Yulök Revista de Innovación Académica, ISSN 2215-5147, Vol. 7, N.º 1
Enero-Junio 2023, pp. 107-119
Bula, O. Problematizing Speaking Anxiety in Language Learning Settings.
Problematizing Speaking Anxiety in
Language Learning Settings
Olmedo Bula Villalobos
Universidad Estatal a Distancia, Centro de Idiomas. San José, Costa Rica.
Objective. The aim of this paper is to problematize speaking anxiety in order to have a solid understanding of this situation
and its potential implications within language learning contexts. Another purpose is to explore the literature on strategies used
by learners to handle speaking anxiety. Likewise, the paper is to offer an overarching panorama of such a phenomenon within
the field. Methodology. The paper adopted an exploratory methodology that included a systematic revision of information
on the phenomenon. Analysis of Results. The first section problematizes speaking anxiety and discusses the influence of
this phenomenon in the learning process. The second part establishes social anxiety as a general construct to the discussion.
The following sections discuss perspectives on anxiety and foreign language speaking anxiety as pivotal elements that pro-
vide the gist of the paper. Next, the paper offers a review of the literature on strategies to reduce speaking anxiety. After that,
a much-needed section on criticism to speaking anxiety provides opposing views. Conclusions. The main conclusion establi-
shes speaking anxiety as a significant issue that impacts students’ performance in language learning settings.
Keywords: Problematizing, speaking anxiety, language learning strategies, language learning.
Objetivo. El objetivo del artículo es problematizar la ansiedad al hablar para tener una comprensión sólida de esta situación
y posibles implicaciones dentro de contextos de aprendizaje de idiomas. Otro propósito es explorar literatura sobre las es-
trategias utilizadas por personas estudiantes para manejar la ansiedad al hablar. Asimismo, el artículo pretende ofrecer un
panorama general de dicho fenómeno dentro del campo. Metodología. El estudio adoptó una metodología exploratoria que
incluyo una revisión sistemática de la información sobre el fenómeno. Análisis de resultados. La primera sección proble-
matiza la ansiedad al hablar y discute la influencia de este fenómeno en el proceso de aprendizaje. La segunda parte esta-
blece la ansiedad social como un constructo general de discusión. Las siguientes secciones analizan las perspectivas en la
ansiedad y ansiedad al hablar un idioma extranjero como elementos fundamentales que proporcionan la esencia del artículo.
A continuación, el artículo ofrece una revisión de la literatura sobre estrategias para reducir la ansiedad al hablar. Además, una
sección necesaria sobre la crítica a la ansiedad de hablar proporciona puntos de vista opuestos. Conclusiones. La conclusión
principal establece que la ansiedad al hablar es un problema significativo que afecta el desempeño de estudiantes en entornos
de aprendizaje de idiomas.
Palabras clave: Problemática, ansiedad al hablar, estrategias de aprendizaje de idiomas, aprendizaje de idiomas.
Problemática de la ansiedad al hablar en
contextos de aprendizaje de i diomas
Referencia/ reference:
Bula, O. (2023). Problematizing Speaking Anxiety in Language Learning Settings. Yulök Revista de Innovación Académica,
Vol.7 (1), 107-119. https://doi.org/10.47633/yulk.v7i1.576
Recibido: 30 de junio del 2022 Aceptado: 14 de diciembre del 2022
Yulök Revista de Innovación Académica, ISSN 2215-5147, Vol. 7, N.º 1
Enero-Junio 2023, pp. 107-119
Bula, O. Problematizing Speaking Anxiety in Language Learning Settings.
One problem that impacts students’ performance is spea-
king anxiety (Horwitz et al., 1986). It is thus important
to have a deep understanding of such a phenomenon and
its implications within the language learning process and
milieu. Speaking anxiety has the potential to influence
foreign language learning (Horwitz et al., 1986). In addi-
tion, research indicates that students learning English as
a Foreign Language, hereafter referred to as EFL, expe-
rience different degrees of speaking anxiety when com-
municating (Horwitz et al., 1986). Moreover, a negative
correlation between anxiety and foreign language perfor-
mance has been previously indicated (Gregersen, 2003).
Arguably, speaking anxiety influences students in a more
negative way when communicating. This phenomenon
causes weaknesses and lacks that interfere with students’
language learning process. For example, students’ ability
to perform effectively in conversation and other commu-
nicative tasks is jeopardized. Students’ speaking anxiety
does not let them fully comprehend specific types of fee-
dback, for example recasting. A major difficulty relates
to the relationship between content and intelligibility.
Even though students might have a solid argument or
concept, their speaking anxiety may interfere with the
delivery of the message. Additionally, speaking anxiety
poses challenges to the acquisition and development of
linguistic features and might have a direct effect on stu-
dents’ language learning process. The specific types of
information, data, and results derived from this inquiry
are meant to increase the knowledge of the topic to better
comprehend it. Likewise, these constructs are to provide
useful information to explore ways of becoming aware
and understanding this phenomenon within this context
and parameters.
The aim of this paper is to problematize speaking anxiety
in order to have a more solid understanding of this situa-
tion and its potential implications within language lear-
ning contexts. Another purpose is to explore the literature
on strategies used by learners to handle speaking anxiety.
In addition, the paper is to offer an overarching panora-
ma of such a phenomenon within the field. It comprises
seven sections containing relevant considerations and in-
sights. Next, a thorough discussion is offered to synthesi-
ze and gauge salient concepts and implications. Framed
within a general qualitative framework, this paper adopts
an exploratory methodology. This type of methodology is
intended to provide a deep understanding of the pheno-
menon within particular contexts and to identify potential
issues and new concepts (Hernández et al., 2010). The
methodology included a systematic revision of articles
and data on the topic.
Problematizing Speaking Anxiety
Understanding the implications and subtleties of spea-
king anxiety within the language context becomes a must
mainly for the potential impact on the learning process.
This task is crucial as speaking underlies almost all the
activities carried out by teachers and students in an EFL
class (Bailey, 2005). The body of literature reviewed es-
tablished speaking anxiety as a key issue that interferes
with students in language learning and EFL contexts
(Abedini & Chalak, 2017; He, 2017; Sadighi & Dastpak,
Previous research does highlight anxiety and speaking
anxiety in EFL contexts as significant issues. First, it
is important to mention that a considerable number of
studies establish speaking anxiety as a situation-speci-
fic anxiety. In a study on speaking inhibiting factors for
Iranian EFL adult learners, Abedini and Chalak (2017)
concluded that anxiety constituted a significant element
that limited students’ communicative skills. Now, from
the results of research on language classroom anxiety in
Greek EFL learners’ diaries, Gkonou (2013) concluded
that anxiety fluctuated over time, hence “proving that lan-
guage anxiety is a situation-specific as well as a dynamic
variable in L2 contexts” (Gkonou, 2013, p. 51). Similarly,
Cordero and Morales (2016) identified anxiety as a pivo-
tal factor that interfered with and hindered EFL students’
speaking performance in a study with adult learners in a
Costa Rican university setting. Consistent with Cordero
and Morales’ (2016) findings, Shumin (2002) also noted
anxiety as an important factor. Furthermore, when explai-
ning this concept, Shumin (2002) stressed the importance
of anxiety and its impact on EFL oral production by sta-
ting that “speaking a foreign language in public, especia-
lly in front of native speakers, is often anxiety-provoking.
Sometimes, extreme anxiety occurs when EFL learners
become tongue-tied or lost for words in an unexpected
situation, which often leads to discouragement” (p. 206).
Interestingly, Gkonou (2013) proposed that there are
causes directly related to the classroom environment and
conducive to anxiety. These “major stressors” (Gkonou,
2013, p. 59) are input, extrinsic motivation, exams, the
language teacher, skills, class mistakes, and dependen-
ce on marks. Moreover, Gkonou (2013) stated that “lin-
Yulök Revista de Innovación Académica, ISSN 2215-5147, Vol. 7, N.º 1
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Bula, O. Problematizing Speaking Anxiety in Language Learning Settings.
guistic factors as well as socio-psychological barriers
combined to induce anxiety within the learners” (p. 59).
Likewise, Foreign Language Anxiety, a more encompas-
sing construct, was pinpointed as a significant feature that
interfered with students’ language learning process (Tran
et al., 2013). Finally, Gkonou (2013) suggested the need
to further investigate anxiety and individual differences.
“Future research could be orientated towards a more tho-
rough investigation of the way individual difference fac-
tors intertwine with anxiety…” (Gkonou, 2013, p. 65).
Now the influence of speaking anxiety in the learning
process is established. The first element is that of concre-
teness. Students with high levels of debilitating anxiety
provided more concrete messages than their non-anxious
counterparts (Horwitz et al., 1986). This implies that the
degree of interpretation and elaboration of the messages
was diminished because of anxiety levels. Building on
this explanation, Horwitz et al. (1986) stated that “…the
more anxious student tends to avoid attempting difficult
or personal messages in the target language” (p. 126).
Secondly, anxiety interfered with university students’
impromptu speaking skills. On this concept, Horwitz
et al., 1986 commented that “difficulty in speaking in
class is probably the most frequently cited concern of
the anxious foreign language students seeking help at the
LSC” (Horwitz et al., 1986, p. 126). Specifically, anxie-
ty affected students in impromptu activities or activities
with little preparation. To illustrate this point, Horwitz et
al. (1986) asserted that “students often report that they
feel fairly comfortable responding to a drill or delivering
prepared speeches in their foreign language class but tend
to ‘freeze’ in a role-play situation” (p. 126). Based on this
information, it can be concluded spontaneous speaking
activities and real-life tasks are responsible for significant
degrees of anxiety among students. This shows the im-
pact of speaking anxiety and how it influences students’
communicative competence when doing role-plays and
extemporaneous activities that mirror day-to-day con-
versations where language is used for communicative
purposes. In this sense, Horwitz et al., 1986 pinpointed
the difficulty on anxious students, “since speaking in the
target language seems to be the most threatening aspect
of foreign language learning, the current emphasis on
the development of communicative competence poses
particularly great difficulties for the anxious student”
(Horwitz et al., 1986, p. 132). How anxiety influences
students’ speaking skills has received a considerable
degree of attention from scholars, universities, research
projects, and professional discussion since it entails a
myriad of biological, psychological, linguistic, historical,
and sociocultural aspects that are fundamental for human
interaction and survival. Even though it is not exclusively
related to speaking, anxiety might influence and contri-
bute to Krashen’s affective filter, an issue that impedes
second-language acquisition (Krashen, 1982).
The third aspect is the connection between speaking
anxiety and linguistics. In discussing this idea, Horwitz
et al. (1986) manifested that “anxious students may also
have difficulty grasping the content of a target language
message. Many LSC clients claim that they have little or
no idea of what the teacher is saying in extended target
language utterances” (p. 126). Thus, the symbiotic rela-
tionship between listening and speaking is present one
more time. On this relation, Horwitz et al., 1986 claimed
that “anxious language learners also complain of difficul-
ties discriminating the sounds and structures of a target
language message” (Horwitz et al., 1986, p. 126). Clear-
ly, mispronouncing a sound might not represent such an
issue when attempting to communicate a message, whe-
reas a complex grammar error or misunderstood meaning
may seriously jeopardize the communicative intention
and lead to breakdowns, pitfalls, and conundrums. Fina-
lly, this review provided robust evidence related to the
existence of speaking anxiety as a major problem within
EFL contexts.
The fourth element is performance within academic and
social environments. When explaining how the construct
of communication apprehension, a conceptual foundation
of foreign language classroom anxiety, is significant to
foreign language anxiety, specifically in relation to spea-
king, Horwitz et al. (1986) have posited that “difficulty in
speaking in dyads or groups (oral communication anxie-
ty) or in public (‘stage fright’), or in listening to or lear-
ning a spoken message (receiver anxiety) are all manifes-
tations of communication apprehension” (p. 127). Fina-
lly, Horwitz et al. (1986) specifically stated how foreign
language anxiety influenced particular moments in the
classroom “they [students] spoke of ‘freezing’ in class,
standing outside the door trying to summon up enough
courage to enter, and going back prior to tests” (p. 128).
Based on the previous information, it can be determined
that speaking anxiety constitutes a problem for students
within language learning settings, EFL contexts included.
The implications of this phenomenon are closely related
to the performance of students in the language learning
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Bula, O. Problematizing Speaking Anxiety in Language Learning Settings.
and acquisition process. These constructs represent fun-
damentals to problematize speaking anxiety.
Social Anxiety
In this part of the paper, social anxiety is discussed as an
overarching element that contributes to the present analy-
Generalities. Human beings experience anxiety in day-
to-day situations to varying degrees. The problem arises
when this behavior impedes students’ optimal performan-
ce in communicative tasks. Social anxiety encompasses
a fear of scrutiny by peers, which might lead to rejec-
tion and avoidance in different social situations, learning
included. Many cultural, physical, social, and personal
subtleties are involved in the speaking process. When
defining speaking as a productive language skill, Bailey
(2005) noted that “speaking consists of producing syste-
matic verbal utterances to convey meaning… Speaking is
such a fundamental human behavior that we don’t stop to
analyze it unless there is something noticeable about it”
(p. 2). According to research, social anxiety affects and
influences students’ speaking skills (Koba, Ogawa, &
Wilkinson, 2000; Tsui, 1996).
Distinctive features. Social anxiety is a pervasive type
of mental phobia including a 12-month prevalence in
about 18% of individuals (Stein & Stein, 2008). Students
who experience social anxiety tend to manifest a degree
of shyness and usually withdraw themselves intentiona-
lly when interacting in new settings and with unknown
peers. They might even experience physical or emotional
symptoms. Next, Stein and Stein (2008) noted that social
anxiety “…has an early age of onset—by age 11 years in
about 50% and by age 20 years in about 80% of indivi-
duals” (p. 1115). This phenomenon starts at an early age
and persists in adulthood. Some causes of social anxie-
ty in the EFL classroom are: “fear of making mistakes;
fear of being negatively evaluated; limited vocabulary
knowledge; lack of practice; fear of being the focus of
attention” (Sadighi & Dastpak, 2017, p. 113). Fear cons-
titutes a physiological threat or sensation that something
wrong is likely to happen – that is, there is a strong sense
of not being adequate.
Diagnostic criteria. Brown and O’Leary (2001) have es-
tablished some general criteria. The first element is an
exaggerated degree of anxiety and uneasiness over a con-
siderable period during several activities. The second cri-
terion is an impediment to manage worry appropriately.
The third aspect is the connection of anxiety with these
disorders: muscle tension, sleep disturbance, restlessness,
irritability, and fatigue. The fourth factor is the impair-
ment caused by anxiety in social manifestations. The last
criterion claims that this disorder is not triggered by the
effects of any specific substance or medical condition
(Brown & O’Leary, 2001). These concepts are pertinent
considerations of social anxiety.
Perspectives in Anxiety
This section goes over the main perspectives in anxiety
and provides a more central view to the discussion. First,
a definition of anxiety is provided. Next, the perspectives
in anxiety are explored. Horwitz (2013) stated that anxie-
ty is “a syndrome that occurs independently of any unique
qualities of the patients who carry its symptoms or of the
period of human history when it appeared” (p. 2). Closely
related to this concept, Horwitz et al. (1986) posited that
“anxiety is the subjective feeling of tension, apprehen-
sion, nervousness, and worry associated with an arousal
of the automatic nervous system” (p. 125). MacIntyre and
Gardner (1994) provide a more encompassing definition
within the field of foreign language, “language anxiety
can be defined as the feeling of tension and apprehension
specifically associated with second language contexts, in-
cluding speaking, listening, and learning” (MacIntyre &
Gardner, 1994, p. 284). When analyzing these definitions,
it can be concluded that a feeling of tension is a subjective
phenomenon that interferes with students’ ability to speak
and perform. Finally, foreign language speaking anxiety
represents a phenomenon leading to the difficulty or im-
possibility that students experience when attempting to
speak and function in a foreign language.
Anxiety as a personality trait. Trait anxiety is a gene-
ral personality feature that some people exhibit as some-
thing constant in their day-to-day experiences; they are
anxious by nature when performing in different contexts.
MacIntyre and Gardner (1991) believed that “trait anxie-
ty may be defined as an individual’s likelihood of beco-
ming anxious in any situation” (MacIntyre & Gardner,
1991, p. 87). People with trait anxiety might be anxious
or nervous when performing different tasks in different
situations. MacIntyre and Gardner (1991) contended that
“trait anxiety has been shown to impair cognitive func-
tioning, to disrupt memory, to lead to avoidance of be-
haviors, and to have several other effects” (MacIntyre &
Gardner, 1991, p. 87). When discussing the characteris-
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Bula, O. Problematizing Speaking Anxiety in Language Learning Settings.
tics of trait anxiety, Leal et al. (2017) claimed that “trait
anxiety is, therefore, relatively stable over time and con-
sidered a central characteristic of patients with anxiety
disorders, as they present higher trait anxiety in compari-
son to healthy individuals” (p. 148). A person exhibiting
trait anxiety might not be able to perform under regular
circumstances. In addition, people with trait anxiety will
react differently – that is, personality traits have different
connections and reactions to circumstances. Remarkably,
MacIntyre and Gardner (1991) affirmed that “for most in-
dividuals, some situations will provoke anxiety whereas
others will promote feelings of relaxation. Within a large
group of people, the situations provoking anxiety will di-
ffer, even among individuals showing similar trait anxie-
ty scores” (MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991, p. 88). Specific
features of the learners’ personality determine the reac-
tions to a given situation. Finally, the concept of time also
plays a significant role in trait anxiety; “trait anxiety es-
sentially is the idea that future anxiety propensities can be
inferred from past anxiety experiences by the assumption
of a continuity in the frequency and the intensity of anxie-
ty behavior from past to future” (Reiss, 1997, p. 211).
Interestingly, there is a connection between trait and state
anxiety “… trait anxiety refers to a trait of personality,
describing individual differences related to a tendency to
present state anxiety” (Leal et al., 2017, p. 148). Research
on the topic also established the connection; “in VMST,
trait anxiety correlated to state anxiety (psychological pa-
rameters) in all test phases” (Leal et al., 2017, p. 147).
Reiss established the connection too; “trait anxiety, or a
propensity to experience state anxiety, cannot be directly
observed but is manifested as state anxiety when stressed
is experienced” (Reiss, 1997, p. 204).
Anxiety as an emotional state. A second perspective
considers anxiety as an emotional state, the here-and-
now approach. In certain individuals, it is a response tri-
ggered by a specific situation, for example, performing
in a role-play in front of a class, “state anxiety is appre-
hension experienced at a particular moment in time, for
example, prior to taking examinations” (MacIntyre &
Gardner, 1991, p. 90). For Leal et al. (2017), state anxie-
ty “… reflects the psychological and physiological tran-
sient reactions directly related to adverse situations in a
specific moment” (p. 148). In comparing these previous
constructs, Horwitz (2001) posited that “…trait anxiety is
conceptualized as a relatively stable personality charac-
teristic while state anxiety is seen as a response to a par-
ticular anxiety provoking stimulus such as an important
test” (p. 113). Stressful situations or moments are a sa-
lient feature of state anxiety. For MacIntyre and Gardner
(1991), “state anxiety is a blend of the trait and situational
approaches” (p. 90). When establishing the connection
between these perspectives, Reiss (1997) concluded that
“the concept of trait anxiety requires an objective spe-
cification of the circumstances under which the inferred
propensity for state anxiety can be observed” (p. 211).
Research also established a correlation to state anxiety. In
this sense, MacIntyre and Gardner (1991) said that “the
moderately strong correlation usually found between sta-
te and trait anxiety suggests that increased levels of trait
anxiety are associated with higher state anxiety” (MacIn-
tyre & Gardner, 1991, p. 90).
Anxiety as a situation-specific construct. A third
approach deals with situation-specific anxieties. Parti-
cularly, the term specific anxiety or situation-specific
anxiety has been used to describe language learning si-
tuations since; “situation specific studies can offer more
to the understanding of anxiety because the respondents
are queried about various aspects of the situation. A key
difference is that respondents are required to make at-
tributions of anxiety to particular sources” (MacIntyre
& Gardner, 1991, p. 91). Also, MacIntyre and Gardner
(1991) imply that research results offer reliable data when
using this approach, “it seems plausible to suggest that
the more meaningful and consistent results have emer-
ged from the latter group [situation-specific anxiety]” (p.
92). Additionally, the classification of foreign language
anxiety as a situation-specific type of anxiety is discus-
sed by Horwitz (2010); “typically referred to as language
anxiety or foreign language anxiety (FLA), this anxiety
is categorized as a situation-specific anxiety, similar in
type to other familiar manifestations of anxiety such as
stage fright or test anxiety” (Horwitz, 2010, p. 154). This
concept is essential in terms of research purposes as it
establishes foreign language anxiety as a situation-speci-
fic anxiety. Finally, this approach has been criticized for
both its broadness and specificity. MacIntyre and Gard-
ner (1991) pointed out that “a criticism of this approach
is that the situation under consideration can be defined
very broadly, more narrowly, or quite specifically” (Ma-
cIntyre & Gardner, 1991, p. 91). It can be argued that the
situation-specific type of anxiety is not established. To
this end, MacIntyre and Gardner (1991) explained that “it
is the researchers responsibility to define a situation that
is sufficiently specific to be meaningful for the purpose at
hand, yet to have reasonable generality to permit genera-
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Bula, O. Problematizing Speaking Anxiety in Language Learning Settings.
lizations” (p. 91). However, other authors have identified
situation-specific anxieties. These anxieties are commu-
nication apprehension, fear of negative evaluation, and
test anxiety (Horwitz et al., 1986). Likewise, research
offered evidence that language anxiety is an independent
situation-specific anxiety (Horwitz et al., 1986). Finally,
authors suggest that foreign language anxiety should be
considered as situation-specific, trait, and state anxiety
(MacIntyre, 2007). These ideas are germane perspectives
to the discussion in relation to anxiety.
The implications of these perspectives to the language
learning context are now explored. As a language teacher
and a researcher, the author aligns with the concept that
anxiety can be considered an emotional state and can be
triggered by a specific situation such as an exam or an
oral presentation. Nonetheless, all the perspectives pre-
sent issues and complexities to learning contexts. For
example, a student exhibiting anxiety as a personal trait
might find functioning properly in impromptu settings or
scenarios with little preparation challenging. Furthermo-
re, students may get anxious about unexpected activities
or exams involving complex mental abilities. Thus, the
degree of preparation and scaffolding becomes essen-
tial to lower potential insecurities that could generate
different levels of anxiety. Furthermore, it is relevant to
foster non-threatening environments where students feel
safe and within learning circumstances conducive to lan-
guage acquisition and proper functioning. Anxiety poses
concerns to language teachers in EFL environments as
it encompasses a subjective phenomenon with diverse
behaviors and attitudes that impact the language class in
different forms. Depending on the specific situation, the
language teacher might not be prepared to approach such
a phenomenon in an effective way. These concepts are re-
levant implications of the perspectives on anxiety within
foreign language learning contexts.
Foreign Language Speaking Anxiety
This section analyzes foreign language speaking anxiety
as a pivotal construct within the field of anxiety and its
influence on language learning settings.
Generalities. When defining foreign language classroom
anxiety, Horwitz et al. (1986) posited that “anxiety is the
subjective feeling of tension, apprehension, nervousness,
and worry associated with an arousal of the autonomic
nervous system” (p. 125). In addition, Horwitz et al.
(1986) indicated that “…we conceive foreign language
anxiety as a distinct complex of self-perceptions, belie-
fs, feelings, and behaviors related to classroom language
learning arising from the uniqueness of the language lear-
ning process” (p. 128).
Evidence of foreign language speaking anxiety.
The body of literature related to foreign language anxiety
provides evidence that students have experienced anxiety
in EFL contexts, speaking included (Horwitz et al., 1986;
MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991). The literature to be discus-
sed in this section can be organized into an overarching
The literature dealt with studies based on anxiety as a si-
tuation-specific approach and the foreign language class-
room anxiety theory proposed by Horwitz et al. (1986).
Three interrelated components served as the underlying
basis of this theory. The first component is communica-
tion apprehension, which entails a cognitive awareness of
the difficulty of functioning properly in a foreign langua-
ge. A key element to consider is that of communication in
a language that has not been fully mastered, among the
many other concerns related to oral production (Horwitz
et al., 1986). The second factor is test anxiety. It relates
to a fear of failure in examinations in the language class.
A pivotal element is that oral exams have a real poten-
tial to cause anxiety and that they are a common feature
in class (Horwitz et al., 1986). The third element is fear
of negative evaluation. It implies a negative perception
in a different range of social activities. Negative evalua-
tions of other stakeholders in the communicative process
interfere with students’ performance and competence in
the foreign language (Horwitz et al., 1986). Horwitz et
al. (1986) and Horwitz (2016) have provided evidence
that supports foreign language classroom anxiety theory.
A study conducted by Çağatay (2015) examined the con-
nection between foreign language speaking anxiety, po-
tential reasons and solutions in a Turkish EFL environ-
ment. Findings revealed four major concepts. The first
one showed that students did experience moderate levels
of foreign language speaking anxiety. This study provi-
des evidence as these results established foreign language
speaking anxiety as an issue in EFL milieus: “A total sco-
re more than 60 demonstrated a high level of anxiety; a
total score ranged from 31 to 60 presented a moderate le-
vel of speaking anxiety…” (Çağatay, 2015, p. 652). Even
though these results entailed a quantitative approach, it is
precisely this evidence that corroborates the connection.
A second pertinent finding was that of gender differences.
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Bula, O. Problematizing Speaking Anxiety in Language Learning Settings.
Interestingly, female students tend to be more anxious
when speaking English as a foreign language (Çağatay,
2015). This study is in accordance with the results of Luo
(2014), indicating that female students were found to be
more anxious than their male counterparts when spea-
king Chinese as a foreign language. A caveat, Çağatay
(2015) suggested the idea that this result might have its
genesis in Turkish cultural background. Gender influence
on foreign language speaking anxiety might represent a
sensitive issue in specific types of societies or cultural
groups. The third concept provides data on the connec-
tion between proficiency level and speaking anxiety. The
proficiency level did not influence the students’ level of
anxiety (Çağatay, 2015). This is enlightening in the sense
that language teachers might be inclined to believe that
the students’ proficiency level and level of anxiety are
inextricably intertwined. The fourth was that speaking
with native speakers of the language made a significant
difference when compared to other types of speakers
(Çağatay, 2015). This piece of evidence is significant as
it is closely related to impromptu speaking and real com-
munication in EFL contexts.
Another significant element to take into consideration
is that of students’ perception of the foreign language.
Luo (2014) established a positive correlation between
speaking anxiety and students’ perception of the Chinese
language. Interestingly, Luo (2014) reported a negative
correlation between speaking anxiety and self-perceived
language ability. This suggests that students’ perception
of the language might influence their speaking skills.
Similar to these studies, Yalçın and İnceçay (2014) pro-
posed that the feeling of success and preparedness tends
to lower anxiety: “Moreover, it was found that the more
the students were familiar with the activities, the more
relaxed they felt in speaking” (Yalçın & İnceçay, 2014,
p. 2624).
Tellingly, literature established language anxiety in a
more general sense. MacIntyre and Gardner (1989) sta-
ted that language anxiety develops as students encounter
frequent, negative experiences in the language classroom.
Language anxiety might have a debilitating influence on
students’ learning ability and performance (MacIntyre
& Gardner, 1989). This construct implies that language
anxiety is framed in emotional states and situation-spe-
cific constructs.
The following figure illustrates the connection that links
anxiety with anxiety perspectives, social anxiety, and fo-
reign language speaking anxiety.
As observed in the figure, social anxiety offers a general
panorama to situate the reader within the field – social
anxiety informs the perspectives of anxiety. Along with
the perspectives of anxiety, foreign language speaking
anxiety constitutes a major element that is pivotal to the
discussion within the field of anxiety. The figure offers a
more encompassing visual representation of the connec-
tion of these elements.
Figure 1. Connection of anxiety with anxiety perspectives, social anxiety and foreign language speaking anxiety.
Source: Elaborated by the researcher.
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Enero-Junio 2023, pp. 107-119
Bula, O. Problematizing Speaking Anxiety in Language Learning Settings.
Strategy Use to Reduce Speaking Anxiety
It is evident that speaking anxiety represents a major is-
sue that interferes with students in language learning se-
ttings and EFL contexts based on the literature reviewed.
However, this did not fully clarify the strategies that stu-
dents use to handle speaking anxiety in language learning
settings. This section of the paper goes over literature on
reducing speaking anxiety and its implications within
EFL and language learning contexts.
There are two key elements of language learning strate-
gies that aid to the discussion and are essential for re-
search purposes. First, language learning strategies entail
an internal process that poses issues for students to verba-
lize and for researchers to determine. This is paramount
as researchers depend heavily on students’ skills and dis-
position to share their insights. Oxford (2002) asserted
that “observational methods are often difficult to employ
because many learning strategies are internal and thus
invisible to observers. Therefore, much learning strate-
gy research depends on learners’ willingness and ability
to describe their internal behaviors, both cognitive and
affective” (Oxford, 2002, p. 125). The second aspect is
the context of the inquiry. In relation to this factor, Oxford
(2002) posited that “by conducting studies with clear ins-
tructions in non threatening circumstances, researchers
have found that many or most L2 learners are capable
of remembering their learning strategies and describing
them when asked” (Oxford, 2002, p. 125). Arguably, a
non-threatening context might be conducive to a state of
When discussing the results of research on learning stra-
tegies, Oxford (2002) provides a classification for orga-
nization purposes. The first one is lists: “… L2 resear-
chers made lists of strategies presumed to be essential
for all good language learners” (Oxford, 2002, p. 125).
Research shows the use of lists with learning strategies in
EFL and ESL contexts (Lessard-Clouston, 1997). The se-
cond category is effectiveness of strategy use: “Research
indicates that appropriate use of language learning strate-
gies, which include dozens or even hundreds of possible
behaviors, results in improved L2 proficiency overall, or
in specific language skill areas” (Oxford, 2002, p. 126).
The third one is orchestration by effective learners. Effec-
tive L2 learners resort to a variety of strategies in relation
to the communicative task (Oxford, 2002). Influence on
strategy use is another aspect. Elements like motivation,
sex, cultural background, and age are factors that influen-
ce the use of a learning strategy (Oxford, 2002). For ins-
tance, the particularities of an exercise and learners’ ex-
perience determine the use of a specific strategy (Oxford,
2002). Finally, Oxford (2002) developed a system “to
place strategies into a more coherent and comprehensive
typology and to redress the woeful lack of research em-
phasis given to social and affective strategies” (p. 128).
The strategy groups of the system are affective (laughter
and meditation), social (asking questions and becoming
culturally aware), metacognitive (checking errors and
paying attention), memory-related (grouping and rhy-
ming), general cognitive (reasoning and analyzing), and
compensatory (guessing meaning and using synonyms)
(Oxford, 2002).
Speaking strategies have been conceived as techniques
that learners use to understand the lack of lexis and struc-
tures when attempting to communicate (Cohen, 2010).
Chou (2018) commented that “speaking strategies have
been viewed as first aid devices used for interaction and
communication, to address problems or breakdowns, and
to remain active in communication” (Chou, 2018, p. 611).
When referring to language learning strategies, Oxford
(2002) stated that “strategies are tools for the self-direc-
ted involvement necessary for developing communicati-
ve ability” (p. 124). Oxford (2002) explores the nature
of the use of language learning strategies; “… language
learning strategies – specific actions, behaviors, steps, or
techniques that students (often intentionally) use to im-
prove their progress in developing L2 skills. These strate-
gies can facilitate the internalization, storage, retrieval, or
use of the new language” (Oxford, 2002, p. 124). Langua-
ge learning strategies are significant for students in EFL
contexts. It is a fact that speaking anxiety constitutes a
major issue that interferes with students’ communicative
skills, hence the relevance of this section.
Noticeably there has been a prominent focus on the use
of speaking strategies to alleviate speaking anxiety. Pre-
vious research considered speaking anxiety as an issue
that needed to be solved or reduced by using specific stra-
tegies or approaches. Atas (2015) reported the use of dra-
ma as a strategy that had positive effects on the level of
speaking anxiety in EFL learners: “Drama had many po-
sitive effects… Among the most important ones, we can
count the lowering of speaking anxiety levels; improving
self-confidence; increasing motivation; decreasing the le-
vel of their fear of being laughed at; and being called on
in English class” (Atas, 2015, p. 966). This study has an
evident problem-solving nature: “This study shows that
Yulök Revista de Innovación Académica, ISSN 2215-5147, Vol. 7, N.º 1
Enero-Junio 2023, pp. 107-119
Bula, O. Problematizing Speaking Anxiety in Language Learning Settings.
drama helped to reduce speaking anxiety in FL classes”
(Atas, 2015, p. 968).
In another study that investigated university students’
anxiety and strategy use when speaking, it was found
that learners in a full English-medium instruction context
had a great level of confidence and lower speech anxie-
ty when speaking in English (Chou, 2018). Some of the
strategies used were imitation of native speakers, initia-
tion of conversations, discussion of unfamiliar topics, and
the use of synonyms (Chou, 2018). Moreover, speaking
anxiety reduction is established when Chou (2018) po-
sited that “…courses with full EMI appear to be more
beneficial for enhancing speaking ability in EFL learners,
at least in Taiwan, in terms of lowering speaking anxie-
ty…” (p. 626). Next, it is suggested that affective stra-
tegies such as self-encouragement and positive self-talk
may lower anxiety (Chou, 2018). Finally, Chou (2018)
concludes that lowering speaking anxiety is closely inter-
twined with instruction in English; “…increasing lexical
bundles, content knowledge, frequent exposure to inputs,
and opportunities to practice are the core foundations that
guarantee meaningful interaction in English and lower
anxiety in speaking” (Chou, 2018, p. 629). This is para-
mount in terms of teaching practices as L2 teachers ought
to be focused on exposing students to the target language
and providing speaking opportunities.
Closely aligned with the concept of reducing EFL spea-
king anxiety and concurrent with previous results, Han
and Keskin (2016) reported that the use of a mobile
application significantly helped students to lower spea-
king anxiety, particularly in female students. A caveat, the
reduction of speaking anxiety may come from the imple-
mentation of a mobile application or from direct exposure
to the target language (Chou, 2018).
Additionally, He (2017) explored practical strategies to
reduce foreign language speaking anxiety from a quan-
titative approach. In exploring and examining effective
strategies, two major constructs were identified: strate-
gies concerning teachers characteristics and strategies
concerning error correction (He, 2017). It is worth no-
ting that the teachers personal characteristics are positi-
vely associated in alleviating foreign language speaking
anxiety by creating a supportive learning environment
(He, 2017; Vargas, 2015).
Finally, Foss and Reitzel (1988) proposed strategies to
manage second language anxiety based on a relational
model. These strategies are a matter of the utmost im-
portance to this paper because they deal with managing
second language anxiety with the notion of alleviating or
reducing speaking anxiety. Even though these strategies
were conceived for second language contexts and they
addressed anxiety as a general learning concept, they
do provide rich and very useful information on how to
handle speaking anxiety. The first strategy relates to the
concept of motivational approaches (Foss & Reitzel,
1988). First, rational emotive therapy consists of a solid
state of awareness of what kinds of beliefs interfere with
language learning. Foss and Reitzel (1988) claimed that
“if these beliefs can be recognized, students can learn to
interpret such situations in more realistic ways and thus
may choose to approach rather than avoid situations de-
manding conversation” (Foss & Reitzel, 1988, p. 445).
Second, anxiety graphs are visual representations that let
learners identify the nature of the anxiety and pinpoint
the intensity level. This particular strategy becomes
crucial for the paper as it directly relates to speaking.
Foss and Reitzel (1988) added that “the anxiety graph
can help students internalize the fact that speaking a new
language is not a uniform process that is consistently di-
fficult and anxiety provoking” (Foss & Reitzel, 1988, p.
The second strategy is associated with knowledge and
skills (Foss & Reitzel, 1988). Activities that aid learning
and help develop skills are role plays, drama drills, and
oral interpretations: “The group preparation, evaluation,
and performance lessen communication anxiety for many
students, as does the fact that they are performing the
works of others” (Foss & Reitzel, 1988, p. 449).
The third strategy is related to outcomes (Foss & Reit-
zel, 1988). Outcomes are associated with the general im-
pressions and feelings of the communicative event, for
example the use of journals for reflective purposes. Foss
and Reitzel (1988) affirmed that “the opportunity to re-
flect upon the outcomes of communication is necessary
for developing specific objectives for continuing compe-
tence… it allows students to realize, once again, the im-
portance of their perceptions in determining the outcome
of a particular communication episode” (Foss & Reitzel,
1988, p. 450).
The final strategy deals with the context (Foss & Reitzel,
1988). Context “involves identifying the objective en-
vironment and the subjective perceptions that influence
how students interact in that environment” (Foss & Reit-
Yulök Revista de Innovación Académica, ISSN 2215-5147, Vol. 7, N.º 1
Enero-Junio 2023, pp. 107-119
Bula, O. Problematizing Speaking Anxiety in Language Learning Settings.
zel, 1988, p. 451). Particularly, case studies and artifacts
are used to pinpoint cultural perceptions and differences.
These are thought-provoking insights in relation to the
use of strategies to alleviate speaking anxiety particularly
in EFL contexts.
Criticism to Speaking Anxiety
This part of the paper intends to provide much-needed
criticism on speaking anxiety. This inclusion is to bring
a healthy balance when considering opposing views and
critiques. Ironically, the most relevant piece of criticism
emanates from the authors that have tried to establish a
relationship between language learning and speaking
anxiety: Elaine Horwitz, Michael Horwitz, and Joann
Cope. Research on second language “…has neither ade-
quately defined foreign language anxiety nor described
its specific effects on foreign language learning [spea-
king included]” (Horwitz et al., 1986, p. 125). The im-
possibility of clearly establishing the specific effects of
foreign language anxiety on language learning constitutes
a major gap in terms of a theoretical foundation or theory.
Now, the unfeasibility to define foreign language anxiety
does not seem to pose a real problem since other bodies
of literature and research have been able to successfully
achieve this task, these same authors included.
Also, according to specific clinical experience, there is no
difference between different types of anxiety. In exempli-
fying this idea, Horwitz et al. (1986) indicated that “the
subjective feelings, psycho-physiological symptoms, and
behavioral responses of the anxious foreign language
learner are essentially the same as for any specific anxie-
ty” (p. 126). Even though this piece of evidence demons-
trates no difference between foreign language anxiety
and other types of anxiety, it does offer solid evidence of
the relation between anxiety and foreign language, spea-
king included.
Likewise, one can say that there is a tendency to roman-
ticize ways to alleviate speaking anxiety with unsubs-
tantiated generalizations and recommendations. Light in
content and trustworthiness, these utterances become the
norm in the conclusion section of some studies. Learners
“should be provided with as much opportunity as possi-
ble to practice speaking in the classroom” (Alrabai, 2014,
p. 95). Even though denying the link between speaking
anxiety and EFL contexts might be harmful, not establi-
shing a solid research-based connection may jeopardize
serious endeavors to explore, explain, and understand the
connection between speaking anxiety and its influence on
students’ oral production in the EFL classroom in the light
of research-related data. Tianjian (2010) indicated that
“in the state of positive moods, the learners are less likely
to experience anxiety. Happy learners are comfortable
learners” (Tianjian, 2010, p. 107). It needs to be clear – as
an educator himself, the author is not saying this is not the
case. The lack of reliability (not in a quantitative fashion)
is just being pinpointed. These are rather commonalities
for any language class. The concepts analyzed in this sec-
tion represent elements of criticism to speaking anxiety.
This section of the paper goes over final considerations.
It is a foregone conclusion that speaking anxiety consti-
tutes a key issue that affects students and other actors in
language learning settings, particularly in EFL contexts.
This fact becomes central as it poses particular challenges
and conditions to the teaching-learning process that must
be addressed properly in order to have a solid understan-
ding of such a phenomenon and its implications. Langua-
ge learners and teachers need to be conscious of these
implications and how they influence and impact the lan-
guage learning process. Raising awareness on speaking
anxiety becomes a must for the different stakeholders of
the language learning process.
Even though the discussion in this paper offers an ove-
rarching panorama of the phenomenon within the field
of language learning, more research projects are required
to develop a better comprehension of the implications of
speaking anxiety from the perspective of language tea-
chers and how these affect the learning-teaching process
as a whole, particularly qualitative and quantitative at-
tempts. It is true that the vast majority of research projects
intend to provide data based on students’ experiences and
perceptions. Research projects and educational policies
must necessarily start considering different perspectives
and scenarios.
As a non-native language teacher, one has to admit that
specific conditions and situations might trigger scena-
rios conducive to different types and degrees of anxiety
when teaching a class. Non-native and native language
teachers might be influenced by these anxieties and this
reality clearly affects the teacher’s performance and stu-
dents’ acquisition process. Thus, more research is needed
to establish potential connections and implications to the
learning-teaching process and its effectiveness. Likewise,