5 The role of affect
It has been long acknowledged that emotions play an important role in foreign language acquisition. Certain emotional factors can have a positive effect on students’ oral production, like happiness, self-confidence, or high levels of self-esteem. Other emotions, such as anxiety, fear, or low levels of self-esteem, can become a real barrier for students’ pronunciation in the target language. Therefore, it seems to be essential to make sure that students get to produce foreign speech and especially problematic sounds in the most positive environment possible and under the most positive conditions.
Foreign Language Anxiety
Anxiety can be defined as a mental and physical state characterized by specific emotional, physical, cognitive and behavioural symptoms. It is an adaptive reaction which mobilises a person’s organism and helps it defend, attack, or avoid an anxiety-provoking stimulus.
Anxiety, when associated with learning a foreign language, is termed Foreign Language Anxiety (FLA), referring to learners’ negative emotional reactions towards foreign language acquisition. FLA is generally viewed as a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon of self-perception, beliefs, feelings and behaviours related to foreign language learning. In some cases, it can become a fairly stable characteristic trait, but most often, it’s a temporary state, a situation-specific anxiety clearly linked to (inter)acting in a foreign language. Although a certain degree of anxiety can be helpful for high achievement, most professionals concur that it is mainly negative for learners. FLA is more of a psychological (identity-based) construct than a linguistic (competence-based) one. Strictly speaking, this means that extra-linguistic factors affect FLA more intensely than linguistic competence.
Most studies conclude that reading is the least anxiety-provoking activity in a foreign language, while speaking is the skill most affected by FLA. It is often perceived as a threat to people’s self-identity and ego, which they have formed in their first language as reasonable and intelligent individuals.
Probably the most prominent concern is over foreign language pronunciation. Pronunciation is seen as the most salient aspect of the language ego and the most difficult aspect to acquire in a new language. It is strongly related to identity and the learner’s level of self-confidence. Moreover, pronunciation plays a dominant role in the way communication partners see us.