The Internet TESL Journal

Using the Community Language Learning Approach to Cope with Language Anxiety

Naomi Koba, Naoyoshi Ogawa, and Dennis Wilkinson
koba [at]
Siebold University of Nagasaki (Nagasaki, Japan)
Many studies have been done to investigate the relationship between affective variables and second or foreign language learning. One of the affective variables, anxiety, will be focused on in this paper. To begin with, this paper will examine what anxiety is and how anxiety affects second or foreign language learning. The Community Language Learning (CLL) approach seems to be suitable to cope with language anxiety. To prove this notion, first, the CLL approach is analyzed along with learners reflections about a demonstration. Second, interviews with college students are provided to compare the traditional classroom and the CLL approach. Finally, a study which compared the Counseling-learning approach and the Audio-Lingual Method is investigated.


Anxiety is defined as a state of uneasiness and apprehension or fear caused by the anticipation of something threatening. Language anxiety has been said by many researchers to influence language learning. Whereas facilitating anxiety produces positive effects on learners' performance, too much anxiety may cause a poor performance (Scovel, 1991).

Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope (1991) have found that anxiety typically centers on listening and speaking. Speaking in class is most frequently difficult for anxious students even though they are pretty good at responding to a drill or giving prepared speeches. Anxious students may also have difficulties in discriminating sounds and structures or in catching their meaning. Horwitz et al. (1991) also state that over-studying sometimes makes students so anxious as to cause errors in speaking or on tests. According to Krashen (1980), anxiety contributes to an affective filter, which prevents students from receiving input, and then language acquisition fails to progress (Horwitz et al., 1991).

Price (1991) investigated by asking questions about what made students most anxious in foreign language class. All of the subjects answered that having to speak a foreign language in front of other students resulted in the most anxiety. Other responses were making pronunciation errors or being laughed at by others. Price then mentions the role of the instructor. He says that those instructors who always criticize students' pronunciation might make students anxious. He suggests that they could reduce students' anxiety by encouraging them to make mistakes in the class. Price also advises that instructors should make it clear that the classroom is a place for learning and communication.

It is often the case with Japanese students that they do not speak in the class until they are called on.. This is partly because Japanese students are used to not speaking their opinion in the class but keeping silent. It is assumed that Japanese learners of foreign language tend to have this anxiety about speaking in front of other learners as well as the anxiety about learning a new language, which students might have regardless of culture.

A small survey was conducted to search for any distinctive characteristics of Japanese learners. The result shows that Japanese students are likely to feel more comfortable with taking tests and studying grammar than non-Japanese students. They are also likely to be afraid of taking risks. Non-Japanese students are less anxious about speaking and group work than Japanese. From this survey it seems true that everyone, regardless of native culture, may have some kind of anxiety about learning a foreign language.

Community Language Learning

Community Language Learning appears different from traditional language learning in many ways. One of the most significant issues is that it has many techniques to reduce anxiety. First, the form of the class, that is, the conversation circle itself, provides security. The desirable size of the conversation circle is less than ten. Second, understanding between the teacher and learners produces a sense of security, which reduces anxiety. Finally, a sense of security is woven into each activity of a typical CLL cycle.

The CLL approach for learning Japanese was demonstrated with twelve college students from different countries who had not studied Japanese before. Ten Japanese students played a counselor's role.

According to subsequent reflection over their CLL experience, most of the students felt comfortable with the conversation circle, whereas a few students mentioned that facing other students provoked anxiety. However, their anxiety decreased or disappeared as the class proceeded. The circle helps to build community. It provides a non-competitive atmosphere, a sense of involvement and a sense of equality. When students are comfortable with their peers, they take more risks.

Though the teacher is not standing in front of the students, his role is even more important in CLL. There should be mutual trust between the teacher and the students. In a non-defensive relationship learners are able to engage with and personalize the material (Rardin, Tranel, Tirone and Green, 1988). If the teacher increases learners' anxiety by, for example, always correcting learners' pronunciation in the conversation circle activity, that will bring about disaster in learning. The teacher should not control the conversation in CLL, but let students talk whatever they want to talk (Rardin et al., 1988).

Understanding is another key issue in CLL. Active and empathetic listening is essential to understanding. The teacher has to be a good listener. When a teacher is an understanding person, learners feel secure, and then can be open and non-defensive in learning. Within such a relationship, anxiety may disappear and effective learning can take place (Rardin et al., 1988). Without communication, defensive learning prevents a learner from speaking a foreign language fluently although he knows the grammars and linguistic theory (Rardin et al., 1988). This is often the case with Japanese students. Therefore, the CLL approach can be effective in foreign language classes in Japan.

Finally, typical CLL activities or items: the conversation circle, transcription, the human computer, card games and the reflection session are examined in relation to security. As was mentioned earlier, in a conversation circle, the form of the circle itself provides security. It enhances the sense of community and also facilitates conversation. Learners in the first stage have only to listen to and repeat what the counselor says. They are free from their stress about not knowing what to say in the target language. This activity allows learners to talk about whatever they want to by saying it first in their own language and then repeating after the counselor in the target language. In other words, learners create their own materials. Therefore, this activity makes learners feel not only belonging but also responsibility. Thus, anxiety is reduced and motivation to speak the target language is stimulated.

Transcripts of conversations, which are usually provided in the CLL approach, give a lot of security especially to the learners whose learning style tends to rely on written forms. However, one has to be careful so as not to depend on written forms too much, which has the danger of ruining learners' pronunciations since they are not relying on listening.

Samimy (1989) describes the "human computer" as "based on the best aspects from human and machine. . . an excellent combination of the depersonalized quality of a machine with the sensitivity of a human and a native speaker's linguistic competence." (p. 171) The human computer is controlled by the learners in practicing pronunciation. They choose whatever they want to practice: either syllable, word, phrase or sentence, and they start and stop the human computer by themselves. They can have a sense of security toward the human computer because it does not correct pronunciation errors, and thus learners need not feel humiliated.

Card games were reacted to both positively and negatively at the demonstration. Some students doubted whether games really helped them to learn a language. It seems that card games are helpful to internalize the material as well as enjoyable. When one is enjoying, he may be relaxed. This implies that games reduce learning anxiety. Moreover, if the members in the learning community get closer through games, that will bring them to a still better condition for learning.

Above all, the reflection session is essential in the CLL approach. Trust between the teacher and learners or among learners is established by sharing their feelings, anxieties, frustrations or demands. By sharing anxiety, learners may build a sense of unity to do one task together (Rardin et al., 1988).

Thus, the CLL approach can remarkably reduce the learners' anxiety. On the other hand, it could increase the teacher's anxiety. He should provide appropriate language, taking the learners' stage into account.

Comparison of a Traditional Class and CLL

In order to see if there are differences between a traditional class and CLL, three Japanese college students who experienced these two kinds of instructions were interviewed (the foreign languages that they studied are not the same).

Student A had a high motivation when she decided to take a traditional foreign language class. However, her motivation decreased and she became more anxious as the class proceeded. She was rather passive in the class without volunteering answers. She felt the linear relation between the teacher and herself and no link to other students. In the CLL experience; however, she felt no anxiety but strongly felt that she belonged to the learning community. She also felt responsibility to the community because in CLL all the members are responsible for constructing their learning. She was willing to volunteer to speak.

In the case of student B, she was disappointed with a traditional class because they only practiced grammar, and the teacher spent more time speaking than the students did. Sitting always in the front row, she did not see the faces of other students at all. She felt isolated. She did not volunteer to answer questions. On the other hand, in her CLL experience she often found herself raising her hand without any hesitation. She says that she did this because she felt comfortable with other members of the conversation community.

The comments of student C shed light on this comparison from a different angle. For her the first activity of the CLL approach, just repeating the target language in a conversation circle, provoked anxiety. She felt uneasy among other students when she could not discriminate the sounds the counselor produced and could not produce unfamiliar sounds. For adult learners in particular, written forms might provide greater security.

Taking the comments from these interviews into account, the CLL approach seems preferable to the traditional method for language learning. Subsequently, a concern will arise as to how the CLL approach can be applied in a language classroom and how effective it is. Samimy (1980) conducted an experiment with an adaptation of Counseling-learning (CL) in a Japanese university language curriculum to see its effectiveness. She compared the CL approach with the Audio-Lingual Method (ALM). The result shows that the average score of the experimental group was slightly higher than that of the control groups. This result proves that at least the CL approach does not cause a negative effect to students' grades. Also, in this study motivation correlated positively with communicative competence. This study; however, does not prove that the CL approach modifies learners' affective variables positively. In spite of positive reactions from researchers, the application of a new approach in a traditional language class seems rather difficult. The study concludes that although traditional practice such as pattern practice is still necessary in a language class, a new approach is useful as well. In other words, "ALM and CL are not mutually exclusive." (p. 176) Even though this study compared ALM and CL, not CLL, the findings are applicable to the comparison between ALM and CLL.

Application of CLL to a Language Class

In Japan, English is a required school subject, but only grammar and translation have been focused upon at school. Therefore, many people have been complaining that in spite of studying English for six years they cannot speak it. As more and more demands to acquire communicative competence arise, educators have recently turned their attention to listening and speaking. Nevertheless, in the same traditional classroom it may be impossible for students suddenly to learn to speak and listen to English. As mentioned earlier, it is often the case that Japanese students are not used to speaking in the classroom due to anxiety. Now the CLL approach seems to work well to fill the gap. La Forge (1979) wrote an article about using CLL for oral English at junior college in Japan for four years. Despite a six-year background of English study, the students had no experience of hearing English spoken by a native speaker. Therefore, their cognitive knowledge of English was quite high, but their effective use of English was almost at just the first stage of CLL. He found that "as the students continued to struggle to make themselves understood during reflection periods over two months, the quality of the English showed a remarkable improvement." (p. 252) In CLL context, Japanese students could change their attitude in foreign language classrooms toward success in acquiring the target language. La Forge suggests that English teachers should not abandon all the traditional methods, but they should at least introduce a CLL reflection period into their classrooms.


This paper has explored how anxiety affects foreign language learning, and how the CLL approach copes with this anxiety. There are many differences between a traditional language class and the CLL approach. The CLL approach seems useful for listening and speaking and also useful for adult learners. It is found in this paper that the CLL approach is effective for Japanese students of English, whose anxiety is often high because English is far different from Japanese. Therefore, the CLL approach should be especially effective in cases where students' native language is a non cognate language of the target language. The CLL approach seems worth trying.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 11, November 2000