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Second Language Anxiety

Posted on Sunday, January 13, 2013 in Education, French, Second Language Acquisition

The semester has started and the first week passed without much issue. My concerns are that 12 hours is a crazy course load for graduate school. I am taking two graduate French courses, French Syntax and Meaning, essentially a linguistics course presented in French instead of English, and Art and Literature in the 19th and 20th century. This course is one of those dreaded esoteric french courses that made me change my major as an undergrad and gives me huge impostor syndrome. I am not an expert in analyzing and interpreting literature in my first language and I suffer from huge anxiety trying to do it in my second language.

My anxiety about my skills in my second language go farther than just my ability to analyse literature. I know I can speak French but I always feel as if I have to be perfect. I have to prove it. I can’t make mistakes. And when I do make mistakes, I feel a complete sense of shame.

I realize these feelings, while normal in language learners, cannot control me. I cannot let fear of making mistakes keep me from my dreams. For years they did. I stopped speaking French after I got my diploma and when I would try I would make mistakes and I would just shut down.

When I started studying the research going on in second language acquisition, I learned things that made me feel more comfortable with my shortcomings as a second language learner.

1.) Language learning is a continuum. Regardless of one’s proficiency, if one is  learning the language he is  a speaker of the language. I took Spanish in college and felt a huge sense of failure when the language did not come naturally to me. I do not speak it well, but I can speak some Spanish. Spanish is my 3rd language. I cannot speak Urdu but I can understand a great deal. I am somewhere on the continuum for learning Hindi/Urdu. This is my 4th language. I no longer diminish my language abilities by dismissing the efforts I made to reach where I am on the continuum with any language I have tried to learn.

2.) One should not expect to speak like a native speaker. This one is hard. The nature of language learning is to want to become fluent. And fluency means to speak as much like a native speaker as possible. But to seek perfection is unrealistic and one will never speak exactly like a native speaker. Nearly perfect proficiency is possible but I have banished this kind of perfection from my mind.  I speak French well, as a second language. There are things I say that a native speaker would not. My accent is not perfect. There are ways I phrase sentences that are more like a native speaker of English speaking French. This is because my native language is English. And I am ok with that.

3.) One develops proficiency in the area of the language they practice. There are four aspects of language learning. Speaking, listening, writing and reading. To develop a complete proficiency, one must practice in all areas. Some courses are focused on one thing, for example academic language courses focus on reading. Conversation courses focus on developing communicative competency. For years the only input I had was to sporadically to read something in French. I did not have opportunity to speak it, I did not listen to native speakers of the language, nor did I have chance to write anything in French. I would freak out completely when I had difficulty trying to do one of these things.

As a future French educator, I enjoy learning the research and theories about SLA. They both comfort my own anxiety and short comings and help me to become a better educator.

Bring on the comments

  1. Erin says:

    You are one of the most learned women I know. Keep on with yo bad self. I do have a hint for literary analysis though- some teachers have a preconceived notion of what a piece is supposed to mean, but listen to your own thoughts. When I read, the language of a piece will jump out at me (think “quotes Erin would want tattooed”), then you can ask the question… Why would an author say something in this way? What did it do to me as a reader? How would this further the goal of that writing? Yes- a teacher will want a universal theme and prof if that, but even if your theme isn’t theirs, your proof comes from response to the language. Good luck!

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