Learning a language? Feeling stressed?


I’ve discovered that adults tend to go through a lot of stress and anxiety when learning English than younger learners. I’ve been teaching a lot in companies and one-to-one classes with adults of all ages and professional backgrounds. At first I thought that it must be their busy lifestyle outside the classroom that creates some obstacles in learning and concentration, however, last week I experienced a very interesting situation that made me think of stress in the foreign language learning process.

A group of 5 adult learners confessed in my lesson that what they experienced in the lessons of English is a great level of stress which makes them produce many mistakes that they’re not supposed to produce at their level anymore. It made me think of the wrong approach I’ve been using or even my style of teaching itself. However, after the lesson I thought of other my students who had experienced the same anxiety when speaking.

I’ve shared my worries with other colleagues and I realized that I wasn’t the only one having this problem in my adult groups. So what is it then? Shyness? Underestimation? Lack of self- confidence? And moreover, how to deal with that?

Whatever it is, we know that it creates a great barrier between a teacher and a learner, which doesn’t allow trust, confidence and moreover, progress come into the language learning. It discourages and creates uncomfortable ambient. In order to come up with a cure we should first think of the possible roots of the problem.


Negative past experience


This was the real reason why my one-to-one student had problems in learning and progressing in English. I’ll never forget the first lesson with this student, when I was ready and prepared with some basic English grammar and vocabulary to teach, the student all of a sudden started talking in very good and definitely NOT elementary level English. I was surprised to see the student trying to convince me that her English is actually elementary level with fluency and a great deal of accuracy. What did I do? Well, before starting actual teaching, I spoke to her, asked her how she felt etc. Just as if we’re having a cup of coffee in Starbucks on a Sunday afternoon.

I asked her about her past experience of learning English, using the language at work etc. This is the moment when the student confessed that there was a discouraging moment in the past that seemed to put an end to her willingness and enthusiasm to improve. Since I had plenty of that kind of moments in my experience in learning Spanish I didn’t hesitate and told her about them. We had a great laugh about them and came to a conclusion that past should be left where it belongs – in the past and we should move on.

So this is my advice to you. Talk and share, be interested and discover. Ask and give your opinion. Create this little circle of trust with your student. This is the case when you’re not just a teacher of English, you’re somebody who is there to help and give a chance.


Correction of mistakes


There are many people out there that are convinced that correction brings some sort of criticism in it, in other words, they take it very personally. So another important point is that you, as a teacher, need to realize the form in which correction should take place with a particular student or a group of students. If possible you need to find out if in your company class, for instance, there’s a person who other students report to. Having a general manager in your group of students can sometimes be a problem and the students can feel judged whenever they make a mistake. So once you know that, be careful how and when you correct them.

Another thing is that correction itself may not be necessary. It may sound strange, but there are moments when you should just be quiet and listen to your student or students producing English themselves. And really, in those moments encouragement and appraisal would be so much more beneficial than correction of grammar or vocabulary. As long as they make themselves understood, of course.

What I usually do is put down the major mistakes students make on a piece of paper, mainly grammar or vocabulary and then, discuss them with the students or even write the wrong sentences on a handout  and let them correct the mistakes. Do it at the beginning of the next class as a pair work for example. This is just one of the forms of correction which is less personal.


Tips on helping them to overcome the stress and anxiety


From my own experience of learning Spanish I can tell you that there comes a moment when you feel like there’s absolutely no progress in what you’re doing. You feel stuck and lost. It’s like you’re halfway – there’s a lot you’ve already done, so much effort you’ve put, but there’s so much ahead that it seems infinite. Therefore I’m sure my students experience the same feeling at some point (somewhere around intermediate).

The best thing you could do is show them their own progress, make them feel it and be proud of what they’ve done. If you can remind them of the book they started with and the book they study from now, include some lower level activities in your class so that they can feel the need for the challenge. Most importantly let your students know that you’ve noticed how well they’re doing and how hard they’re trying. This is the push they’re expecting from you so much.


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