Adventures in Language

Science Behind Language Learning | Why do we get anxious about learning a second language?

September 21, 2022 Mango Languages
Adventures in Language
Science Behind Language Learning | Why do we get anxious about learning a second language?
Show Notes Transcript

Have you ever felt scared, nervous, or anxious when using your second language? In our latest episode, Kaitlyn Tagarelli (Linguist, PhD) discusses how language anxiety shapes the language learning process, and outlines some tips for managing anxious feelings. If you want to learn more about the scientific research consulted for this episode, and how Mango guides learners, take a look at our blog post that accompanies this episode:

Here’s some other Mango content that can help you round out your understanding of language anxiety:

If you liked this episode, please let us know by following the podcast and leaving us a review! We also invite you to check out our website at: and follow us on social media @MangoLanguages. And remember – language is an adventure. Enjoy the ride!

Wondering what languages were used in today’s episode? 

English | Recording language

French | Bonjour et bienvenue (bo(n)joor eh beea(n)veunu) means “Hello and welcome” in French. À la prochaine (a la prochayn) is short for À la prochaine fois, which means “See you next time!” 

Interested in learning French or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to start learning!

Kaitlyn Tagarelli (Ph.D., Georgetown University) is a linguist and the Head of Research at Mango Languages. She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Georgetown University, specializing in how the mind and brain learn languages. Aside from geeking out about all things neuroscience and linguistics, she loves hanging out with her family at their Connecticut home, trying to convince them to speak French with her.

George Smith (Ph.D., University of Hawai‛i at Mānoa) is a Linguistics Content Writer at Mango Languages. He holds a Ph.D. in Second Language Studies from the University of Hawai‛i at Mānoa, and conducts research on second language listening, speaking, and vocabulary learning. He is a lifelong teacher and learner who enjoys gabbing about language with his family and friends.

Kaitlyn Tagarelli, PhD: Bonjour et bienvenue ! Welcome back to Adventures in Language! I’m your guide, Kaitlyn. In this episode of the Science Behind Language Learning, we’re facing our fears about learning new languages… That’s right! We’re talking about how and why anxiety rears its head when we learn languages, and how it affects the learning process. We even have a free worksheet with 5 steps to help you manage language anxiety by taking control of your language learning journey. Check out the link in the description. 

Are you ready? Let’s get started!

Picture this: You’re in your German class, following along as your teacher and classmates talk about their weekends. Everything is going fine. Then your teacher calls on you and you freeze. Your palms are sweating, your heart is racing, and you can’t manage to say anything. Or, you’ve studied so hard for an Arabic vocab quiz and know your flashcards by heart, but you completely blank out on the answers when it’s time to actually take the quiz. And language learning anxiety isn’t restricted to the classroom. You might get nervous trying to order food or speak to a group of people in your second language. 

When it comes down to it, anxiety is very common among language learners and it is a very important factor in language learning.

What is language learning anxiety?

Let’s start with some basic facts: Language learning anxiety is any feeling of fear, tension, or worry that people experience when they’re learning or using a second language. It’s not an inherent trait that you either have or you don’t. In fact, anyone can feel anxious when learning a new language, and most people probably do at least sometimes, especially in specific situations or during certain phases of language learning. 

For example, you may feel anxious when you are exposed to new input in a foreign language, like words, phrases, sounds, or grammatical rules, and your goal is to try to remember them. This could happen if you’re taking a Spanish class and your teacher is introducing the words for the days of the week, or explaining how to form the past tense. It might seem simple enough, but learning new things can also be overwhelming! You might feel like there are too many words to remember, or that you’ll never be able to pronounce a tricky sound. 

You also might feel worried when you have to memorize or understand something in your target language, like when you’re trying to take part in a conversation or talk to someone on the phone, which can be especially hard to understand. I, for one, always feel nervous when I’m in a foreign country and have to listen out for announcements on the train. The conductor’s voice or recorded message over the loudspeaker isn’t very clear to begin with, plus the cost of missing an announcement could be missing your stop!

And if you haven’t experienced anxiety while learning or trying to understand something in your second language, you’ve almost certainly felt tension around speaking or writing. This is the most common type of language learning anxiety, and is partially related to a fear of being judged by others, like your teacher or your peers. I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel nervous when I have to perform in the spotlight – even in my first language!

Anxiety comes into play in many different situations for language learners, and some situations might involve multiple types of anxiety. For example, if you’re having a conversation in your second language, you may be anxious about picking up new words that come up, understanding what the other person is saying, and trying to speak without making too many mistakes.

So now you might be asking yourself, “Ok, but how does the anxiety I feel in these different situations affect learning?”

How does anxiety affect language learning?

Well, at its core, language learning anxiety is a distraction – it’s information in your head that isn’t really relevant to what you’re trying to focus on. If you’ve been following along in this series, you know that our minds can only hold and process so much information at once. Anxiety effectively takes up some of this space and therefore tends to interfere with learning. 

For instance, if you feel anxious when you hear a new word for the first time, you may be so distracted that you can’t remember what it sounds like. You may even need to have it repeated a few times before you can successfully commit it to memory. This can be a problem, since in the wild we don't always have access to a replay button! Alternatively, if you feel anxious when producing language, you might not have the spare mental capacity to retrieve that word you need, even if you painstakingly memorized it beforehand. That’s right — anxiety can put you at a real loss for words. Anxiety can even interfere with your ability to recognize feedback from other people on your speaking and writing. This can definitely get in the way of language learning, as feedback is critical for language development. And so it shouldn’t come as a shock that learners who experience less anxiety are able to learn and achieve more in a second language

But is anxiety always a bad thing? Most of the time, anxiety is detrimental to language learning because it shifts your focus away from the task at hand towards personal concerns - like worrying about failing or being judged by others. However, small amounts of anxiety during simple tasks (e.g., competing during a language game) may actually boost your language performance by pushing you to put in extra effort.

Okay, so anxiety is a pretty important part of understanding why people are more or less successful in language learning. But how does it match up to other factors like aptitude or motivation? Well, as it turns out, these factors influence each other – and language learning – in pretty interesting ways. 

Take aptitude for example, which is a natural talent for language learning. Previously in this series, we’ve talked about the fact that learners with low levels of aptitude tend to have a harder time learning new languages. But research also tells us that low-aptitude learners have higher levels of anxiety. This relationship may be fairly direct: low-aptitude learners, by definition, face more obstacles to learning, which can lead to more anxiety. But while high-aptitude learners may be less prone to anxiety, they are not immune to it. High levels of anxiety can prevent even high-aptitude learners from applying their natural talents. For example, anxiety can diminish working memory capacity.

What about anxiety and motivation? Both of these are emotional factors that come into play during learning. Anxiety interferes most strongly with the effort component of motivation — that is, how much work someone is willing to put into language learning. How? Well, studies have shown that learners who are more anxious are also less willing to use their second language – they’re afraid of making mistakes and embarrassing themselves. So even if they are motivated by good reasons for studying a language, anxiety may make it difficult for some learners to put in the effort to get good results.

Interestingly, anxiety may also be linked to a language learner’s background or experience, such as their age and how many languages they speak. Younger learners, who are less self-aware than adults, are generally less anxious about learning languages and worry less about being negatively judged. Likewise, learners who know more languages tend to be less anxious than those who know fewer languages, likely because they are more familiar with the ins and outs of learning a new language.

What can we do about anxiety?

Ok, so now we know that some language learning situations are likely to make us anxious, and we know that anxiety isn’t exactly our best friend when it comes to achieving our language learning goals. So is there anything we can do about it?

Well, the good news is that there are a few things you can do to reduce your language-learning anxiety. 

  1. Number 1: Practice with games! Using games to learn can push learners to take risks and experiment with language in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise. 
  2. Number 2: Use a language learning app! An app like Mango allows learners to practice speaking in low-pressure environments, like in the privacy of their own homes, which can reduce anxiety and improve learning.
  3. Number 3: If you’re able to, take an extended trip to a place where your target language is spoken, study abroad, or look for a local Meetup with speakers of your target language. Studies have shown that practice in language immersion settings can help learners feel less nervous when interacting with others. 
  4. Number 4: Put yourself in control of your language learning journey! Research suggests that language learners who feel more in control not only have lower anxiety, but also tend to be more motivated to learn a language, and achieve greater success

Not sure how to take the wheel on the road to language learning? Don’t forget to check out the worksheet we’ve created to guide you through the process.

Well, there you have it! 

Let’s recap what we’ve learned.

  1. Language learning anxiety is any feeling of fear, tension, or worry that people experience when they’re learning or using a second language. It can arise in many different language-learning situations.
  2. Anxiety is usually harmful to language learning because it distracts us from important language information. But small amounts of anxiety can actually help you put in extra effort and learn more!
  3. Anxiety interacts with several other individual differences in language learning, like aptitude, working memory, and motivation.

Finally, we covered some tips for managing language learning anxiety. Let us know which ones work best for you! Do you have any tips you want to share with the language-learning community? Reach out and let us know!

If you liked this episode and want to stay tuned for more episodes about the Science Behind Language Learning, make sure you subscribe to the Adventures in Language podcast! If there’s a topic that you want to learn more about, reach out to let us know!

Be sure to check out the description for this episode for some free materials on anxiety, including an awesome worksheet to guide you towards controlling your language anxiety. Thanks for listening!  À la prochaine ! 

Don’t miss our next episode in this series, where we’ll talk about the role of personality in language learning! Next time on the Science Behind Language Learning.

Want to know more about the scientific research underlying this episode? Here’s some of the research we consulted and/or mentioned: 

  • Bailey, P., Onwuegbuzie, A. J., & Daley, C. E. (2000). Correlates of anxiety at three stages of the foreign language learning process. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 19(4), 474–490.
  • Horwitz, E. K. (2010). Research timeline: Foreign and second language anxiety. Language Teaching, 43(2), 154–167.
  • MacIntyre, P. (2017). An Overview of Language Anxiety Research and Trends in its Development. In C. Gkonou, M. Daubner, & J. Dewaele (Eds.), New Insights into Language Anxiety: Theory, Research and Educational Implications (pp. 11-30). Multilingual Matters.
  • Teimouri, Y., Goetze, J., & Plonsky, L. (2019). Second language anxiety and achievement: A meta-analysis. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 41(2), 363-387.