«Sorry about my English»

Using a multilingual approach, a study by the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country explores which factors affect communication anxiety in second and third languages

  • Ikerketa

First publication date: 03/04/2018

The results of a study carried out in the UPV/EHU’s DREAM research group indicate that speakers may experience various levels of anxiety depending on the languages spoken. The relationship existing between the anxiety and factors such as the level of competence in the language, language qualifications, multilingualism, gender and academic discipline, among other things, has likewise been confirmed.

Alaitz Santos
Alaitz Santos. Photo: Nagore Iraola. UPV/EHU.

It is very common for the Basque Country’s citizens to apologise for their level of English using phrases such as “my English is not very good” when they speak in English for the first time with native as well as autochthonous speakers. In the view of the UPV/EHU researcher Alaitz Santos, it is important to point out “that these anecdotal episodes are common among people with a good mastery of English and even among those who have English language qualifications”.

The researcher in the DREAM (Donostia Research group on Education and Multilingualism) research group was keen to explore “the reason why speakers become blocked when they speak English, even when they have been studying it for years”. The study carried out by the researcher sought “to contribute towards understanding the anxiety and its effect on language learning. Specifically, to explore the communication anxiety experienced by university students and young professionals in relation to the language situation of the Basque Autonomous Community where Basque, Spanish and English coexist in various contexts in the daily lives of many citizens”.

532 university students and young professionals

The results of the study in which 532 university students and young professionals in the spheres of education and business studies participated “support the relationship that exists between the anxiety and some of the factors analysed, such as the participant’s level of competence in the language, the importance of language qualifications (above all, those of English), the role of multilingualism, the relationship with gender and with various academic disciplines”, explained Santos. The researcher highlights the multilingual approach used in the study into anxiety, “which takes into consideration the various languages each person has in their language repertoire and the context in which these languages are used”.

Various conclusions emerged from the study, and Santos wanted to highlight some of them. The study concludes that the participants with an intermediate level experience more communication anxiety than those with an advanced level and, as the researcher says, “this is the case of the three languages. Our results show that the highest levels of anxiety are to be found in the speakers’ third languages”. But the multilingualism of the speakers is also very beneficial “when it comes to learning and using a new language due to the experience and strategies they have acquired in language learning”.

University students experience greater levels of anxiety in English than young professionals. “This contrast may be due to differences in exposure to the language. This may be due, firstly, to a lack of exposure to English at university level and, secondly, to the need of young professionals to grapple with English in their own jobs,” she explained  Furthermore, although they established that the attitudes of women are more positive, in other words, they are more committed to learning the language, women university students experience higher levels of anxiety in English than their male counterparts. “This difference is not due to their level of competence but to their perceptions linked to sociocultural patterns,” said Santos.

On the other hand, “language qualifications are related to the way in which the participants define their level of competence and are linked to their anxiety with respect to the language”. The study revealed that the participants without a language qualification experience more communication anxiety than the participants in possession of a language qualification. And finally it was confirmed that there are significant differences in attitudes and communication anxiety in relation to academic disciplines (education or business studies); “these differences could be related to the degree of use of English as the language of instruction,” she concluded. Santos added that the results of the research also reveal differences with respect to anxiety when second and third languages are compared, “which suggests that the speakers may experience different levels of anxiety depending on the languages spoken”.

Additional information

This study was conducted by Alaitz Santos-Berrondo (Rentería, 1988) as part of her PhD thesis entitled ‘Anxiety in second and third languages: The case of adult multilinguals from the Basque Autonomous Community’. It was supervised by the UPV/EHU professor Jasone Cenoz and the Ikerbasque Research Professor Durk Gorter in the Department of Research and Diagnosis Methods in Education (MIDE) at the UPV/EHU’s Faculty of Education, Philosophy and Anthropology.