A Special Case of Language Anxiety?

By Wai In Chan

In one of our last classes, Lauren Godfrey-Smith gave an amazing lecture on language anxiety and the experiences of people who went through language anxiety. It was a really emotional experience for me because I felt that the study was acknowledging and validating my feelings about speaking and learning French in Montreal. Over 25 years of my life I have been learning French as a second language in English as a first language schools, and I STILL feel so much anxiety using the language that I avoid it at all costs even until today.

Most international students that have arrived here may or may not have experienced the discrimination by Francophones who express their dislike towards the use of English in public. Additionally, people who have immigrated here or who are here for vacation have also experienced these types of situation. But why I feel the most anxiety over my use of French is that I never learned how to speak it properly (but I did learn how to write and read), even though I was schooled in the system here in Quebec, and that has affected my view of the language and my life. Lauren discussed how language anxiety can affect our integration into society and our sense of belonging (Godfrey-Smith, 2016, Slide 4). She also indicates that it creates social isolation of certain individuals. I wholeheartedly agree with what she says in her presentation because after 25 years of learning French and not succeeding, I definitely do not feel like I belong to the community nor have I been accepted by anyone other than Anglophones. I have never openly admitted to other people or my friends that I actually don’t speak French very well because it makes me feel insecure because they will ask why didn’t I learn it, if I went to school in Quebec. It has brought about a sense of social isolation from Francophones, and truthfully, the language anxiety scares me from even communicating with my friends who speak French.

Language anxiety towards French has not only affected me emotionally, it has also affected my perspectives about the language. Because of my lack of speaking skills and having met many French teachers who have not bothered to assist me in learning how to speak French, I have developed a negative attitude towards the language. I believe that I unintentionally rebel against the language by refusing to use it whenever I can. However, in times when I have tried to use my French, I experienced a sense of pride. In Lauren’s study, this is one of the key findings where language anxiety has affected how I think and how I react physically (Godfrey-Smith, 2016, Slide 6).

Her study included various quotes from people who have experienced this type of discrimination in language learning, language use, space, and belonging (Godfrey-Smith, 2016, Slide 13). The quotes from “space” resonated the most with me because that is the area where I experience the most discrimination. I have tried to refrain from using English in certain places, but when you are having trouble and switch between the languages, the person may not always switch with you. I have memorable experiences at a hospital and at a library where I tried to ask for service in English, only to be met by someone who refuses to speak the language. It really discourages you from trying to use French in the future because you understand that most people will not be as accommodating, so it is better to find an Anglophone speaker to begin with to get help.

I believe the problem lies within the French curriculum and the way the language is taught. Throwing a student who does not have any knowledge of French into a French class, is like throwing a drowning person an anchor. The student will have nothing to float on in order to prevent themselves from sinking under. Of course, the classes I took were years ago and that teaching style is no longer reflected in schools today, but many still do struggle with learning the language here in Montreal. So I want to ask, in what ways is it possible to integrate an adult learner into the French system? Is it too late for those who have never managed to learn the language after being in one place for so long? How can teachers in Montreal help to counter language anxiety from the very beginning to prevent it from fully developing? Does the real issue lie with the learner, the teacher, or the culture of society, or all three?

Godfrey-Smith, L. (2016). Language anxiety and language ideology [PDF document]. Retrieved from McGill University myCourses online web site: https://mycourses2.mcgill.ca/d2l/le/content/233338/viewContent/3016758/View?ou=233338

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