The #2 Fear Factor

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

If age is the #1 fear factor (read my previous post) for most people thinking of learning (or being compelled to learn) a second language, FAILURE is certainly the 2nd one! But… the question is: what are they afraid of actually failing? Of course, people learn a new language at different paces… some pick it up very quickly, others may need more time… but I never met anyone who could not learn at all! We all learned how to speak our mother tongue, didn’t we?

In my practice, I observed that Anglo-saxons were the ones who feared new languages the most… And I have no rational explanation for such a phenomenon… They believe (falsely) they lack the necessary skills, therefore they are not the most confident when they enter a language training program. Around here, Francophones say it is only because Anglophones are too arrogant to learn French (or any other languages)… I totally disagree on this! When they brag about the fact they do not need to learn a language they will never use anyways, they are only masking their fear… They have their pride and they do not want to admit publicly they are scared.

Compared to French, English seems much easier (is it???)… Obviously there are less rules due to the fact that the English world is not divided in two: feminine vs masculine… so many rules in French are derived directly from that particularity alone! And learning how to conjugate verbs is not an easy task either… In French there are no words such as would and will to turn a verb into either a conditional present or a future. That being said, every language has its differences and difficulty levels… for instance, in English, learning the right pronunciation is probably the most difficult… take the sound “ough” in words like though, trough, through, tough, thought… it is quite a challenge for anyone who does not have a “good” ear!

If I had to come up with some kind of explanation, I would say that, in North America, native Anglophones did not feel the need to learn a second language for a very long time… but the world evolved and being unilingual may close a few doors in terms of job opportunities. It is probably the reason why now so many English-speaking Canadians send their kids in French immersion schools… the very same people who, less than 20 years ago, did not see the benefits of being bilingual… while their parents are still afraid of failure, those children have a positive attitude and they enjoy learning French!

Among civil servants who must learn French in order to get or keep a position, this fear is even greater… because not only they do feel inadequate, but they have the Épée de Damoclès hanging above their heads: the fear of failing their tests!!!

Today I started preparing a young woman for her oral test… she told me how nervous she was: there was no need for it because I could feel her stress the minute I met with her… it was obvious she was not anticipating to have any fun during her 8 weeks of part-time training!

Anyone else would have not paid attention and would not have let her express her true feelings and fears… They would have started the army drill right away, letting her know that she had little time and she could not afford to waste any of it discussing issues that were irrelevant. Well… I did waste some time with her to discuss what indeed is very relevant to me!!! And while doing so, I slowly brought her back to some grammar basics… it did not take long before she felt totally at ease! When she left, I knew I had gained her trust and, from there, everything will soar… I admit we laughed a lot and we made fun of the upcoming oral test, but she also actually LEARNED more about French…

I managed to put her fear of failing the test asleep for at least the duration of her training… of course, she will get nervous again when we will approach her testing date. Yet I am convinced she will be confident that she will succeed and if she ever failed her B that first time, she will not take it as the worst moment of her life… she will only try it again until she gets her level! At least, no one will have had her feel like a failure. Hey! the woman will get 32 hours of training before her test… what do you expect??? Being realistic about what she can achieve and what she cannot will help her to go through this much more easily…

And Susan… I promise you one thing: I will do my best to make your training enjoyable and useful… I will not push you around and force French down your throat for the mere purpose of passing a test… I do not keep official statistics records on my students’ achievements! Give me your best girl, and I will be proud of you!…



  1. foreignlanguageteacher said,

    August 1, 2008 at 3:29 am

    You are so right about the fear! (I feel it in regards to learning Chinese.) It’s interesting how many people are “impressed” that I can speak a second language. But in many parts of the world, uneducated children can speak many more languages than I can. Speaking another language is no amazing feat. The accomplishment, I think, is the ability to teach a language to someone who is not naturally exposed to it. Maybe it’s because, for so long, many N. American anglophones did not hear other languages on a regular basis. It is something “foreign” and different, i.e. something to fear. I’ve never really considered it before. What a great, thought-provoking piece.

  2. August 1, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    You said it: success in learning a second language depends on the way it is “taught”..

    I firmly believe there are no “bad” learners, there are only “bad” teachers. No matter the method or program used, teaching is about the APPROACH!!!

    To teach (any subject), we need to be passionate so we can transmit our enthusiasm to our students (knowledge alone is not enough!)…

    Both you and I know that for a fact… this is why we are so good at what we do!

  3. Alex said,

    August 16, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

  4. August 16, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    Alex… Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I really do appreciate it!

    As for keeping up the good work, I will certainly try and do my best! 😉

    Come again any time!

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