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"Navigating the Soundscape: Foreign Language Learning and Listening Anxiety"

This blog post was written by Klaudia Schwenk.


About the author of the post:

Klaudia Schwenk is a graduate of the University of Duisburg-Essen with a Masters in German, English Literature and Political Sciences, trained for her teaching qualification at King Edward's Consortium in Birmingham. Initially with a background in publishing and bookselling, she now has over ten years teaching experience (Primary and now Secondary again) and is Head of German at an International School in German. At the same time she continues teaching German as a First, Second and Foreign Language. She has a keen interest in Second Language Acquisition, the teaching of literature, the development of writing skills and most recently the use of AI in teaching. She has spoken at ResearchEd Deutschland in 2023. Her first encounter with E.P.I. 3 years ago had a profound effect on her approach to teaching German as a foreign and second language.



In my teaching experience of German as a Foreign Language, teaching listening skills was not high on my agenda. Although it was emphasised during my training that all four language skills should be incorporated in lessons, my focus was primarily on the complexities of the German language and the struggles my students faced with it. I viewed language learning primarily through the lens of grammar and vocabulary, giving the skill of listening much less attention.

My approach to teaching listening was conventional - assigning tasks such as "Listen and answer the following questions." While some students excelled in this format, others clearly dreaded these top-down listening exercises often making every attempt not to participate.

Foreign Language Listening Anxiety

As I explored this further, I became increasingly interested in the barriers to learning associated with anxiety or more specifically foreign language anxiety and of course how I, as a teacher, could help alleviate these issues. This eventually led me to consider the concept of "Foreign Language Listening Anxiety," as discussed in Harumi Kimura's article in the International Journal of Listening (2016). Kimura's study highlights how L2 listening anxiety is specific to second language contexts and is influenced by performance and self-focus concerns.

The former are concerns related to students' worries about the listening task itself. They fear that they will not understand what is being said and therefore will not be able to respond correctly when questioned. The latter relates to students' worries about how they might appear to others, especially if they are unable to respond appropriately to the listening task.

One of the most important aspects causing this anxiety is the fleeting nature of language. The traditional model of listening tasks in textbooks is typically a top-down listening exercise. In other words, students are confronted with a longer text, most of which is incomprehensible input.

The task then tends to be something along the lines of:

  • What is the text about (extract the gist)?

  • Which of the following words (...) did you hear?

  • Are the following statements true or false?

While there is a clear place for this type of exercise, this type of top-down processing can be very intimidating for beginners.

Learning a language when it is one's mother tongue is a biologically primary skill, and students would have experienced themselves as competent users of (their) language. However, learning a second (or third) language is biologically secondary and the feeling of competence (a prerequisite for both self-efficacy and motivation) can be undermined.

Extensive Processing Instruction (EPI) Approach

As mentioned above, I had often observed pupils feeling uncomfortable, especially when listening and/or speaking tasks were involved. There were always those pupils who had the confidence to cope with whatever was thrown at them, but there was also a significant enough group who clearly did not cope as well and therefore made very slow progress, often expressing their dislike of learning German.

During the lockdown, I became very interested in the EPI (Extensive Processing Instruction) approach. This is an approach that Dr. Gianfranco Conti has developed and promoted. In contrast to traditional listening exercises, Dr. Conti introduces the concept of Listening as Modelling (LAM) at the start of a teaching sequence, which emphasises a bottom-up approach to language learning when first beginning to teach a L2. Implementing this approach with a group of learners over two years, I not only witnessed a significant improvement in their ability to comprehend lengthy listening texts but also in their apparent confidence levels. Despite not understanding every word, the students felt relaxed and comfortable during the process as they explained during a number of feedback sessions.

Specific Activities and Results

To give a few examples of how this approach is applied in the classroom: at the start of every new teaching sequence, we very often "play" an activity called "Faulty Echo" as devised by Dr. Conti. In this activity students see a number of phrases or short sentences. After ensuring that the meaning is clear and thus comprehensible input is provided, the students then focus solely on the sounds of the target language. Firstly, my thumb will go up and the pupils will hear the correct version from me. Secondly, my thumb will go down and I will make a deliberate pronunciation error, often making use of pronunciation errors my pupils will typically make. The students will either write down the word where the error occurred and underline the sound in question on a Mini Whiteboard and on a call of 1, 2, 3, show me, hold up their board. Alternatively, they have the text in front of them and underline where the error occurred. My students are very used to this procedure and are beginning to try and predict where I'll be making the mistake.

Example of the activity (K.Schwenk)

Another popular activity with my students is "Last Person Standing" (originally "Last Man Standing" but my students pointed out that this is not inclusive - I read this on X/Twitter but can unfortunately not recall who first suggested this.). Again, a series of sentences are projected onto the board. Students receive one of them on a strip of paper. I will then proceed to read the sentences one by one. If this is their sentence, the student who has it sits down. The last person still standing has won. So, again the focus is on listening intently to the sounds of the target language. For a huge variety of other activities, I cannot recommend the book "Breaking the Sound Barrier" by Dr. Conti and Steve Smith highly enough.

Example of the activity (K.Schwenk)

Broader Implications and Strategies

As mentioned before, in Extensive Processing Instruction, LAM (Listening as Modelling) is considered a crucial component of successful second language instruction. It typically stands at the beginning of a new teaching sequence and lets learners get accustomed to the sounds of the foreign language. Horwitz et al. (1986) identified this as a highly stressful situation as perceived by beginner learners: “Anxious language learners (...) complain of difficulties discriminating the sounds and structures of a target language message." (Horwitz et al., 1986).

According to a study by Lana Bede (2011), citing Horwitz et al. (1986), foreign language listening anxiety is a prevalent issue in language classrooms, second only to speaking anxiety. One of the most important aspects causing this anxiety is the fleeting nature of speech. The traditional model of listening tasks in textbooks is typically a top-down listening exercise. In other words: students are presented with a longer text where more often than not the majority of the text is incomprehensible input. The task then tends to be something along the lines of: what is the text about (extract the gist of it)? Which of the following words (...) did you hear? Are the following statements true or false? Whilst there is a clear place for this type of exercise, for novice learners this type of top-down processing can be very intimidating.

Similarly, if we look at the requirements for an exam such as IGCSE (which our students will eventually take), the listening skills that students are expected to have are: to be able to 'identify the main points, themes, opinions and attitudes in simple texts' (Cambridge IGCSETM syllabus for German 0525). There is a clear expectation that students will listen to a longer text or dialogue with potentially a significant amount of unfamiliar language, and infer meaning from context. Bearing in mind that this is a listening (not a reading!) requirement, it is clear that a great deal is being demanded of students' working memory, while the information that comes to them is quickly drowned out by the next piece of information.

By acknowledging the unique challenges of listening comprehension, educators are better positioned to develop strategies that not only enhance listening skills but also address the root causes of anxiety.

Strategies may include:

  • increased exposure to a wide range of listening materials

  • focused exercises on sound discrimination,

  • and promoting a learning environment that encourages mistakes as part of the learning process.

Such approaches aim to build learners' confidence in their listening abilities, thereby reducing anxiety and creating a more conducive atmosphere for language acquisition.

This perspective aligns with the broader understanding that language learning anxiety can significantly impact learners' success. By tackling listening anxiety head-on, through methods such as LAM, educators can play a crucial role in lowering the barriers to language learning. This not only aids in improving linguistic proficiency but also enhances learners' overall experience and motivation in learning a new language.

Conclusion on the Effectiveness of EPI and LAM

Both my own and my colleagues' observations of the impact of an EPI-informed curriculum have led me to believe that the LAM approach significantly reduces L2 listening anxiety. The playful nature of many of the activities, with a high success rate for students, increases their confidence and belief in their competence to learn a foreign language. It allows them to familiarise themselves with the unfamiliar sounds of the target language (in our case, German) before tackling longer texts, which actually contain a greater proportion of potentially unfamiliar language. This shift in teaching methodology has shown promising results in improving students' listening skills and overall language learning experience, as confirmed by a survey conducted in our German department. Students self-reported that they felt much more confident in tackling listening tasks or simply listening to their teacher using the target language after being taught an EPI-informed scheme of work over the course of one to two years.

Exams are part of a student's life at school or university and will cause stress. Similarly, when students find themselves in a situation where their foreign language skills are required in a real-life communication situation, the stress this causes may be unavoidable, but we as teachers have many tools at our disposal to alleviate the worst excesses of this anxiety and allow our learners to feel competent.

Further reading:

Bede, Lana. "Foreign Language Listening Anxiety: The Relationship between Listening Anxiety and Success in Learning English as a Foreign Language." Master's thesis, Josip Juraj Strossmayer University of Osijek, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, 2011.

Conti, Gianfranco, and Steve Smith. Breaking the Sound Barrier: Teaching Language Learners How to Listen. 2019.

Horwitz, Elaine K., Michael B. Horwitz, and Joann Cope. "Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety." The Modern Language Journal, vol. 70, no. 2, Summer 1986, pp. 125-132.

Kumura, Harumi. "Foreign Language Listening Anxiety: A Self-Presentational View." International Journal of Listening, vol. 31, 2017, pp. 142-162.



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