Why fear is a powerful motivator for learning a language
During the break in English training one Saturday morning, a learner called Robert turned to me and said: „I hate English“. When I asked him to explain his reasoning, the following logic emerged: he felt he made „too many mistakes“ in English; mistakes meant his customer would have a bad impression of him, which in turn would negatively influence the customer’s impression of his company, which in turn would make his manager unhappy with Robert and, potentially, would lead to him losing his job.
As Robert was involved in sales, and the customer’s positive impression of Robert’s company was key to winning contracts, he felt this „weakness“ was a threat to his job. Hence the dislike of English.
A common reaction
Robert’s is a common attitude among the German learners of English I have worked with over the years. English is principally learned by adults for work and is seen in this light – stressful, unpleasant and hard. This is especially true for people who have not reached what they see as an acceptable level of fluency.
What is behind this? Of all foreign languages that Germans learn, English is the „must have“ language. English skills are often a basic requirement in the workplace, especially at the higher levels of management. The highly skilled worker of the past is suddenly confronted with a perceived „deficiency“ – English. As very few people like to be confronted with their own „weaknesses“, workers try to avoid situations where they must use English. In the past, this was possible. Not anymore. In a globalized marketplace, English is coming after them.
Learning anxiety and survival anxiety
Like Robert, many German learners fear their career will suffer as a consequence of their lack of English. What is going on here? In my view, Edgar H. Schein’s theory of ‚learning anxiety‘ and ’survival anxiety‘ provides a plausible explanation. Put simply, ‚learning anxiety‘ is the fear of trying something new because you are afraid of embarrassing yourself or making a potentially ‚fatal‘ mistake. ‚Survival anxiety‘ is the fear of the negative consequences of not learning something new, or not changing. When the fear of the consequences of not doing something is stronger than the fear of doing it, the learner takes action.
How is this relevant for learning English? Survival anxiety is often the prime mover to make learners attend a language course. Once they are there, however, they are confronted with the fact that learning – by its very nature – involves making mistakes. As their last major experience of formally learning English was often at school and, in many cases, was anything but positive, they are generally fearful of making mistakes. As there is normally a big gap between personal expectation of self („should be“) and the reality („is“), learners can become frustrated.
More importantly, however good a training course is, and however inspirational the training materials are, they will never really be able to give the individual learner 100% of what he/she needs. Attitude, learning tastes, and motivation are key to helping the learner accept learning as a long-term process. It takes time and personal responsibility to learn a language, and sometimes that is not what a learner wants to hear. English is the headache that they have right now and that they want to go away – and quickly.
Priorities and fantasies
Faced with the „unpleasantness“ of the language learning situation, why do people stick it out? The answer is more often than not: survival anxiety. Many people express really deep-seated fears of the consequences of not learning English. They fear losing their jobs, destroying their careers, even losing money (reduction in salary or no raise) and are embarrassed about what others (especially native speakers) will think when they try to open their mouths in English. The anxiety this causes then motivates them to search for help.
Fortunately, as with most fears, the fantasy is stronger than the reality. Once they have confronted the reality of English in their job (and survived), they realize it is not as bad as they thought. They reach a point where they are comfortable with English, the sense of urgency disappears, and other priorities begin to prevail. At this point, they usually stop taking English lessons or reduce their commitment to a „ticking over“ level.
Of course, the experience of success in learning can also give them a real thirst for English – we all like things we are successful at! It could be that the learner overcomes the learning anxiety (accepts that making mistakes is okay), overcomes the survival anxiety (accepts that his/her job is not at risk, or there is no danger of embarrassment) and really enjoys the learning experience. That’s what any trainer would wish for!
Survival anxiety: experience counts
It has hopefully become clear that survival anxiety is an incredibly important motivator for inspiring the learner to improve his/her English skills. The focus is there, the need is there and the willingness to do something to overcome the fear is there. By way of example, I would like to give a short case study.
I currently have the privilege of working with a L&D trainer who normally works in the German language and now needs to offer her training workshops and seminars in English. She has a certain amount of time to train her English to a good enough level. If she doesn’t, it is very likely that she will lose contracts in the future.
Having established the objectives of my customer, it was important to be honest with her about her chances of being successful. I was convinced she had enough English to achieve her objectives. She knew her technical vocabulary, had a good grasp of English grammar and was sufficiently fluent. What she hadn’t previously had was any feedback on her English skills. Although I assured her she would be fine, she wasn’t convinced and was afraid of the coming months and the looming deadline. But then, what choice did she have? It was sink or swim. The question was, then, how to proceed.
Normally, a language trainer starts with the general aspects of the language (grammar, previously known vocabulary) and then applies the general to the specific (the customer’s specific topic/vocabulary). In the case of this customer, we are working through the ‚building blocks‘ of her training programme in English, going step by step through the specific training components (introduction, ice breakers, ground rules, activities, dealing with questions, interventions, debriefing, etc), the language she needs (specific grammar and vocabulary) to communicate the necessary information and then working on any general issues that arise with her English skills.
The main issue is the nagging doubt that plagues many people who are faced with an unknown situation. What if it is all a disaster, they think? What if I make a fool of myself? There is no point me saying „don’t worry, it’ll be fine“ because only personal experience will be able to make the doubts go away once and for all. In order to overcome this fear, the learner needs to have the opportunity to try things out in a safe environment.
To achieve this, I am arranging a workshop for my customer. Her task will be to hold a half-day workshop with a selected group of ‚trainees‘ drawn from a company I know which is actually interested in her topic. My task will be to help her prepare for this and then to observe her and give her feedback. Once she has this experience behind her, she will – hopefully – have personally settled the question of whether she is capable of doing it or not.
Obviously, the preparation work and the emotional and physical energy expended will be greater than normal. In German, she can do her training workshops with her eyes closed. In English, it will be considerably harder. At some point in the not-too-distant future, it will be normal for her to do it in English and, hence, much easier to accomplish. One day, she may even forget just how hard it was.
Problem? What problem?
Recently, I met Robert again and asked him how it was going with his company. He travels to the USA almost every month and regularly communicates with US colleagues and customers. When I reminded him of what he said in the past about English, he shrugged his shoulders, and then laughed. English was no longer a problem. His workload – now that was another story.