Harnessing emotions in the foreign language classroom

Professor Jean-Marc DewaeleThis post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

“Putain putain, c’est vachement bien, nous sommes quand même tous des Européens” (“Fuck, fuck, it’s really good, aren’t we all Europeans after all?”) was the chorus from an outrageous and hilarious French-Dutch-English song by the Belgian artist Arno that all (adult) students of the Advanced French class were belting out, heading towards the door at 9pm on a Friday in Brussels in the late 1980s. As their teacher, I was quite amazed by the level of enthusiasm that the song had generated: a perfect ending for an evening class. I will never forget what happened next. As I pulled the door open wide with a theatrical bow, the school director, who must have been leaning against the door listening to the racket inside, fell flat on the floor, got up blushing, and congratulated me meekly for a good classroom atmosphere and mumbled something about the appropriateness of the song.  Students burst out laughing, and headed home singing and yelling. (Arno has produced more melodious songs such as “Les filles du bord de mer”, and the striking English song “Oh la la la” as singer in the Flemish group TC Matic. He was born in Ostend, has a strong Western Flemish accent in Dutch, and sings in equally accented French and English.)

This little episode from the first year of my teaching career is a nice illustration of the concept of “flow” (in that case rather “overflow”). Flow is the mental state of operation when people perform an activity in which they are so fully immersed and involved, with such focus and enjoyment, that they forget everything around them.  When members of a group reach a state of flow they experience spontaneous joy and it strengthens bonds with other group members. It is described as the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.

The point I want to make is that learners’ emotions are like wild horses (or at least, ponies).  Learners can, with a little dexterity, and with a little help from teachers, harness the power of their emotions to absorb more of the foreign language and the culture.

Happy-studentsOne of the main problems of foreign language (FL) teaching is that the emotional component is too often ignored, resulting in relatively emotion-free (and therefore often boring) classroom sessions.  It is undoubtedly easier for curriculum designers and teachers to focus on rigid learning activities that require little emotional investment and therefore little potential for unpredictability, outbursts, surprise, risk-taking, embarrassment, anxiety … and enjoyment.

In fact, it is my strong belief that by trying to play it safe, curriculum designers and teachers got the wrong end of the stick. Teachers need the liberty to do unexpected, challenging and funny things. Routine is a killer in the classroom.

There is no doubt that teachers play a central role in establishing a positive learning environment.  The progress of the learner is linked to the chemistry that develops between the learner, the other members of the group, and the teacher. Pertinent and appealing subject matters combined with non-threatening techniques create a positive language learning experience, support and promote group solidarity, boost motivation and lower levels of FL anxiety in the classroom.

Gregersen and MacIntyre, inspired by the Positive Psychology movement, explain that negative emotions are not always bad, as they can help learners to eliminate an obstacle but they can be paralysing. Positive emotions on the other hand “can broaden the field of attention and build resources for the future” and help learners “to build relationships, personal strength, and tolerances for the moments when things become difficult”.

In a recent study with the Canadian psychologist Peter MacIntyre, we considered the relationship between FL Enjoyment (FLE) and FL Classroom Anxiety (FLCA) among 1,746 FL learners from around the world. We found that both dimensions were negatively correlated, but that the amount of shared variance was relatively small. In other words, learners reporting higher levels FLE experienced less FLCA, although some did score high, or low, on both dimensions. To our relief, we discovered that levels of FLE were significantly higher than those of FLCA. The difference between levels of FLE and FLCA was relatively small for beginning learners, but widened for more advanced learners. In other words, as learners progress, their FL anxiety weakens and their enjoyment grows.  It is thus crucial not to give up FL classes too early.  Interestingly, female participants (who scored significantly higher on self-reported proficiency in the FL) reported both significantly more FLE and more FLCA. It thus seems that emotions (both positive and negative) are the driving force behind FL learning. “Putain putain, c’est vachement bien”, if you forgive my French.

Further reading:

  • Arnold, J. (2011). Attention to affect in language learning. Anglistik. International Journal of English Studies, 22, 11-22.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.
  • Dewaele, J.-M. (2011). Reflections on the emotional and psychological aspects of foreign language learning and use. Anglistik. International Journal of English Studies, 22, 23-42.
  • Dewaele, J.-M., & MacIntyre, P.D. (2014). The two faces of Janus? Anxiety and enjoyment in the foreign language classroom. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4, 237-274. doi: 10.14746/ssllt.2014.4.2.5
  • Gregersen, T., & MacIntyre, P.D. (2014). Capitalizing on Individual Differences: From Premise to Practice. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Other posts by Professor Dewaele:

Other blogs about linguistics:

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Why “younger” is not always “better” in foreign language learning

TProfessor Jean-Marc Dewaelehis post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

Politicians can be forgiven for not having much time to read the fine print when asking advisers to translate research findings into workable policies. Or does it work the other way round? Do politicians decide on policies first and subsequently ask advisers for appropriate research findings to back up the policy?  This seems the case when considering the wide consensus across the world about the benefits of early introduction of foreign languages (FLs) in pupils’ school curriculum. The expression “younger is better” in education sounds perfectly plausible, is simple and convincing, and must be a vote winner.

In the UK, FLs used to be introduced in secondary education. Estelle Morris, then Secretary of State for Education, changed this policy in 2002, scrapping compulsory modern FLs for 14- to 16-year-olds, and introducing them in primary schools. She claimed in 2006 that: “Starting at a much younger age is the best way of making sure we get more pupils taking exams and, more importantly, more of them enjoying and feeling confident about speaking a language other than their own”.

In other countries, FL teaching has even been introduced in nursery schools.  There seems to be a universal consensus among politicians that an early start in FLs will lead to a smoother, quasi-effortless learning process leading to high levels of proficiency in the FLs. Is this a myth?!

Spanish ClassCounter-intuitively, research suggests that adolescents and adults progress more quickly than children when learning FLs in a school context (so-called “instructed FL learning”). Many researchers have serious doubts about age of onset being the most important variable in successful FL learning. Indeed, research shows quite clearly that starting age is only one of many independent variables in very complex question.

A crucial distinction exists between so-called naturalistic and instructed FL learning.  Research on naturalistic learners, typically immigrants, shows that younger children are indeed more likely to become undistinguishable from native speakers of the FL compared to their parents and older siblings. However, the picture is not so clear in research on instructed FL learning, a crucial distinction that is commonly overlooked.

A large-scale project on Age of Onset of Acquisition (AoA) in formal foreign language teaching, the Barcelona Age Factor project has looked at effects of starting age and the comparisons were always of groups with same amount of instruction hours (200, 400, 700, and 800 hours of instruction). Earlier exposure (ages eight to nine) to English (as a third language) in a classroom did not result in better performance. Learners who started English at age 11 and those who had started at age 14 were found to progress more quickly than early learners but, after a similar number of hours of exposure, the differences between the groups were limited, with older starters still having a slight advantage. In another study with young adult learners who had 2500 hours of instruction, AoA was not found to have an effect but amount and type of exposure had a positive effect. In other words, input seems more important than AoA.

A Swiss study (Pfenninger, in press) found no advantages of an early start among Swiss learners of English even after five years of instruction. The writing skills of late starters caught up with those of the early starters within six months.  One possible explanation is that older learners have greater metalinguistic, metacognitive and strategic skills.

Munoz points out that from the observations that younger immigrants and immersion students in naturalistic settings seem to outperform older peers “an inferential leap is made in the assumption that learning age will have the same effect on students of a foreign language, when they are exposed to only one speaker of that language (the teacher, who is not usually a native speaker) in only one setting (the classroom) and only during very limited amounts of time”.

This does not mean that there are no age effects at all in learning and later use of the FLs.  Indeed, younger children seem to be more motivated in learning FLs. In my own research on language choice and self-perceived proficiency among more than 1500 adult bi- and multilinguals, I found that early starters in a FL felt more proficient in speaking, comprehending, reading and writing their FLs. They were also more likely to choose the FL for the expression of anger and feelings, for inner speech and mental calculation.  Interestingly, the effect of mode of instruction was even stronger than age of onset: participants who had acquired the FL naturalistically or in mixed mode (formal instruction combined with authentic use) outperformed participants who had learned the FL through classroom instruction only.

In their excellent overview of the literature on age and the teaching of FLs, Lambelet and Berthele point out that more research is needed on improving age-appropriate teaching techniques in order to boost motivation levels and metalinguistic awareness of FL learners of all ages. Moreover, extra thought needs to be given to the primary school teachers who are suddenly expected to teach a FL and who may lack in confidence and competence. In other words, those arguing for an early introduction of FLs at school need to take the nuanced research findings into account and avoid promising miracles.

At what age did you start learning a foreign language? How do you think this affected your fluency and confidence in the language? Please leave your comments below.

Further reading

  • Dewaele, J. M. (2009). Age effects on self-perceived communicative competence and language choice among adult multilinguals. Eurosla Yearbook, 9, 245–268.
  • Enever, J. (2011). ELLiE. Early Language Learning in Europe. London: British Council.
  • Lambelet, A. & Berthele, R. (2014). Âge et apprentissage des langues à l’école. Revue de literature. Fribourg: Research Centre on Multilingualism.
  • Pfenninger, S. (in press).The literacy factor in the optimal age debate: a 5-year longitudinal study. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.
  • Muñoz, C. (2011). Input and long-term effects of starting age in foreign language learning. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 49, 113–133.

Other posts by Professor Dewaele:

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Parenting by older mothers brings benefits to children

This post was contributed by Professor Jacqueline Barnes, Department of Psychological Sciences.

CroppedWhile increasing maternal age, especially for women from their mid to late 30s onwards, is linked to the likelihood of more medical risks for mother and infant, recently published  research by my team at Birkbeck, with colleagues at UCL, indicate that this change to older motherhood could lead nationally to better child health and development, and to fewer parenting problems. The studies, based on two large samples – the Millennium Cohort Study and the National Evaluation of Sure Start – found that:

  • The risk of children having unintentional injuries requiring medical attention or being admitted to hospital both declined with increasing maternal age. For example, at three years the risk of unintentional injuries declined from 36.6% for mothers aged 20 to 28.6% for mothers aged 40 and hospital admissions declined, respectively, from 27.1% to 21.6%.
  • The rate of complete immunisations by three years of age increased with maternal age up to 27 years.
  • Child Language development at ages three and four years was associated with improvements with increasing maternal age, with scores for children of mothers aged 20 being lower than those of children of mothers aged 40 by 0.21 to 0.22 standard deviations.
  • Increasing maternal age was associated with fewer socio-emotional problems. Children of teenage mothers had more difficulties than children of mothers aged 40 (difference 0.28 SD at age 3 and 0.16 SD at age 5).
  • Reported parent/child conflict decreased as maternal age increased.
  • The use of harsh discipline such as smacking was low for teenage mothers and highest in the mid-twenties, after which it declined.
  • Positive and responsive parenting generally increased with maternal age up to about age 40 after which it plateaued.
  • The least home chaos and the most stimulating home environments were identified for mothers in their early 30s.

This research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, was initiated in the knowledge that maternal age was increasing in the UK. It has demonstrated that, while there are many medical reasons why close attention should be given to the physical well-being of older mothers and their infants both during pregnancy and immediately after birth, an increase in older motherhood should not necessarily be a cause for concern in relation to subsequent parenting. Indeed, it is likely that older mothers will be preparing their children well for preschool and school experiences in a warm and responsive home environment. The findings of fewer unintentional injuries with increasing maternal age and fewer child socio-emotional problems may suggest that women with more life experiences may be able to draw upon a wider range of support that can help to reduce some of the stress of parenting. These studies are important for any families undertaking IVF or other forms of assisted conception, who are on average older than other first-time parents, and for women who have delayed motherhood, for whatever reasons.

This study has received media attention:

For more information see:

  • Sutcliffe, A.G., Barnes, J. Belsky, J., Gardiner, J., Melhuish, E.  (2012). Health of children born to older mothers in the UK. BMJ, 345:e5116 doi:10.1136/bmj.e5116
  • Barnes, J., Gardiner, J., Sutcliffe, A.G., Melhuish, E. (2014).  The parenting of young children by older mothers in the United Kingdom.  European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 11(4), 397-419.
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What the Thunder Said: theatre-based intervention for children who have witnessed violent events

Natasha KirkhamThis post was contributed by Dr Natasha Kirkham from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences.

In 2012, I took part in a research project looking into children’s reaction to witnessing violent events. Working with a playwright from Theatre Centre, I conducted workshops in 10 primary schools, located in areas with high levels of violence. The workshops fed into the writing of a new play, which then toured primary schools across the UK. We handed out questionnaires to the children and their teachers about  responses to and understanding of violent behaviour and bullying before and after seeing the play.

Until now, my research has been solidly experimental, investigating theories on attention and learning. This project opened my eyes to just how important it is for developmental scientists to get out of the lab and into the field, to shake up their methods, and to listen to individual children.  And to remind ourselves that development does not happen in a vacuum. These children were extraordinary – tough, interesting, heart-breaking, and funny – and all of them had thoughtful, strong opinions about the very real bullying in their environments. I learned about ‘circle of friends’ (peer-groups assigned to befriend and look out for each other), I learned about the role of humour in the lives of these children (both appropriate and inappropriate), and I learned how easily these children shift between reality and fantasy (seamlessly moving from laughing about parents in prison to discussing Xbox characters). Importantly, I learned that with bullying, ‘walking away’ does not always work.

This experience was personally and professionally cathartic for me, offering new insights into modern-day parenting, coping strategies (for children and teachers), and developmental resilience. Ultimately, it proved to me that a lot of our ideas about how to deal with bullying need to be re-worked.

We hope that the pre and post play surveys will show a significant shift in people’s perspective on community violence and the effects of bullying, and provide some evidence for theatre-based intervention in areas rife with violence and trouble.

Dr Kirkham’s review of her experience with this project was originally published in The Psychologist magazine.

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