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Foreign language anxiety and student attrition.

Abstract

This study examined the role of anxiety in predicting student attrition in foreign language courses at the college level. Participants were 259 students enrolled in Spanish, French, German, or Japanese introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses at a mid-southern university. Anxiety was assessed using three scales, namely, the Input Anxiety Scale, the Processing Anxiety Scale, and the Output Anxiety Scale, which measure how anxious students feel at the input, processing, and output stages of the foreign language learning process, respectively. Findings revealed that students who dropped out of their foreign language classes tended to report statistically significantly higher levels of input, processing, and output anxiety, with moderate-to-large effect sizes. Recommendations for foreign language instructors are provided.

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Many college students are required to enroll in foreign language courses in order to complete their degree programs. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of students underachieve in these classes. Further, for many students, foreign language classes can be the most anxiety-inducing courses in their programs of study (Campbell & Ortiz, 1991; Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope, 1986; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991c). For example, Maclntyre and Gardner (1989) reported that French classes were rated by learners as significantly more anxiety-provoking than were mathematics and English courses. Moreover, since the development of measures of foreign language anxiety that consistently yield reliable and valid scores (Horwitz et al., 1986), a myriad of studies has documented the prevalence of anxiety in the foreign language context (Horwitz et al., 1986; Maclntyre & Charos, 1996; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1989, 1991b, 1991c; Onwuegbuzie, Bailey, & Daley, 2000). Specifically, a moderate negative association between foreign language anxiety and various measures of foreign language achievement repeatedly has been found (Gardner & MacIntyre, 1993; Gardner, Moorcroft, & MacIntyre, 1987; Horwitz et al., 1986; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991a; Onwuegbuzie et al., 2000). In fact, Gardner and MacIntyre (1993) found language anxiety to be the best single correlate of foreign language achievement. More specifically, Sanchez Herrero and Sanchez (1992) reported that student anxiety in learning a foreign language accounted for 38% of the variance in English achievement among sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students in a public school in Madrid (Spain). Also, Onwuegbuzie et al. (2000) documented that anxiety explained 10.5% of the variance in foreign language achievement.

Foreign language anxiety is best described as a form of situation-specific anxiety (MacIntyre, 1999), which often is characterized by physiological signs and behavioral signs. Physiological signs include perspiration, sweaty palms, dry mouth, muscle contractions and tension, and increases in heart and perspiration rates (Chastain 1975). Behavioral signs include avoiding class, not completing assignments, and a preoccupation with the performance of other students in the class (Bailey 1983; Horwitz et al., 1986). Furthermore, according to Horwitz et al. (1986), foreign language anxiety manifests itself when students avoid communicating difficult messages in the target language, when they exhibit a lack of self-confidence or freeze up in role-play activities, and when they forget previously-learned grammar or vocabulary in evaluative situations. Similarly, Young (1991, p. 430) noted that foreign language anxiety can manifest itself via a "distortion of sounds, inability to produce the intonation and rhythm of the language, 'freezing up' when called on to perform, and forgetting words or phrases just learned or simply refusing to speak and remaining silent." Indeed, anxious students often delay enrolling in a language class for as long as possible (Young, 1991), and may even change their degree programs in order to avoid learning a foreign language (Horwitz et al., 1986).

Not only has anxiety been found to be the best predictor of performance in foreign language courses, but foreign language anxiety also has been found to play a central role in the foreign language learning context. Specifically, using path-analytic techniques, Onwuegbuzie, Bailey, and Daley (2002) developed the Anxiety-Expectation Mediation (AEM) model of foreign language achievement. According to this model, one cognitive variable (i.e., anxiety) and one affective variable (i.e., expectation of foreign language achievement) are related to each other in a reciprocal manner. Further, in the AEM model, anxiety and foreign language achievement are reciprocally related--with a direct negative path from anxiety to achievement, and a similar direct negative path from achievement to foreign language anxiety. Most importantly, anxiety serves as a factor in the model that mediates the relationship between foreign language performance and other cognitive, personality, and demographic variables.

MacIntyre and Gardner (1994a) conceptualized foreign language anxiety as occurring at each of the following three stages: input, processing, and output. Specifically, anxiety at the input stage (input anxiety) refers to the apprehension experienced when receiving information in the second language; anxiety at the processing stage (processing anxiety) refers to the apprehension experienced when learning and thinking in the foreign language; and anxiety at the output stage (output anxiety) refers to the apprehension experienced when speaking or writing in the target language (MacIntyre & Gardner, 1994a). Using this multidimensional conceptualization of foreign language anxiety, MacIntyre and Gardner (1994a) found anxiety to be related to overall foreign language achievement at each of the three stages. Similarly, Onwuegbuzie, Bailey, and Daley (1999a) reported relationships between achievement and anxiety at each of these three stages of the foreign language learning process. In addition, MacIntyre and Gardner (1994b) found that anxiety aroused by a video camera impaired students' performance, particularly at the processing and output stages, suggesting not only that anxiety is a determinant of underachievement in foreign language courses, but also that separating foreign language anxiety into these three stages aids our understanding of the anxiety/achievement relationship.

Many studies exist which examine the reasons students do not persist in foreign language study at the high school level (Dernorsek, 1973; Lemke, 1993; Papalia, 1970); yet, very little is known about the characteristics of students who withdraw from college level courses before completing their courses. As documented above, anxiety clearly can have a debilitating effect on the acquisition of a foreign language. Thus, it is likely that anxiety also is responsible, at least in part, for the many students who do not complete their foreign language classes. However, this link has not yet been investigated empirically. This was the subject of the present investigation. Specifically, the purpose of this study was to examine the role of anxiety in predicting student attrition in foreign language courses at the college level.

Method

Participants

The sample comprised 259 students (68.0% female) enrolled in Spanish, French, German, or Japanese introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses at a mid-southern university. This number of participants represented approximately 40% of the semester student enrollment in foreign language courses at that university. In order to participate, students were required to give their consent by signing an informed consent document. No student declined to participate in the study. Participants received extra course credit The sample members represented 43 degree programs from the Colleges of Business Administration, Education, Fine Arts and Communication, Health and Applied Sciences, Liberal Arts, and Natural Sciences and Mathematics. By the end of the semester, 28 (10.8%) of the original 259 students had dropped out of their foreign language courses. With respect to year of study, participants consisted of freshmen (15.1%), sophomores (19.7%), juniors (30.9%), seniors (31.3%), and graduates (1.5%).

Instruments and Procedure

Participants were administered the Input Anxiety Scale, the Processing Anxiety Scale, and the Output Anxiety Scale. Each scale, which was developed by MacIntyre and Gardner (1994a), contains six 5-point Likert-format items that assess how anxious students feel at the input, processing, and output stages of the foreign language learning process, respectively. All negative items were key-reversed before scoring, such that high scores on any of these scales represent high levels of anxiety at the corresponding stage. A sample item for the Input Anxiety Scale is "I get flustered unless French/German/Spanish is spoken very slowly and deliberately." A sample item for the Processing Anxiety Scale is "I am anxious with French/German/Spanish because, no matter how hard I try, I have trouble understanding it." Finally, a sample item for the Output Anxiety Scale include, "I may know the proper French/German/Spanish expression but when I am nervous it just won't come out."

Onwuegbuzie, Bailey, and Daley (1999b) reported evidence of construct-related validity for the Input Anxiety Scale, the Processing Anxiety Scale, and the Output Anxiety Scale using both exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses. With respect to the former, one factor was identified for the Input Anxiety Scale (43.3% of the total variance explained); one factor was identified for the Processing Anxiety Scale (44.0% of the total variance explained); and one factor was identified for the Output Anxiety Scale (44.7% of the total variance explained). Loadings ranged from .36 to .84 for the Input Anxiety Scale, from .40 to .80 for the Processing Anxiety Scale, and from .58 to .75 for the Output Anxiety Scale. Also, these authors reported statistically significant correlations (p < .001, n = 258) between scores on the FLCAS and scores on the Input Anxiety Scale (r = .64), the Processing Anxiety Scale (r = .77), and the Output Anxiety Scale (r = .73). For the present study, alpha reliabilities for the anxiety subscales were as follows: .72 for the Input Anxiety Scale, .72 for the Processing Anxiety Scale, and .75 for the Output Anxiety Scale.

Results

A series of independent t-tests, adjusting for Type I error, revealed that students who dropped out of their foreign language classes tended to report statistically significantly higher levels of anxiety experienced at the input (t = 3.71; Effect size = 0.69), processing (t = 2.92; Effect size = 0.57), and output stages (t = 2.23; Effect size = 0.44). These effect sizes suggest moderate to large relationships between components of foreign language anxiety and student attrition (Cohen, 1988).

Discussion

Foreign language anxiety repeatedly has been found to be negatively related to various indices of foreign language achievement (Gardner & MacIntyre, 1993; Gardner et al., 1987; Horwitz et al., 1986; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1989, 1991a; Onwuegbuzie et al., 2000). Moreover, foreign language anxiety has been found to be one of the best predictors of second language performance (Horwitz et al., 1986; MacIntyre & Charos, 1996; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1989, 1991b, 1991c; Onwuegbuzie et al., 2000). Yet, prior to this study, researchers have not studied whether learners with the highest levels of anxiety are more at risk for dropping out of their foreign language courses than are their low-anxious counterparts.

As such, the present investigation has made an important contribution to the literature in the area of foreign language learning by examining the role of anxiety in predicting student attrition in foreign language courses at the college level. Findings revealed that students who dropped out of their foreign language classes tended to report statistically significantly higher levels of input, processing, and output anxiety, with moderate-to-large effect sizes. These results suggest that anxiety is an important predictor of student attrition in foreign language courses. To the extent that the relationship between foreign language anxiety and attrition is causal, the current findings further implicate anxiety as playing an even more important role in the foreign language learning context than previously has been documented.

Because it is potentially very meaningful to be able to identify at-risk students, teachers should strongly consider asking all students to state how they feel about studying or speaking the foreign language being taught. This can easily be accomplished via a student information sheet that instructors ask students to fill out on the first day of class. The following list of recommendations are intended to highlight the complex, dynamic role of foreign language anxiety in the college classroom. Recommendations for Foreign Language Anxiety as a Factor in Student Attrition:

I. What are the sources for Foreign Language Anxiety for students who report being anxious?

A. Discuss foreign language anxiety with students to determine why they are anxious. (See Bailey, Daley, & Onwuegbuzie, 1999; Bailey, Onwuegbuzie, & Daley, 2000; Horwitz & Young, 1991; and Young, 1999 for more information.)

1. Establish that students are motivated and keeping up with homework assignments.

2. Anxiety and excessive frustration may be a sign of language related learning problems.

3. Have student describe his or her previous experiences in learning a foreign language.

4. Look for history of hearing loss, reading or writing problems, math related fears/weaknesses.

5. Refer severely anxious students to counseling or learning needs evaluation center.

II. Be aware of how foreign language anxiety can affect the classroom and work to reduce debilitating effects. (See Bailey et al., 1999; Bailey et al., 2000; Horwitz & Young, 1991; and Young, 1999 for more information.)

1. Be cognizant that small group work suits some but not others.

2. When evaluating students' performance levels, consider separate testing of high-anxious oral/aural activities.

3. When correcting students' errors, especially with regard to accent and pronunciation, be realistic.

4. Stress the importance of being willing to make mistakes by admitting that you also make them.

References

Bailey, K. M. (1983). Competitiveness and anxiety in adult second language learning: looking at and through the diary studies. In H. Seliger & M. H. Long (Eds.), Classroom-oriented research in second language acquisition (pp. 67-102). Rowley: MA: Newbury House.

Bailey, P., Daley, C. E., & Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (1999). Foreign language anxiety and learning style. Foreign Language Annals, 32, 63-76.

Bailey, P., Onwuegbuzie, A. J., & Daley, C. E. (2000). Using learning style to predict foreign language achievement at the college level. System, 28, 115-133.

Campbell, C. M., & Ortiz, J. (1991). Helping students overcome foreign language anxiety: A foreign language anxiety workshop. In E. K. Horwitz & D. J. Young (Eds.), Language anxiety: From theory and research to classroom implications (pp. 153-168). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Chastain, K. (1975). Affective and ability factors in second language acquisition. Language Learning, 25, 153-161.

Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, N J: Lawrence Erlbaum

Dernorsek, C. (1973). Attrition in foreign language instruction. (Eric Document Reproduction Service No. ED 080 009)

Gardner, R. C., & MacIntyre, P. D. (1993). On the measurement of affective variables in second language learning. Language Learning, 43, 157-194.

Gardner, R. C., Moorcroft, R., & MacIntyre, P. D. (1987). The role of anxiety in second language performance of language dropouts (Research Bulletin No. 657). London, Ontario, Canada: The University of Western Ontario.

Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B., & Cope J. (1986). Foreign Language classroom anxiety. Modern Language Journal, 70, 125-132.

Horwitz, E. K. & Young, D. J. (Eds.). (1991). Language anxiety: From theory and research to classroom implications. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lemke, L. (1993). Foreign language enrollment and the attrition rates in the Grand Blanc Community Schools. Grand Blanc Community Schools, MI. (Eric Document Reproduction Service No. ED366 212)

MacIntyre, P. D. (1999). Language anxiety: A review of the research for language teachers. In D. J. Young (Ed.). Affect in foreign language and second language learning: A practical guide to creating a low-anxiety classroom atmosphere (pp. 24M.5). Boston: McGraw-Hill College.

MacIntyre, P. D., & Charos, C. (1996). Personality, attitudes, and affect as predictors of second language communication. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 15, 3-26.

MacIntyre, P. D., & Gardner, R. C. (1989). Anxiety and second language learning: Toward a theoretical clarification. Language Learning, 39,251-275.

MacIntyre, P. D., & Gardner, R. C. (1991a). Methods and results in the study of foreign language anxiety: A review of the literature. Language Learning, 41, 85-117.

MacIntyre, P. D., & Gardner, R. C. (1991b). Investigating language class anxiety using the focused essay technique. The Modern Language Journal, 75, 296-304.

MacIntyre, P. D., & Gardner, R. C. (1991c). Language anxiety: Its relation to other anxieties and to processing in native and second languages. Language Learning, 41, 513-534.

MacIntyre, P. D., & Gardner, R. C. (1994a). The subtle effects of language anxiety on cognitive processing in the second language. Language Learning, 44, 283-305.

MacIntyre, P. D., & Gardner, R. C. (1994b). The effects of induced anxiety on three stages of cognitive processing in computerized vocabulary learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 16, 1-17.

Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Bailey, P., & Daley, C. E. (1999a). Relationship between anxiety and achievement at three stages of learning a foreign language. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 88, 1085-1093.

Ouwuegbuzie, A. J., Bailey, P., & Daley, C. E. (1999b). The validation of three scales measuring anxiety at different stages of the foreign language learning process: The input anxiety scale, the processing anxiety scale, and the output anxiety scale. Language Learning, 50, 87-117.

Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Bailey, P., & Daley, C. E. (2000). Cognitive, affective, personality, and demographic predictors of foreign language achievement. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 3-15.

Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Bailey, P., & Daley, C. E. (2002). The role of foreign language anxiety and students' expectations in foreign language learning. Research in the Schools, 9, 33-50.

Papalia, A. (1970). Selected factors of language learning and language attrition. Western New York Council of Foreign Language Supervisors. (Eric Document Reproduction Service No. ED 121 099)

Sanchez Herrero, S. A., & Sanchez, M. P. (1992). The predictive validation of an instrument designed to measure student anxiety in learning a foreign language. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 52, 961 967.

Young, D. J. (1991). Creating a low anxiety classroom environment: What does language anxiety research suggest? The Modern Language Journal, 75,426-439.

Young, D. J. (Ed.). (1999). Affect in foreign language and second language learning: A practical guide to creating a low-anxiety classroom atmosphere. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Bailey is an associate professor and department head in the Department of Foreign Languages. Onwuegbuzie is an associate professor of Educational Psychology. Daley is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist at Muscogee County School District.
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Author:Daley, Christine E.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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