Foreign language anxiety of university students

Foreign language anxiety of university students

Matt A. Casado

Researchers have studied the effects of anxiety on foreign language learning since the 1970’s. In spite of substantial advances in teaching methods and techniques, apprehension continues to exist in the university foreign language classroom. This study investigates the perceived levels of anxiety experienced by a randomly-selected sample of beginning foreign language students in a regular university setting. The results indicate that some levels of anxiety were present in beginner classes and that these levels did not decrease after the completion of the second semester of language acquisition. The implication of the findings for anxiety, reduction programs are discussed.


Literature Review

As early as 1973, H.D. Brown predicted that the construct of anxiety was intricately intertwined with self-esteem, inhibition, and risk-taking, and that it played an important affective role in second language acquisition. The definition of anxiety is difficult as it can range from an amalgam of overt behavioral characteristics that can be studied scientifically to introspecting feelings that are epistemologically inaccessible. Common to anxiety is its generally unpleasant nature and its similarity to fear (Lader, 1975). The research into the relationship of anxiety to foreign language learning has provided mixed and confusing results because of the existence of numerous variables that can affect learning. Two of these variables are trait anxiety (an animic state of some individuals to become anxious in any situation), and state anxiety (apprehension experienced at a particular moment in time, for example, having to speak in a foreign language in front of classmates) (Spielberger, 1983). Another variable that may affect language acquisition is the students’ perceptions of their own communicative competence in both native and second language. This effect is compounded by the fact that these students tend to underestimate their competence relative to less anxious students (MacIntyre, Noels and Clement, 1997), and therefore become themselves anxious about their performance. Language learning can also be affected by direct and indirect psychological strategies used by instructors in the classroom. In a setting where the instructor uses a variety of strategies, language learning is facilitated. Thus, direct strategies such as rhyming or using gestures can directly enhance the learning of the foreign language. Indirect strategies, such as planned teaching tasks or increasing cultural awareness, if used by the instructor, can also increase language acquisition (MacIntyre and Noels, 1996), and subsequently reduce apprehension. Another construct related to anxiety in regular foreign language university classes may be related to apathy and disinterest on the part of the students because of inappropriate course content. For example, university students majoring in health professions may not experience any motivation to learn about “Peter and Sally at the Railroad Station,” but they could become quite interested if they were instructed in how to ask patients questions about their symptoms. Another question related to foreign language anxiety is whether levels of apprehension augment or decrease as students’ experience in the language increases. This is important to know in order to apply or modify curricula or techniques to minimize stress.

Most of the studies done on foreign language anxiety at university level have been conducted in special settings; thus, in 1986, Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope conducted a survey among university students that already had shown concern about taking a foreign language class. MacIntyre and Gardner (1991) reported studies in environments not representative of language learning in the regular classroom: One study was conducted on students taking intensive summer school classes, another on a group of adult students enrolled in an intensive summer school program, and yet another on TOEFL students, who, most likely, were anxious a priori as their acceptance to college may have depended on their performance.

The purpose of this study is to investigate and compare the perceived levels of anxiety experienced by a randomly-selected sample of foreign language (Spanish) students in a regular university setting at the beginning of their first semester with the levels of anxiety perceived by a similar sample of foreign language students at the end of their second semester. The study’s main objective is to ascertain the levels of anxiety for the two groups and to find if apprehension diminishes as students progress in the study of the language. If substantial levels of apprehension are found, the discussion of anxiety reduction programs is warranted.

Measurement of Anxiety Level

Anxiety is usually measured in one of three ways: by behavioral tests, where the actions of a subject is observed; by the subject’s self-report of internal feeling and reactions; or by physiological tests, where measures of heart rate, blood pressure, or palmar sweating are taken. Of these three measures, the self-reports and paper-and-pencil tests are not as easily quantifiable as the physiological tests, but they do have an advantage in that they are much more precise in focusing on a specific affective construct, say anxiety, than the physical measures which can only assume to be related to affective involvement. For these reasons, self-report and paper-and-pencil tests have been used more abundantly in applied psychology that the physiological tests (Scovel, 1978). Some of these behavioral tests have been used to measure the effects of anxiety on foreign language acquisition.

Horwitz et al. (1986) developed a 33-item paper-and-pencil questionnaire aimed at measuring levels of anxiety experienced by foreign language students. The Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale (FLCAS) was designed to ask questions reflective of performance-related activities. The authors based the scale on the speculation that the students’ self-perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors affected the levels of anxiety found in foreign languages.


The Setting and Subjects

This study was designed to identify and compare the perceptions of first and second-semester university students towards feelings of anxiety experienced during foreign language learning as measured by the FLCAS scale. Specifically, the objective of this study was to investigate and compare the perceptions of 114 students (Group One) surveyed at Northern Arizona University during the third week of their first-semester Spanish class with those of 169 students (Group Two) surveyed at the same institution during the three last weeks of their’ second-semester Spanish class. The null hypothesis postulated and tested to determine if there were differences between the two groups in the perceptions they held towards foreign language anxiety was “there is no significant difference of perceptions between Group One and Group Two for each one of the FLCAS thirty-three variables towards anxiety in foreign language learning.” If the levels of anxiety at the end of the second semester of the students taking Spanish were significantly lower than the levels of anxiety of students at the beginning of their first-semester Spanish, it could be argued that anxiety would have diminished or dissipated as students persevered in the study of the foreign language. On the other hand, if the levels of anxiety shown by students at the end of their second-semester Spanish were similar to or higher than the levels of anxiety shown by the students at the beginning of the first-semester Spanish, it could be argued that anxiety is specific to beginning foreign language learning and that it does not necessarily diminish with increased experience and proficiency during the two semesters of foreign language acquisition.

The sample that Group One (first-semester Spanish) 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 1998, The sample that Group Two (second-semester Spanish) represented consisted of 169 students from ten second-semester Spanish classes (SPA 102) randomly selected from 20 courses also taught (10 each semester) in the spring and fall semesters of 1999 at Northern Arizona University. Although there was no attempt in the study to control for potential independent subject variables, it was expected that the random selection of courses (and therefore students and instructors) would allow for equal distribution of the sample.


This comparative study possesses the characteristics of descriptive/analytical research in that it is concerned with the perceptions of respondents. The type of descriptive research was the survey method. The data obtained from the raw scores of the survey were assessed by one-way analysis 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. Values significantly higher than p rejected the null hypothesis at the 0.05 probability level. Values found not to be significant indicated that the perceptions of the groups were statistically similar.

The instrument for the survey was the FLCAS questionnaire shown as Appendix 1. The 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 scale has demonstrated internal reliability, achieving an alpha coefficient of .93 with all items producing significant corrected item-total scale corrections. Test-reliability over eight weeks yielded an r = .83 (p<.001) (Horwitz et al. 1986). Anxiety scores lower than 3.0 would indicate some level of anxiety for questions 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 31, 33. Anxiety scores higher than 3.0 would indicate some level of anxiety for questions 2, 5, 8, 11, 14, 18, 22, 28, 32.

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 by adding together the scores of individual survey items. Due to the fact that 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. Table I shows the individual survey items for the three summated scale scores. The data was processed using the SPSS Statistical Package.


Table 2 shows the mean and standard deviation for answers to the thirty-three questions by group. For Group One, levels of anxiety were found in responses to questions 1, 14, 22, 28, 30, 32, and 37 (7 questions). For Group Two, levels of anxiety were found in responses to questions 1, 6, 9, 10, 12, 14, 18, 22, 30, 32, and 33 (11 questions). Table 3 shows the ANOVA value of F obtained by dividing the between-mean square by the within-mean square of scores, and the significance value for each question. The results indicate that the perceptions of the two groups were significantly different at a 0.05 level in five of the questions posed (3, 5, 12, 16, 19), while the perceptions on the remaining twenty-eight questions were statistically similar. Inspection of the scores for the five questions with significant differences reveals that in question 3, “I tremble when I know that I’m going to be called on in language class,” both groups disagree about trembling when called in class, although second semester students (M=3.63) were less confident in their perceptions than first semester students (M=3.98). Question 5 asked students whether “it wouldn’t bother them at all to take more foreign language.” Both groups agreed, SPA 102 students again being significantly less confident (M=2.70) than SPA 101 students (M=2.41). Question 12 stated “in language class, I can get so nervous I forget things I know.” Students of SPA 101 disagreed (M=3.32) while SPA 102 agreed (M=2.93), the latter being significantly less confident about the answer. On question 16, “even if I am well prepared for language class, I feel anxious about it,” first semester (M=3.36) and second semester (M=3.11) student disagree, the mean score of SPA 102 students being lower than that of SPA 101 students. Question 19, “I am afraid that my language teacher is ready to correct every mistake I make,” showed that SPA 101 students disagree on this statement (M=3.65) and SPA 102 students also disagree (M=3.36), the mean score being again lower for second semester students. The statistically significant results of these five questions seem to indicate that, although the two groups did not show perceptions of anxiety in the majority of cases, the levels of confidence experienced by beginning foreign language students were higher than those of second semester students.

The absence of significance in the results of the remaining twenty-eight questions showed that the perceptions of the two groups surveyed were statistically similar. However, a visual comparison of the mean reveals that in all cases, the level of apprehension was higher for students taking SPA 102 courses than for students taking SPA 101 courses; this indicates that anxiety may not diminish with the experience acquired in two semesters of language learning.

Tables 4, 5 and 6 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 the cases, the average summated score for Group Two is slightly lower than that of Group One. Also, in each case the standard deviation (within-group variability of summated scale scores) are approximately equal.

The goal of the MANOVA test was to ascertain whether the slightly lower average summate scale scores of Group Two were sufficiently lower to assume a statistically significant difference between the two groups. Table 7 shows the results of the MANOVA test. The four most commonly reported statistical indicators converged to the same equivalent F-value. The researchers consider that, although marginally significant, the p-value of 0.1064 might be indicative of some individual between-group differences that, by themselves, could be robust.

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 “familywise” or over alpha level of 0.05 across the set of the three intercorrelated summated scale scores. Table 8 shows the results Of the application of Fisher’s test. When disaggregated and tested individually for between-group mean difference at the overall familywise alpha error rate of 0.05, Communication Apprehension and Fear of Negative Evaluation yielded significant differences. The General Anxiety scale, while marginal, was not significant at the same alpha level. This more than likely contributed to the overall 0.1064 p-value of the simultaneous MANOVA test.

Conclusions and Implications

It can be deduced from this study that some levels of foreign language anxiety are experienced by beginning students in’ response to some aspects of foreign language learning. The study further suggests that anxiety experienced in foreign language learning (Spanish in this case) does not necessarily decline or diminish as students progress from first semester to second semester; rather, the apprehension levels seem to increase slightly during the second semester of language acquisition. This may be explained by the fact that, in most cases, Spanish 102 takes students from beginning language concepts taught in the first semester to more complex grammar levels, such as the use of the subjunctive mode. Also, SPA 102 instructors use the target language more frequently in the classroom with a much more extensive vocabulary.

Because anxiety seems to be inherent in the learning process of beginning university students of foreign languages, reducing language apprehension should be an intrinsic part of any such program. Some of the affective techniques to alleviate feelings of anxiety cited by modern-language teaching experts are:

* Making students aware that being fluent and getting a good accent in the target language take in most cases several years of study and practice.

* Providing students with positive reinforcement and creating a relaxed classroom environment.

* Helping students that have a mental block towards language learning by providing them with out-of-the-classroom individual assistance.

Some teaching methods that can also be adopted to reduce classroom anxiety may be

* Conducting class activities in groups.

* Explaining grammar concepts in beginning and elementary classes in the native, not in the target language.

* Forming support groups for performance-concerned students so they can discuss concerns and difficulties encountered in language learning.

* Using smaller classes to help instructors identify students experiencing anxiety and give them special attention and support.

Besides these affective and pedagogical methods, universities should adopt innovative approaches to minimize apprehension and maximize student achievement. Because the class composition of modern language programs in institutions of higher learning includes students from different disciplines, it is common to find classes that include majors from arts and sciences, education, health professions, business, social and behavioral sciences, engineering and technology, and so on. Some of the students plan to continue their studies abroad.

Generally, the course content taught in these regular language classes has no bearing on the needs and expectations of students. All too frequently course content does little to interest or to prepare them as adults about ready to join the working world. It is not surprising that for many of them their foreign language studies seem too futile to be worth their effort.

In order to get students involved in activities resulting in the desired learning, universities need to develop curricula designed for the specific language purposes of identified groups. These curricula should be clearly allied to content-based instruction in the particular discipline of the student (Johns, 1991), specifically, the curriculum for students should be tied to the answers to the following questions:

* What will these students be doing with the foreign language when they finish the classes?

* What are the characteristics of the language they need in order to succeed?

Thus, the content of foreign language programs should be based upon the most systematic, accurate, and empirical measures of students’ needs and of the language required by the tasks they must perform outside of the classroom. This content-based approach should emphasize the learning of the foreign language in conjunction with subject matter so that they integrate particular content with language teaching aims (Graves, 1996). This could be achieved through close interdepartmental cooperation.

To summarize, in order to alleviate anxiety in foreign language university students by minimizing their apathy and disinterest in curricula that is unrelated to their needs, educators ought to provide meaningful content that is akin to their particular disciplines. An example of this approach would be to develop curricula for professional disciplines, such as health professions, business, science and technology, and law, and different curricula for academic purposes, for instance, for students majoring in the language or for those pursuing their undergraduate or postgraduate studies abroad.

Appendix 1

The Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale *

Question # SA A N D SD **

1. I never feel quite sure of myself

when I am speaking in my foreign

language class.

2. I don’t worry about making mistakes

in language class.

3. I tremble when I know that I’m going

to be called on in language class.

4. It frightens me when I don’t

understand what the teacher is

saying in the foreign language.

5. It wouldn’t bother me at all to take

more foreign language.

6. During language class, I find myself

thinking about things that have

nothing to do with the course.

7. I keep thinking that the other

students are better at languages

than I am.

8. I am usually at ease during tests in

my language class.

9. I start to panic when I have to speak

without preparation in language


10. I worry about the consequences of

failing my foreign language class.

11. I don’t understand why some people

get so upset over foreign language


12. In language class, I can get so

nervous I forget things I know.

13. It embarrasses me to volunteer

answers in my language class.

14. I would not be nervous speaking in

the foreign language with native


15. I get upset when I don’t understand

what the teacher is correcting.

16. Even if I am well prepared for

language class, I feel anxious

about it.

17. I often feel like not going to my

language class.

18. I feel confident when I speak in

foreign language class.

19. I am afraid that my language

teacher is ready to correct every

mistake I make.

20. I can feel my heart pounding when

I’m going to be called on in

language class.

21. The more I study for a language

test, the more confused I get.

22. I don’t feel pressure to prepare

very well for language class.

23. I always feel that the other

students speak the language better

than I do.

24. I feel very self-concious about

speaking the foreign language in

front of other students.

25. Language class moves so quickly I

worry about getting left behind.

26. I feel more tense and nervous in my

language class than in my other


27. I get nervous and confused when I

am speaking in my language class.

28. When I’m on my way to language

class, I feel very sure and relaxed.

29. I get nervous when I

don’t understand every word the

language teacher says.

30. I feel overwhelmed by the number of

rules you have to learn to speak a

foreign language.

31. I am afraid that the other students

will laugh at me when I speak the

foreign language.

32. I would probably feel comfortable

around native speakers of the

foreign language.

33. I get nervous when the language

teacher asks questions which I

haven’t prepared in advance.

* Source: The FLCAS is reproduced from Foreign Language Classroom

Anxiety, MLJ, Volume 70, Number 2 by permission of the author and


** SA=Strongly agree; A=Agree; N=Neither agree nor disagree;

D=Disagree; SD=Strongly Disagree

Table 1

Summated Scale Scores

Summated Scale Score Title Individual Survey Items

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


Fear of Negative Evaluation Q7+Q23+Q31+Q15+


General Feeling of Anxiety Q5+Q6+Q10+Q11+Q12+Q16+


Table 2

Mean and Standard Deviation for the 33 FLCAS Questions by Group

Group 1 (SPA 101) N=114 Group 2 (SPA 102) N=169

Mean Scores Standard Dev. Mean Scores Standard Dev.

Question #1 2.92 1.04 2.76 1.10

#2 2.84 1.21 2.79 1.10

#3 3.98 .87 3.63 1.03

#4 3.46 1.06 3.24 1.03

#5 2.41 1.14 2.70 1.22

#6 3.02 1.05 2.95 1.09

#7 3.18 1.09 3.06 1.04

#8 2.89 1.13 2.99 1.16

#9 3.21 1.05 2.95 1.12

#10 3.00 1.30 2.89 1.29

#11 2.92 .85 2.95 1.00

#12 3.32 1.12 2.93 1.10

#13 3.71 .92 3.53 .99

#14 3.52 1.00 3.43 1.14

#15 3.21 .95 3.09 1.03

#16 3.36 1.00 3.11 1.05

#17 3.28 1.18 3.21 1.10

#18 2.91 .83 3.05 .96

#19 3.65 .95 3.36 .90

#20 3.62 .99 3.41 .95

#21 3.85 .93 3.66 .88

#22 3.38 .94 3.44 .91

#23 3.21 1.07 3.22 1.07

#24 3.36 .95 3.22 1.07

#25 3.06 1.18 3.01 1.03

#26 3.39 1.13 3.22 1.10

#27 3.52 .93 3.31 1.01

#28 2.64 .95 2.27 .97

#29 3.40 .98 3.27 .97

#30 2.96 1.11 2.74 1.03

#31 3.88 .83 3.74 .85

#32 3.25 .98 3.14 1.00

#33 2.98 1.01 2.85 1.02

Table 3

Difference in levels of anxiety between First-semester and

Second-semester University Spanish students.


Between Groups df 1

Within Groups df 281

value of f Significance

Question #1 1.456 0.229

#2 0.126 0.723

#3 8.801 0.003 *

#4 3.290 0.071

#5 4.086 0.044 *

#6 0.297 0.586

#7 0.813 0.368

#8 0.541 0.463

#9 3.802 0.052

#10 0.464 0.496

#11 0.051 0.822

#12 8.412 0.004 *

#13 2.335 0.128

#14 0.425 0.515

#15 1.018 0.314

#16 3.935 0.048 *

#17 0.287 0.592

#18 1.641 0.201

#19 6.705 0.010 *

#20 3.365 0.068

#21 2.967 0.086

#22 0.293 0.589

#23 0.306 0.581

#24 1.183 0.278

#25 0.176 0.676

#26 1.592 0.208

#27 3.138 0.078

#28 0.594 0.442

#29 1.342 0.248

#30 2.937 0.088

#31 1.802 0.181

#32 0.739 0.391

#33 1.117 0.292

* p<0.05

Table 4

Summary of Descriptive Statistics for Communication Apprehension

Summated Scale Score per Group

Group Total Number of Subjects Mean Score Standard Deviation

One 114 40.605 6.516

Two 169 38.714 6.776

Table 5

Summary of Descriptive Statistics for Fear of Negative Evaluation

Summated Scale Score per Group

Group Total Number of Subjects Mean Score Standard Deviation

One 114 26.702 3.557

Two 169 25.845 3.433

Table 6

Summary of Descriptive Statistics for General Feeling of Anxiety

Summated Scale Score per Group

Group Total Number of Subjects Mean Score Standard Deviation

One 114 40.000 0.428

Two 169 38.982 0.339

Table 7

Results of Multivariate Analysis of Variance Comparing Groups One and

Group Two on Set of Three Average Summated Scale Scores

Test Computed Value F-equivalent

Of Statistic

Wilks’ Lambda 0.978 2.056

Roy’s Greatest Root 0.022 2.056

Hotelling-Lawley Trace 0.022 2.056

Pillai Trace 0.022 2.056

Test Degrees of Associated p-value


Wilks’ Lambda (3,278) 0.1064

Roy’s Greatest Root (3,278) 0.1064

Hotelling-Lawley Trace (3,278) 0.1064

Pillai Trace (3,278) 0.1064

Table 8

Results of Fisher’s PLSD Follow-up Test to Isolate Source(s) of

Between-Group Average Difference Within Set of Summated Scale Scores

Summated Scale Mean Critical Associated

Score Difference Difference p-value


Apprehension 1.891 1.594 0.0202 * sig

Fear of Negative

Evaluation 0.857 0.832 0.0437 * sig

General Feeling of

Anxiety 10.18 1.068 0.0616 N.S.


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