing to engage in.
To do that, we can compare the financial success of two genres of language learning resources: those which have students speak (which would trigger hidden anxiety) and those which do not have students speak (which would not trigger any hidden anxiety).
So how much money do non-speaking language learning resources generate?
And how much money do speaking language learning resources generate?
Well, to start they’re not big enough to be disclosing their finances. Which means their net worths aren’t readily available either.
The largest online tutoring platform iTalki pulled in an impressive $3 million dollars from investors back in 2016 [source] and language exchange platform HelloTalk found the same amount of funding only 2 years later in 2018 [source].
This means on average, for every 1 independent student who practices speaking a language, at least another 500 use resources that avoid speaking entirely.
A psychological analysis would suggest adults are likely using avoidance (an extremely common coping strategy) to keep foreign language anxiety under control.
To keep themselves from being anxious while speaking, they simply never speak a language they’re studying.
How can we stop avoiding what we’re afraid of?
Thankfully, this isn’t a totally alien problem in the world of mental health. Every year, psychologists publish hundreds (if not thousands) books and papers on how to cope and health from anxiety.
It’s commonly known that avoidance (which we can see in consumer activity) is a common strategy adults use to manage bad feelings.
It’s not just language learning: if bills and finances stress us out, we may ignore our bank account. If we know we have to break up with a partner, we may simply ignore their texts. And if we know we might need screening for a certain illness based on family history, we may simply avoid the doctor.
But unfortunately, avoidance is one of the least-helpful long-term strategies for curing anxiety. [source]
So if you’re studying French with the goal of being able to enjoy speaking and using your French one day, you need to use other strategies to work through your anxiety besides avoidance.
Fortunately, not only are some of these strategies emotionally easier than avoiding the problem… they’re more enjoyable to do. (And a lot more effective in actual language learning.)
One of the strategies you can use is mindfulness.
It wasn’t until I started working with Jessica and the French Awareness program that I realized the power of it.
As a super type-A personality, I actually enjoy doing flashcards and grammar drills. (Weird, I know.) And for a long time, I assumed my success in language learning was simply discipline.
But that was only a small part of the recipe.
I’ve been successful in learning French because I’ve been able to immerse myself in accents I love through French YouTubers and podcasts. (Listening to them never felt nearly as stressful as trying to create a “perfect” accent in a classroom.)
I’ve been successful in learning French because I’m obsessed with French books, and get super curious about looking up new works. (Picking my reading out myself has been a million times more fun than any assigned reading.)
And I’ve been successful in learning French because of teachers who I look forward to seeing at our next Skype session as we gush over things like philosophy, art, new ideas, and travel. (With people you trust, you don’t have to be afraid of making mistakes.)
In short: everything I do in French, I do with mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
All of these super-successful and absolutely-fun language learning techniques helped me in “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.”
That’s the UC Berkely definition of mindfulness, anyway. [source]
Without knowing it, these fun and rewarding activities helped me break up with painful and anxiety-inducing past memories of language learning. It replaced bad memories and associations with powerfully enriching positive memories instead.
By learning to follow my instincts and feelings (that would say things like “let’s listen to a podcast in French!”) instead of my stubbornness (which would say “you need to drill grammar”), I was able to make language learning not only enjoyable but part of my own self-growth.
But one of the big problems you’re likely going to have is that social circumstances have disconnected you with this “gut instinct”.
If a teacher makes us feel stupid, it’s often ourselves who we blame for “messing up”.
If we’re not learning vocabulary, a common instinct could be to simply work harder.
And we tend to focus much more on abstract “fluency” goals than any small day-to-day achievement (or fun).
That’s because that’s what we learned in school.
So in order to rebuild your instincts and form language learning habits based on self-care, we need to strategically integrate mindfulness into your French language learning routine.
5 ways to use mindfulness to heal language anxiety
For this section, I suggest grabbing a pen and paper and brainstorming.
Start freewriting, brainstorming, or taking notes as you follow your heart to see what speaks to you.
1. Find teachers and coaches that understand your emotional needs (and not just linguistic ones)
When you work with a French teacher, ask yourself:
- How do they respond when I make an error?
- Do they encourage me when I take a chance or hesitate?
- Who is talking most often in the class?
- What happens when I pause to think or look for words?
To use mindfulness when leaning with a private teacher or tutor, you need someone who helps you stay in the moment. Someone who helps you take your time thinking and wondering, and doesn’t make you rush onto the next word for fear of being cut off.
There is no one “right” way for a teacher to help you be mindful when speaking French. The goal is that you should feel calm and encouraged when working with them so you can take chances without fear.
Is your French teacher providing you with that?
2. Find your own reason to enjoy the language (not your reason why you should learn it)
When you daydream about your future French abilities, what do you see?
For me, I see myself chatting with friends in Canada as we have breakfast in a sugar cabin or ride bikes through a park. We talk about books, languages, politics, and travel.
So then, for me to obsess over my French spelling? Or my less-than-perfect accent?
Sure, if I had to take a C2 test my spelling would be a (major) problem. And yes, having a slick Parisian accent seems dreamy.
But those aren’t my reasons to learn French. So doing spelling drills or thining negatively about how I speak is going to separate me from my love for the language–not help me progress in it.
So in your daydream, how do you see yourself using your French one day?
What skills do you need (and not need) in order to get there?
3. Fill your life with activities you love in the language
When you see a clear vision of what French will bring to your life, it’s much easier to see how you can start enjoying those little things today. (Even if your French isn’t where you want it to one day be.)
What little activities can you do that will help you feel close to that goal?
What can you enjoy now that will help you immerse yourself in the language?
For me, the biggest one has been doing regularly language exchanges with my Canadian friends on weekends and listening to Quebecois podcasts during the week.
For my friends, they’ve used things like French literature to help them feel closer to museums in Paris or taking online courses in French to help them feel like they’re on the right path to their dream career in Belgium.
Whatever you love to do, do it in French.
“One of my favorite things I’ve ever done to learn Spanish was take weaving workshops in Mexico. Not only did I learn some super specific (and very new) vocab, but more about Mexican textile traditions. For me, becoming closer to mi querido México was a huge motivator to continue learning the language.”
4. Explore new things using the language
What’s one thing you always wanted to learn but never tried?
Maybe it’s piano classes, or maybe it’s making an amazing curry.
Who knows–maybe it’s going through your own family tree in a genealogy treasure hunt or enrolling in online business classes.
Whatever it is, you can probably do it in French.
The internet is an endless library. You can not only ladder skills (by learning something new through French) but ladder interests.
Let your curiosity roam free and explore whatever you want.
You don’t have to be good at these things to enjoy them. You just have to follow your heart and work on repairing your ability to check-in with your own true feelings.
5. Journaling your feelings as part of your daily routine
Until you build up to instinctive mindfulness, purposefully-mindful activities can help you focus in a dedicated way.
If you’ve never journaled for mindfulness before, I highly recommend starting with Jessica’s Bulle de Français. Instead of staring at that blank piece of paper wondering “where do I start?” writing prompts, poetry, and meditation are provided every month to help guide you through the process.
The reason guided journaling is one of the best tools for language learning is not only because you practice the language in an organic and structured way, but because you can retreat into yourself.
Far away from language classrooms or the gaze of others, you can connect to the language without fear of mispronunciations or grammar mistakes.
And when it’s guided by a professional who understands the language anxiety healing process you can use expertly-written prompts to bring yourself closer to overcoming your internal obstacles without avoidance or external stress.
Learn French with love
If you want to dive into your French using mindfulness, make sure you check out the Bulle de Français, a monthly journal that incorporates everything in this article into a French learning program.
For more fun ways to enjoy French, check out the lists of my own blog with lists about French music, French books, French YouTubers, French yoga, and how to relearn French for heritage language learners.
Bulle de Français
The membership program Bulle de Français provides you with inspiring, homemade, curated materials and resources to dive into French with mindfulness and to support your self-discovery and growth.
Good news!! Enrollments are opening again very soon! Join the waiting list to be the first to know 🙂