Identifying fear in the foreign language classroom—preliminaries
august 13, 2019

MA in ELT Programme
Graduate of the 2019 class of the Programme : Lingvistica aplicata – didactica limbii engleze, “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iasi

This article is the first step towards a more comprehensive study of fear in the foreign language classroom, with practical applications in the English language classroom. After presenting a few approaches to fear and controversies around the term, we set the convention regarding the meaning of the concept of “fear” that we are going to follow in our analysis. The subjective reason for the choice of the topic, the internal and external resources that are to be used, and an outline of the study are then introduced. We also go through some general matters regarding the sources of fears in the classroom and consequences of unattended fears, draw the borderlines of the future study, and ask the main research questions we want to tackle. A reference to possible topics for further research concludes the article.

    When we think of the word “fear”, we automatically assign a negative connotation to it, for our experience as adults living in this modern world makes us associate it with an unpleasant emotion we are usually ashamed of or at least uncomfortable with. While some definitions of fear support this perception, e.g., “An unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm” (, others, e.g., “the neurophysiological processes that prepare an organism to perform innate or learned responses to cope with danger” (Keifer 2015), help us infer that it can also have a neutral or even a positive connotation. In the ancestral world, where dangers were frequently life-threatening, fear was a vital mechanism which contributed to the survival of the human species. Whether fear is only characteristic of humans or also of other animal species is still a subject of debate; however, many of the findings related to its physiology are based on animal experiments. In all mammalian species there are three distinct sites in the brain where electrical stimulation will provoke a full fear response: the lateral and central zones of the amygdala, the anterior and medial hypothalamus, and specific areas of the periaqueductal gray. The amygdala plays an important role in fear management: it is involved, amongst others, in fear conditioning, in the processing of aversive stimuli, in the consolidation of information that leads to the formation of a specific phobia, and in regulating social behaviour by functioning as a protective “brake” during evaluation of a potential threat (Steimer 2002).

Fear has been identified as a basic emotion, and most, if not all, of the models include it. Basic emotions are held to be innate1 and universal, and this is the origin of the criticism this notion has been subjected to in the course of time.

Psychological constructionists, for instance, have pointed out that conceptualizing basic emotions as biologically based cannot be supported by empirical data because, contrary to basic emotion theories, the coordination between expressive, neurobiological, physiological, experiential, behavioral, and cognitive responses to emotion-eliciting stimuli is low. (Piórkowska 2017)

Moreover, even basic emotion theorists can agree neither over a single model, nor on their prevalence in ordinary life. While many of them state that adults rarely experience “pure” basic emotions (because they interact with higher-order cognitive processes to produce more complex emotional states), some authors suggest it is basic emotions that are more common. One of the researchers who has managed to “come to terms with fear” (LeDoux 2014), as he puts it, proposes an approach that seems to solve several issues that have caused debate over the years. He identifies the source of divergences as a terminological issue. While neuroscientists use the term “fear” to define the empirical relation between two events,

psychiatrists, psychologists, and most citizens […] use […] [it] to name a conscious experience of those who dislike driving over high bridges or encountering large spiders. These two uses suggest… several fear states, each with its own genetics, incentives, physiological patterns, and behavioral profiles. (ibid.)

Based on the findings that the mechanisms that determine organisms to respond to threats are different from the mechanisms that give rise to conscious fear, the solution to avoid confusion and conflict is to use terms that acknowledge this difference. Thus he suggests keeping the term “fear” for the latter concept and renaming the brain process commonly called “fear conditioning”. Though we agree to embrace this view and use the term “fear” to refer to the aboveidentified conscious state while being aware of this choice, we cannot help drawing a parallel between the two separate concepts of “fear”. Both result in adaptive or defensive behaviours, which depend both on the exterior context, as well as on the personality traits and experience

1. As for fear, it has repeatedly been stated that we are born with only two innate fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud sounds, and that all the other forms are acquired.

of each individual. Active coping strategies are applied when escape from threat is possible and the individual has an inclination towards the fight-or-flight response; passive coping strategies, such as freezing, are usually adopted when threat is inescapable or perceived as such, and/or when the subject is not a person of action. These behaviours can also be considered metaphorically; in a classroom environment, for instance, proactive students who feel “in danger” of being questioned by the teacher when unprepared, may either “fight” (e.g. make the teacher’s life so difficult when being asked something that he2 ends up avoiding them) or flight (make up an excuse to leave the classroom or just skip the class), while students whose style is to react passively may be unable to utter anything coherently, entering a freezing-like state. Another terminological issue refers to the word “anxiety”, which is sometimes used interchangeably with the word “fear”. Part of the specialised literature makes distinctions between the two constructs, though there is no universal agreement on these distinctions. Fear is typically defined as an emotional response to an immediate threat and is more often associated with a fight-or-flight reaction. Anxiety is often defined by a more prolonged state of tension, worry, and apprehension regarding uncertain, potentially negative, future events. The two are considered to overlap considerably “with respect to subjective, behavioral, physiological, and neurological characteristics” (Duval et al. 2015). Another theory asserts the existence of a fear-anxiety continuum, with normal levels of anxiety lying on one end and clinical levels falling toward the other end. In order to avoid possible inconsistencies in identifying fear and anxiety or their levels, we shall make the convention to use only the word “fear” for the whole range of emotions that fall within either category or in any point of approximately the first half of the fear-anxiety continuum, respectively (since we are not going to analyse severe cases). In our analysis we are going to narrow down our focus to the fear-related behaviour of students and teachers in the foreign language class with applications to the English language class. Limited as it may seem, this still represents a vast field of investigation, since the two main “characters” (the teacher and the student) can actually be described by sets of discrete and continuous variables (such as age, sex, type of personality, first language, family background/history) which combine to result in distinct individuals. Therefore we shall further restrict the area of study by selecting only a few values for a restricted number of variables, while neglecting the others and blurring the boundaries of their discrete values—an

2. We are going to use the masculine gender as the generic form.

attempt that in mathematics would probably not be possible, but which we consider acceptable and necessary for the purpose of our research.

    The study will neither be a mere collection and systematisation of other written works nor is it intended to revolutionise the world of teaching theorists and practitioners. Its roots are multiple and of a subjective nature. Since I first had the opportunity to teach I have been fascinated by the special connection with “my” students that was coming into being during the class and that gave rise to an atmosphere of relaxing yet focused work (only later did I learn that what we experienced together had a name: “flow”). After the subsequent experiences of this kind I realised the impact I could have on students if I chose this profession, and I was also able to identify some of my weak points as a possible future NQT3—including several fears—and ponder on them. On the other hand, my memories as a school student are very fresh, including the memories of my—and my classmates’—fears at that time, which, along with my innate empathy, enable me to gain a deep understanding of school students and of people in general. Moreover, I was able to overcome some important fears by myself, which strengthened my confidence that, with some help, much can be achieved. What crystallised my latent need of organising and analysing my experience and further developing my ideas was a piece of writing recommended by one of the teachers I had during the MA Programme in Applied Linguistics: a specific chapter from Palmer’s The Courage to Teach (Palmer 2016). While reading it I had the revelation of the topic for my dissertation paper. My approach to it is eclectic: I keep reading what others have written on the same topic while following the subtopics I planned to cover from the very beginning, I analyse this by comparing other’s findings with my own findings and perceptions, I select the additional information which completes my view (even by adding new dimensions or perspectives to it), and draw conclusions. In other words, my experience and, even more important, my perceptions of—and reflections on—my experience are the starting point for this study. My experience is the sum of all events in my life together with my interpretation of them (since my present “I” is made up of all of them, regardless of the field they come from), but central to it are the twelve school years, my evolution as an adult from an extremely shy to a much more self-confident person, the participation in the MA programme, and all teaching-related 3 Newly qualified teacher.

experiences (within the university programme, as a teacher of English in a kindergarten, and as a guest in several English classes at a Waldorf school in Austria). I have always been an observer (in my school years even much more than I was a participant) and I have always been perceptive of others’ emotions, which allowed me to capitalise on my experiences. I am also going to include in my paper the analysis of the methods applied by a teacher of English to create a low-stress environment during a class I attended, recorded, and transcribed.

    The study is going to be structured in five chapters. The first chapter will introduce the concept of “fear”, clarify some terminological issues, set conventions that are going to be used throughout this paper, and its scope. The next two chapters are dedicated to the fears of teachers and of students, respectively, and they will share a similar structure: types and identification of fears manifested in the English language class, other connected fears, ways of overcoming them, outcomes. Chapter Four will comprise the analysis of relevant fragments from the above-mentioned transcription of an English class, and the last chapter will draw conclusions and propose issues for further studies.
    The fears that students and teachers may feel during language classes are not necessarily directly related to the particularities of the discipline. There are, of course, certain fears that students who are speakers of Romance languages may perceive during Russian classes and which, for example, are not present in the French classes, and fears that are there during the English class, but which disappear when the History class begins. There are certain types of fears directly linked to the so-called “foreign language anxiety”, and many others which do not depend on the subject matter, but on other variables. Some of all these fears have common causes, and the same student may manifest them during several types of classes, be they English or Mathematics, which does not imply that they should be disregarded by those teachers who are aware of their complex mission as not being specific to their field. We are going to approach several types of fears, some strongly connected to foreign language learning, others less so, but which can often be identified in the foreign language classes. In order to effectively deal with others’ fears, one should ideally understand their causes. Sometimes the manifestations may mislead the observer to such an extent that he does

not even recognize a particular behaviour as marked by fear. It is often difficult for a teacher to identify unequivocally the source of his students’ fears as long as he does not have complete access to his students’ background. We are going to give examples of behaviours marked by fear and of possible causes. However, even when the very source of a fear is uncertain, teachers can still help their students in the process of overcoming them. The variety of personalities and behaviours will require different approaches, but there are also constants in the methods a teacher can use, and it is on these principles that we wish to insist, since they have a wider application. The first step for a teacher towards helping students overcome their fears is to identify his own and start dealing with them. When a teacher has acknowledged his fears and has started the healing process, then he becomes more perceptive of the problems his students are facing and is more likely to be able to assist them. The reason why it is (also) the teacher’s task to help students overcome their fears may sound like a truism: a teacher’s central mission is to guide students in the process of learning, and effective learning only takes place in secure, low-stress environments. Sadly, not all teachers agree on this statement, and we will also touch upon this matter in our study.

    As we have suggested above, the (English language) teacher is not the only person capable of, and, up to a point, responsible for, helping his students to overcome their fears; nor is the list complete after we added psychologists and psychiatrists. The first who carry responsibility are the parents, but unfortunately they are often either unsuspecting spectators of their child’s struggling with fears or the very cause of them—a few examples of such origins of fears are to be presented in the chapter dedicated to children’s fears. As for one’s classmates, it is not their job to help a fearful mate, but they may play an important role in this respect during the language class, as we are going to see later.
    Although many fears come and go while children grow up, some unattended fears may leave deep marks for the rest of their lives, with “potential consequences on overall, physical, emotional, […] and spiritual health” (Rosenberg 2017). For example, the potential effects of chronic fear on overall health include, among others, disfunctions of the immune, the endocrine and the autonomic nervous systems, disruption of the sleep/wake cycle, and eating

disorders, while the potential effects of chronic fear on physical health include “headaches turning into migraines, muscle aches turning into fibromyalgia, body aches turning into chronic pain, and difficulty breathing turning into asthma” (ibid.). The same is also true of adults’ fears, which can become chronic in time if left unhandled. Unlike children, who need guidance and support in order to deal with their fears, teachers should be able to work on a large spectrum of fears by themselves; an essential prerequisite is to acknowledge the fear-related problems that hinder their performance in the professional—and private—life. Sometimes they may need guidance themselves, which they may find not only from psychologists, but also from some of their colleagues. Additional help can also come from alternative therapies as part of a holistic approach to treating fears, such as acupuncture, acupressure, homeopathy, Bach Flower remedies, specific exercises including controlled breathing, meditation and relaxation techniques. It has been shown that fear affects the ability to learn and that it also interferes with the retrieval of stored information (which applies to students and teachers alike):

Chemical alterations can distort perception of sensory information thus distorting storage. […] When the brain is hyper aroused, storage may be incomplete and new information will be stored in nonverbal memory […]. This distorts the storage of sensory input and the retrieval of information will be affected. (ibid.)

    In order to define more clearly the borderlines of the study, we are going to make a brief overview of some variables that are not going to be part of it.

The age bracket will cover the kindergarten and school periods, namely we will focus on students aged between 3 and 19. A few age categories will be defined and treated separately; however, this division should not be taken very strictly: each age group shares common characteristics with the adjacent ones, hence some of the suggested methods for a teacher to apply will be common for students whose age lies at the two ends of a segment.

Although boys and girls have different behavioural patterns, we are only seldom going to treat them separately because many of a teacher’s approaches can be used successfully on students

of either sex. We are going to touch upon sex differences when analysing different types of personalities and of masks students wear, since some of these are typical either for boys or for girls. No distinction is going to be made between male and female teachers.

As previously stated, the paper relies on our own experience, which was predominantly acquired within the Romanian school system, and only in ethnically homogenous classes with children coming mostly from middle-class families. This does not restrict the validity of our study either to a single country, or to children of certain backgrounds. Fear is a universal state, and the approaches in dealing with it can be adapted according to the characteristics of each particular circumstance. Even in school systems fundamentally different from the Romanian one, where there is already a tradition of shaping the communicative abilities of children from early ages, there will always be students afraid of speaking for a variety of reasons. According to the same logic of universality of fear, children of all social layers will exhibit the same fundamental fears in the foreign language class, although other fears which contribute to this may be typical of children coming from one of the two ends of the social hierarchy. The basic fears teachers may experience are also generally valid for all teaching circumstances, although there are also difficulties and concerns particular to each cultural space, which may determine the intensification of certain types of fears and lowering of others.

A special case is that of mixed cultural classes, where students come from different cultures, or where foreign teachers teach native students or native teachers teach foreign students. Although such classes provide an educational context rich in direct intercultural exchanges, teachers and students may be faced with differences in classroom behaviours, toward which they have different attitudes and feelings. If the behaviours tend to reach manifestations that are perceived as extreme, not only misunderstandings, but also conflicts may result, and even culture shock might occur when one expects a certain behaviour and gets something completely different (Zhao 2016). Depending on the personality type and on the experience of those concerned, all this may also give rise to feelings of fear. Any case where teachers and students from significantly different cultures come into the same classroom would deserve to become the topic of a separate paper because each case has its particularities

and is complex in itself. An attempt to generalise would thus mean, in our view, a superficial undertaking, with too few practical conclusions.

Children with special educational needs (in the widest sense of the notion4) will also not be part of our study. Since many education systems do not provide a special framework for them, some (especially those with mild learning disabilities) are integrated in ordinary classes, while others either receive special education—at home or within private centres—or are simply neglected. Although the Romanian teacher may encounter such students at any time, the fears which they can exhibit in the class associated with the different types of special needs would require a separate paper.

We do not plan to cover the whole range of fears which students can exhibit during language classes, for example anxiety disorders with extreme manifestations such as refusing to participate in the English classes are not going to be part of our analysis. While feelings of fear or anxiety are considered normal in a variety of stressful situations, since they are common to most of the people, anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear, and can get worse over time. Moreover, the symptoms interfere to a great extent with daily activities, in our specific case with school-related work and with interactions with classmates and teachers, and require professional assistance. However, what we label as mild manifestations of the so-called social anxiety disorder5 is going to be integrated in our study as a form of fear because in our opinion a language teacher can contribute to ameliorating it—

4. We take as reference the policy brief developed for the use of the European Commission which identifies the difficulties in defining children with special educational needs. The widest sense of the notion refers both to the normative and to the non-normative categories as described by the policy brief: the normative category includes physical and sensory difficulties, where relatively objective assessment methods are available, while the nonnormative comprises those types of difficulties “where there is less agreement about normal functioning and where professional judgement plays a larger part in identification; examples include social, emotional and behavioural difficulties such as ASDs, and learning difficulties including dyslexia” (European Commission 2013).

5. Social anxiety disorder “is characterized by persistent fear of social or performance situations resulting from the possibility of negative judgment, embarrassment, or humiliation. Cognitive distortions and self-monitoring in social situations, involving hyperawareness of internal cues and behaviors, are often associated with SAD. Feared social situations are avoided or tolerated with dread.” (Duval 2015) “Social situations” also include the interaction of a student with the language teacher and with his classmates.

or (unfortunately) to exacerbating it—in the long run. Panic disorders6 and phobias7 are also among the disorders that can develop in connection to a specific aspect of the language class, but they are only in the area of psychologists’ or psychiatrists’ competence and are thus outside the scope of our paper.

    During our teaching-related experience and during the MA programme, a variety of questions related to fear management in the classroom emerged. These could be condensed in a few fundamental questions, which we are going to tackle in our study:

• Which are the possible sources of a language teacher’s school-related fears? • How do they affect the teacher’s professional and personal life? • Which of a teacher’s fears can students identify and which are the consequences? • How can teachers overcome their school-related fears? • Which are the consequences of teachers overcoming (part of) their fears?

• How do school-related fears and, more specifically, fears related to learning a foreign language appear? • How do they affect the process of learning? • How can teachers identify fears in their students? • How can teachers help their students overcome their school-related fears? • Which are the consequences of students overcoming (part of) their fears?

6 .Panic disorder “is characterized by sudden panic attacks, often occurring unexpectedly, followed by a month or more of worrying about having another attack or the consequence of the attack (e.g. heart attack, stroke). […] PD sufferers often develop agoraphobia, avoiding places or situations where they think they might have a panic attack.” (Duval 2015) 7 A specific phobia “is characterized by excessive fear triggered by a specific object or situation. […] The excessive fear brought on by the phobic object or situation leads to intense distress, anxious anticipation, panic attacks, and/or avoidance of the feared object or situation.” (Duval 2015)

    Some of the topics related to fear management in the language classroom that may form the core of future papers have already been mentioned above8. The direction that is of particular interest for us to follow in potentially upcoming studies is a special focus on each age bracket, with each one’s specific fears and corresponding methods applied by the teachers to help their students overcome them. 8 See 7. Scope and limits of the study.


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