An exploratory comparative study between U.S. and Spanish first-semester university students

Effect of educational strategies on anxiety in the second language classroom: an exploratory comparative study between U.S. and Spanish first-semester university students

Matt A. Casado

Numerous reports and articles have pointed out the mediocrity of U.S. students’ second language skills, implying, for example, that students abroad may perform better because of an established educational framework with an ‘early start’ and ‘well-articulated teaching strategies.’ If this were the case, students overseas should demonstrate lower levels of anxiety in the second language classroom than students of similar educational level in the U.S. This exploratory study investigates and compares the perceived second language anxiety in a random setting of first-semester university students, in the U.S. and Spain, as measured by a foreign language anxiety scale. Although the study did not control for factors that may influence language apprehension, the results show that in randomly-selected settings, where an ‘early start’ and ‘a well-articulated teaching framework’ were part of the language background of students surveyed in Spain, their perceived levels of anxiety towards the second language (English) were generally higher than those of the students surveyed in the United States (Spanish).



The shortage of language-competent residents in the U.S. was pointed out as early as 1979 by the report of the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies (1979). As commented by Tucker (1990), the report focused on the exceedingly small number of students who had studied foreign languages and, more important, on the even smaller number that had achieved any degree of demonstrable proficiency in the target second language. Today, the situation has barely changed. Numerous reports and articles have decried the mediocrity of our students’ foreign language skills and have called for improved language education. Pufahl, Rhodes & Christian (2001) paraphrase the opinion of Secretary of Education Richard Riley, who stated that “strengthening foreign language instruction in the nation will build a better workforce, ensure national security, and improve other areas of education.”

Funded by the Department of Education, Pufahl et al. (2001) from the Center for Applied Linguistics explored language education around the world looking for strategies or policies that could help improve language teaching and learning in the U.S. The study’s goal included twenty countries. One of those countries was Spain. The results of the study indicated that two of the most important characteristics that determine the success of foreign language education are ‘an early start’ and ‘a well-articulated framework.’ In the case of Spain, the students’ introduction to a foreign language begins at eight years of age. The Spanish educational system has in place nationwide compulsory requisites for schools (Pufahl, Rhodes & Christian, 2001). In addition, students must pass a foreign language test for admission to the university (Prueba de selectividad). Thus the study of a foreign language in-the Spanish system is compulsory to all grade-school students from age eight onwards, articulating from grade to grade until the completion of high school and culminating with a test of admission to the university. On the contrary, in the U.S., although foreign language competencies are included in curricula by State Boards, not all school districts require foreign language classes of students, usually for lack of funds. Generally foreign language classes are offered in high school, the starting age is 14 and the courses may not be mandatory. The questions is: in relation to classroom anxiety, does a system that requires second language instruction six years earlier reduce apprehension significantly in students compared to a system that does not?

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this exploratory study is to compare the levels of anxiety of first-semester university language students in the U.S. and Spain as measured by a foreign language anxiety scale. Specifically, using students’ levels of anxiety as a determinant, do the second language teaching policies currently in place in the Spanish educational system lead to substantially lower anxiety of first semester university students? Factors such as classroom strategies and methods and the language characteristic background of individual students were not considered; instead, a general measurement of anxiety in a randomly selected setting was sought. A series of follow up studies considering individual student experience with language, specific classroom methodologies, and other anxiety-related factors will need to be taken into account to determine causality.

Background of the Study

As stated by Gardner (1991), it is believed that language anxiety is a pervasive and prominent force in the second language learning context that has a detrimental effect on language learning or performance and that feelings of anxiety may be caused by students not having developed proficiency in the language. Therefore, an educational system that does not require an ‘early start’ nor has a mandatory ‘well-articulated framework’ established for the learning of foreign languages may be the cause for students to experience harmful feelings of anxiety. Thus, if these assertions are plausible, it should follow that students in educational systems where an early start and a progressive structure of foreign language learning is in place should experience lower levels of anxiety than those students in a system that doesn’t offer them.

Three Components of Foreign Language Anxiety.

Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope (1986) outlined a theoretical framework for the investigation of levels of anxiety of foreign language students. The first component is “communication apprehension” in which the authors proposed that language students have mature thoughts and ideas but an immature second language vocabulary with which to express them. The inability either to express themselves or to comprehend one another leads to apprehension. Language students who test high on anxiety report that they are afraid to speak in the foreign language, showing feelings of nervousness, confusion and even panic. Students with feelings of communication anxiety would respond positively to questions like “I get nervous and confused when I am speaking in my language class,” and negatively to questions like “I feel confident when I speak in foreign language class.”

The second component is “fear of negative evaluation.” Because students are unsure of themselves and what they are saying, they may feel that they are not able to make the proper social impression (MacIntyre and Gardner, 1991). Students with feelings of fear of negative evaluation would answer positively questions like “I am afraid that the other students will laugh at me when I speak the foreign language,” and negatively to questions like “I don’t worry about making mistakes in language class.”

A third component, that of “general feeling of anxiety towards a foreign language,” can be added to the theoretical framework. These would be feelings of apprehension related to other sensations of apprehension akin but not intrinsically linked to communication or fear of negative evaluation. Apprehensive students would reply positively to questions like “even if I am well prepared for language class, I feel anxious about it” and negatively to questions like “It wouldn’t bother me at all to take more foreign language.”


The Setting and Subjects

This study was designed to identify and compare the perceptions of first-semester second language students in a general university setting in the United States and in Spain towards feelings of anxiety experienced during foreign language learning as measured by a series of anxiety scales. Specifically, the objective of this study was to investigate and compare the perceptions of 114 students (Group One) surveyed at Northern Arizona University (NAU) during the third week of their first-semester Spanish class with those of 154 first-semester students (Group Two) at the Universidad de Murcia (UM), Spain, during the second week of their first-semester English class. NAU is a state university that requires two years of a second language study in high school or in college as a prerequisite for admission. At program level, all Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degrees require two semesters of a second language other than English. The only Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree that requires a second language is Hotel and Restaurant Management. Although Spanish universities at Seville, Granada and Almeria had agreed to allow the survey to be conducted, Murcia was chosen because of the total support received from its Liberal Arts (L.A.) Dean (Decano de la Facultad de Filosofia) to carry out the investigation. The UM houses fourteen colleges and schools. Besides students working towards a degree in languages (filologia), those in the college of education, tourism management, business administration, and library science must take one year of a second language (usually English or French) other than Spanish as a prerequisite for graduation. All students had had to pass an admission test (prueba de selectividad) that includes competency in a second language. Given these admission and program requirements, the composition of the classes surveyed at NAU did necessarily encompass students with a minimum of two years of a second language at high school level. The composition of the classes at UM did necessarily encompass students who have taken language classes since the third grade.

For research purposes, a null hypothesis was postulated and tested to determine if there were statistical differences between the two groups in the perceptions they held towards second language anxiety, specifically “there is no significant difference of perception between Group One and Group Two for each one of the FLCAS thirty-three variables towards anxiety in foreign language learning.”

The sample that Group One (NAU) represented consisted of 114 students from five introductory Spanish classes (SPA 101) randomly selected from 34 courses taught (17 each semester) in the spring and fall semesters of 1999. The average number of students per class was 22.8. The sample that Group Two (UM) represented consisted of 154 students from four introductory English classes (ingles documental) randomly selected from 11 courses taught in the fall semester of 2000. The average number of students per class was 31. By randomizing the sample settings it was hoped to generalize the background of the students in both groups, as well as the feelings of anxiety not related to language learning, such as trait and state apprehension.


The instrument of the survey was the Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale (FLCAS) questionnaire, devised by Horwitz, Horwitz, and Cope in 1986. Each questionnaire consisted of thirty-three items, each one on a 5-point scale ranging from “strongly agree” (scale point 1) to “strongly disagree” (scale point 5), the middle point being neutral (scale point 3). The purpose of the scale is to examine the scope and severity of foreign language anxiety. The FLCAS has shown evidence of satisfactory reliability, internal consistency and construct validity (Horwitz, 1991). Table 1 shows the questions indicating levels of anxiety for scores lower than 3.0 and for scores higher than 3.0. The 33 FLCAS questions were translated into Spanish for the survey of UM students by one of the authors of this study. Besides being a native speaker, the author holds a university degree in Spanish and has nineteen years of experience as a modern language teacher.


This exploratory comparative study possesses the characteristics of descriptive/ analytical research in that it is concerned with the perceptions of respondents. The data obtained from the raw scores of the survey were assessed by one-way analyses of variance (ANOVA) to determine whether the means of each question between the two groups were significantly different at a 0.05 probability level. ANOVA values were found for the thirty-three variables for the two groups. To take into account the potential violation of the independence assumption that is part of univariate tests of between-group difference, three summated scale scores were created (Communication Apprehension, Fear of Negative Evaluation, and General Feeling of Anxiety) by adding together the scores of individual survey items (see Table 2).

Since there was likely to be content overlap or multicollinearity among the summated scores, a multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was used to test for significance of between-group differences. Application of the MANOVA allowed the researchers to consider the three summated scale scores for each subject as a potentially intercorrelated or overlapping set of measures. At the same time, the MANOVA statistical test was used to preserve the overall alpha Type I error rate in the between-group difference testing. The data was processed using the SPSS Statistical Package.


Permission was requested from the Chairs of the Spanish department at NAU and from the Departamento de Filologia Inglesa at the University of Murcia to conduct the survey. The Chairs were asked to select classes from those taught to beginning students and to arrange with the instructors for the administration of the survey. The students were explained the purpose of the study, that of measuring the levels of apprehension in some aspects related to taking second language classes. The Spanish students were given the questionnaire translated into Spanish and an explanation in Spanish of the purpose of the survey.

Results and Discussion

Table 3 shows the mean and standard deviation for answers to the thirty-three questions by group.

Visual inspection of the means reveals that the level of apprehension of the NAU students was higher in 13 of the 33 questions while the level of the UM students was higher in 20 questions.

Table 4 shows the ANOVA calculated F-values, degrees of freedom and associated levels of significance for each individual anxiety scale item. Twenty-three values were statistically significant at the 0.05 probability level. The values found not to be significant indicated that the perceptions of the two groups were statistically similar.

Visual inspection of the scores for the 23 questions with significant differences reveals that the responses show higher levels of anxiety in 8 of the questions by NAU students and in 15 questions by students at the University of Murcia.

Tables 5, 6 and 7 show the summary descriptive statistics for “Communication Apprehension,” “Fear of Negative Evaluation,” and “General Feeling of Anxiety.” The tables provide the total number of subjects for Groups One and Two, the mean scores and standard deviations.

In all cases, the average summated score for Group Two is lower than that of Group One. In order to assess the significance of the difference of these three summated scale score means, taking into account that the three summated scores are likely to be intercorrelated, the multivariate analysis of difference (MANOVA) was applied to the data. Table 8 shows the results of the MANOVA test.

As it generally occurs, the four statistical indices of MANOVA shown in the first column converged to identical F-equivalents with associated significance levels. The results indicate that Group One and Group Two significantly differ with regard to mean score on at least one of the three summated scores derived from the anxiety scale. That is, the p-value of 0.0001 is indicative of some individual between-group differences.

A follow-up pairwise group comparison on each of the summated scale scores was conducted by applying a Fisher’s PLSD test to the data. The test preserved a “family-wise” or over alpha level of 0.05 across the set of the three intercorrelated summated scale scores. Table 9 shows the results of the application of Fisher’s test.

The overall significance of the MANOVA test resulted from statistically significant mean differences on all three summated scale scores between Group One and Group Two. In reading across the first row of Table 9, the actual mean difference between the NAU Group and the Murcia Group on the “Communication Apprehension” summated score was 6.590. Since this is in excess of the critical difference of 2.023 associated with an alpha of 0.50, a statistically significant difference between Group One and Group Two with regard to this summated scale score can be assumed. In fact, the actual p-value associated with the mean difference of 6.590 points between these two groups is less than 0.0001. The results for the remaining two summated scale scores, “Fear of Negative Evaluation” and “General Feeling of Anxiety,” are interpreted similarly.

In summary, all three summated scale scores contributed to the between-group difference of Groups One and Two as measured by the MANOVA test. In decreasing order of magnitude and associated significance, it can be concluded that Group One and Group Two differ with regard to average responses on “Communication Apprehension,” “Fear of Negative Evaluation,” and “General Feeling of Anxiety.”


It can be deduced from this study that some levels of anxiety were experienced by the students surveyed in both groups in response to some aspects of second language learning and that the number of questions indicating apprehension answered by the students of Group Two (UM) was overall higher. The multivariate analysis of variance comparing the two groups on the three average summated scale scores indicated that the differences were statistically significant.

The anxiety experienced, however, could have been the result of the students’ individual exposure (or lack thereof) to the language learned, to classroom methodologies or other intrinsic or extrinsic factors. Other variables may have also influenced the levels of apprehension experienced. For example, besides student state or trait anxiety that could be present in any classroom setting, substantial positive (or negative) experiences with the language such as a smaller number of students per class or being taught by experienced instructors could have affected the levels of confidence of students.

The results of this study indicate that although an ‘early start’ and an ‘articulation framework’ would be undoubtedly beneficial to student progress in all foreign language learning settings, these strategies may not result in lower levels of apprehension at the time students access the foreign language first-semester university classroom. The results also suggest that the lack of a nationwide compulsory foreign language program in U.S. grade schools may not necessarily imply higher levels of anxiety for first-semester university students than those experienced by comparable students in Spain, where the second language is imparted universally since age eight.

Table 1

Distribution of Questions Indicating Levels of Anxiety at Scores Lower

and Higher than 3.0

Lower Higher

than 3.0 than 3.0

(agree) (disagree)

I never feel quite sure of myself when I am X

speaking in my foreign language class.

I don’t worry about making mistakes in X

language class.

I tremble when I know thin I’m going to be X

called on in language class.

It frightens me when I don’t understand X

what the teacher is saying in the foreign


It wouldn’t bother me al all to take more X

foreign language classes.

During language class, I find myself X

thinking about things thin have nothing to

do with the course.

I keep thinking that the other students are X

better at languages than I am.

I am usually at ease during teas in my X

language class.

I start to panic when 1 have to speak X

without preparation in language class.

I worry about the consequences of failing X

my foreign language class.

I don’t understand why some people get so X

upset user foreign language class.

In language class, I can get so nervous X

I forget things I know.

It embarrasses me to volunteer answers in X

my language class.

I would not be nervous speaking the foreign X

language with native speakers.

I get upset when I don’t understand what X

the teacher is correcting.

Even if I am well prepared for language X

class I feel anxious about it.

I often feel like not going to my language X


I feel confident when I speak in foreign X

language class.

I am afraid deal my language teacher is X

ready to correct every mistake I make.

I can feel my heart pounding when I’m X

going to be called on in language class.

The more I study for a language test, the X

more confused I get.

I don’t feel pressure to prepare very well X

for language class.

I always feel that the other students speak X

the foreign language better than I do.

I feel very self-conscious about speaking X

the foreign language in front of other


Language class moves so quickly I worry X

about going left behind.

I feel more tense and nervous in my X

language class than in my other classes.

I get nervous and confused when I am X

speaking in my language class.

When I’m on my way to my language class, X

I feel very sure and relaxed.

I get nervous when I don’t understand every X

word the language teacher says.

I feel overwhelmed by the number of rules X

you have to learn to speak a foreign


I am afraid that the other students will X

laugh at me when I speak the foreign


I would probably feel comfortable around X

native speakers of the foreign language.

I got nervous when the language teacher X

asks questions which I haven’t prepared in



This exploratory comparative study possesses the characteristics of


Table 2 Summated Scales

Summated Scale Individual FLCAS Questions

Score Title

Communication Q9+Q27+Q18+Q4+Q29+Q1+Q3+

Apprehension Q13+Q14+Q20+Q24+Q33

Fear of Negative Q7+Q23+Q31+Q15+Q19+Q2+Q8+Q2


General Feeling Q5+Q6+Q1O+Q11+Q12+Q16+Q17+

of Anxiety Q22+Q25+Q26+Q28+Q30+Q32

Table 3

Mean Scores and Standard Deviation for the 33 FLCAS Questions by Group

Group One (NAU) Group Two (UM)

N = 114 N = 154

Mean Standard Mean Standard

Scores Dev. Scores Dev.

Question #1 2.92 1.04 2.19 1.13

2 2.84 1.21 3.36 1.27

3 3.98 0.87 2.99 1.36

4 3.46 1.06 3.22 1.34

5 2.41 1.14 1.34 0.72

6 3.02 1.05 3.41 1.18

7 3.18 1.09 2.61 1.19

8 2.89 1.13 2.85 1.06

9 3.21 1.05 2.88 1.31

10 3.00 1.30 2.03 1.18

11 2.92 0.85 2.61 0.99

12 3.32 1.12 2.95 1.24

13 3.71 0.92 2.82 1.22

14 3.52 1.00 2.58 1.27

15 3.21 0.95 3.96 1.09

16 3.36 1.00 3.38 1.14

17 3.28 1.18 3.84 1.22

18 2.91 0.83 3.39 1.05

19 3.65 0.95 3.73 1.14

20 3.62 0.99 2.60 1.24

21 3.85 0.93 3.89 1.10

22 3.38 0.94 3.31 1.08

23 3.21 1.07 2.63 1.19

24 3.36 0.95 2.66 1.26

25 3.06 1.18 2.95 1.22

26 3.39 1.13 3.33 1.22

27 3.52 0.93 2.83 1.20

28 2.64 0.95 3.04 1.11

29 3.40 0.98 3.20 1.19

30 2.96 1.11 3.59 1.08

31 3.88 0.83 2.78 1.25

32 3.25 0.98 2.81 1.19

33 2.98 1.01 2.80 1.23

Visual inspection of the means reveals that the level of apprehension

of the NAU students was higher in 13 of the 33 questions while the

level of the UM students was higher in 20 questions.

Table 4

Difference in average levels of anxiety between first-semester NAU and

UM students: One-way Analysis of Variance (ANOVA)

Question F-value Degrees of freedom Significance

Question # 1 23.939 (1,240) <0.0001 *

2 11.260 (1,266) 0.0009 *

3 46.674 (1,266) <0.0001 *

4 2.400 (1,265) 0.1015

5 88.231 (1,266) <0.0001 *

6 7.830 (1,264) 0.0055

7 15.891 (1,265) <0.0001 *

8 0.069 (1,266) 0.7937

9 5.012 (1,266) 0.0260 *

10 40.411 (1,265) <0.0001 *

11 7.359 (1,265) 0.0071 *

12 8.969 (1,266) 0.0123 *

13 42.881 (1,265) <0.0001 *

14 42.377 (1,264) <0.0001 *

15 34.713 (1,265) <0.0001 *

16 0.031 (1,266) 0.8606

17 14.005 (1,266) 0.0002 *

18 16.156 (1,266) <0.0001 *

19 0.416 (1,266) 0.5195

20 51.845 (1,263) <0.0001 *

21 0.114 (1,263) 0.7357

22 0.288 (1,261) 0.5921

23 16.775 (1,261) <0.0001 *

24 24.879 (1,263) 0.0001 *

25 0.591 (1,261) 0.4429

26 0.176 (1,262) 0.6756

27 25.350 (1,260) <0.0001 *

28 9.461 (1,263) 0.0023 *

29 2.187 (1,262) 0.1404

30 21.011 (1,262) <0.0001 *

31 66.069 (1,261) <0.0001 *

32 9.860 (1,263) 0.0019

33 1.639 (1,263) 0.2016

* Significance at p = 0.05 or less

* The reason for the different numbers of degrees of freedom in the

respective denominators is that there were some non-responses to

some individual items.

Table 5

Summary of Descriptive Statistics for ‘Communication Apprehension.’

Summated Scale Score per Group

Total Number

Group of Subjects Mean Score Standard Dev.

One (NAU) 114 40.605 6.516

Two (UM) 142 * 34.106 8.832

* There were 12 invalid or unanswered responses in this group

Table 6

Summary of Descriptive Statistics for ‘Fear of Negative Evaluation.’

Summated Scale Score per Group

Total Number

Group of Subjects Mean Score Standard Dev.

One (NAU) 114 26.702 3.557

Two (UM) 145 * 25.786 3.581

* There were 9 invalid or unanswered responses in this group

Table 7

Summary of Descriptive Statistics for ‘General Feeling of Anxiety.’

Summated Scale Score per Group

Total Number

Group of Subjects Mean Score Standard Dev.

One (NAU) 114 40.000 4.570

Two (UM) 141 * 38.546 4.284

* There were 13 invalid or unanswered responses in this group

Table 8

Results of Multivariate Analysis of Variance Comparing Groups One and

Two on Set of Three Average Summated Scale Scores

Computed Degrees

value of of Associated

Test statistic F-equivalent freedom p-value

Wilks’ Lambda 0.841 14.997 (3,238) <0.0001 *

Roy’s G. Root 0.189 14.997 (3,238) <0.0001 *

Hotelling L. Trace 0.189 14.997 (3,238) <0.0001 *

Pillai Trace 0.159 14.997 (3,238) <0.0001 *

* Significant at p = 0.05 or less

Table 9

Fisher’s PLSD Test comparing Groups One and Two on set of three

Average Summated Scale Scores

Summated Scale Mean Critical Associated

Score Difference Difference P value

Comm. Apprehension 6.590 2.023 <0.0001 *

Fear of Neg. Evaluation 1.006 0.913 0.0309 *

Gen. Feeling of Anxiety 1.602 1.121 0.0053 *

* Significant at p = 0.05 or less


Gardner, R. 1991. “Foreword,” in Language Anxiety: From Theory and Research to Classroom Implications. Elaine K. Horwitz and Dolly J. Young (Ed). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Horwitz E. 1991. “Preliminary Evidence for the Reliability and Validity of a Foreign Language Anxiety Scale,” in Language Anxiety: From Theory and Research to Classroom Implications. Elaine K. Horwitz and Dolly J. Young (Ed). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Horwitz, E., Horwitz, M. and Cope, J. 1986. “Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety.” The Modern Language Journal, 70 (2), 125-132.

MacIntyre, P. and Gardner, R. 1991. “Anxiety and Second Language Learning: Toward a Theoretical Clarification,” in Language Anxiety: From Theory and Research to Classroom Implications. Elaine K. Horwitz and Dolly J. Young (Ed). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies. 1979. “Strength through Wisdom: A Critique of U.S. Capability.” Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Pufahl, I., Rhodes, N. and Christian, D. 2001. “Foreign Language Teaching: What We Can Learn from other Countries.” Learning Languages. Volume 6, 2, pp. 4-13.

Tucker, G.R. (1990). Second language education: Issues and perspectives. London: Sage Publications.

MATT A. CASADO Professor

MARY I. DERESHIWSKY Associate Professor Northern Arizona University

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