Foreign Language Anxiety in the Workplace


Although this post was written before the current world crisis, it offers tips you can still use while working remotely with employees who don’t speak your corporate language as a native language:


Have you ever traveled to a foreign country and found yourself at a loss for words? It’s limiting, isn’t it? If you speak a foreign language fluently, you may feel fine speaking to people in person, but the moment you have to speak to someone on the phone, you become anxious. Both situations fall under foreign language anxiety and it’s a real thing. If members of your team speak English as a foreign language—even if they speak it fluently—they may experience foreign language anxiety, and it could be hampering your team’s productivity and collaboration.

Foreign language anxiety (FLA) was identified in the 1980s as a reason students have difficulty learning a foreign language despite otherwise having few, if any, issues with studying. Since then, FLA has been observed in other situations, too, including the workplace. In this blog post, we’ll tell you more about this situation-specific anxiety.

Is Foreign Language Anxiety Really Real?

Yes, it is. A highly respected and well-known study published in 1986 by Elaine Horwitz established FLA as a situation-specific anxiety. The initial context for FLA was in the language learning classroom. Horwitz noticed that many people claim to have difficulty learning a foreign language even though they may be good learners in other situations, have a strong motivation to learn the language, and show a sincere liking for speakers of that language.

Preliminary research showed that the level of anxiety language learners experienced dictated what strategies they used in that foreign language. For example, someone experiencing a high level of anxiety when learning a foreign language may limit the types of statements they make. If they believe that it will be too difficult to express an idea or make a statement, they will avoid doing so altogether.

This of course means, when translated to the workplace, that employees who speak English as a foreign language may not contribute as much as you would like them to, because they’re worried about accurately and smoothly getting their idea across.

What Does Foreign Language Anxiety Look Like?

You can see FLA in communication avoidance and withdrawal. For example, if you have a group of employees who share a foreign language and they’re often enjoying each other’s company, even when you’re around, but seem more reserved when they’re speaking with you, FLA could be at play here. Their reserve suggests they may not feel as comfortable speaking English as they do their own language. Aichhorn and Puck

Why Is It Important to Worry About FLA?

In a 2000 response to criticism about her theory, Horwitz explained how FLA works. Just like having a bad hair day can cause someone to show lower self-confidence because they don’t feel like they’re showing their best self, speaking in a foreign language can affect someone’s self-image, too. They may be funny and witty in their native language but not in the foreign language.

Nathalie Aichhorn and Jonas Puck investigated the impact of standardizing language in multinational corporations. Over the past decade or so, multinational corporations (MNCs) have begun requiring everyone to work and speak only one language. This language becomes the “company” language. Aichhorn and Puck proposed that FLA would be a major challenge for employees at these companies who did not speak the company language natively.

They write: “Our findings indicate that such communicative behaviors can have a considerable impact on interpersonal communication, affecting both the content and relationship dimension.”

How Can You Help?

Helping your employees with any anxiety issues can range from ensuring all are aware of any psychological help offered at your place of work to working with HR on mental health awareness programs.

For FLA, though, you can try a few other things.

  • Providing meeting material to your team ahead of time will give any employees who don’t speak your office’s language natively time to look up words they don’t understand.
  • During meetings, when you ask your team a question, wait a few more seconds. People with anxiety (including shyness) sometimes need that time to muster the courage to speak up.
  • Or try asking employees for input privately. This has two benefits:
    It can give your employees often-disired, uninterrupted time with you.
    2. It can give employees who speak English as a foreign language the extra time and comfort needed to get their ideas out in the open without other pairs of eyes staring at them.

One thing you should not do, however, is directly addressing the issue in front of everyone. In addition, be careful not to give these employees the impression that you’re displeased with their overall performance. Ideally, speak to your employees privately. Addressing any form of anxiety in front of a group will only build on that anxiety.

Above All: Just Be Aware

Understand that foreign language anxiety is real and can affect the performance of some of your employees. However, also keep in mind that not everyone who speaks your office’s language as a foreign language has this anxiety. Keep your eyes and ears open. If you believe someone’s participation in your team is being hampered by having to speak in a foreign language, gently try to find ways to help them feel more comfortable.

About the Author:

Lori Straus is a freelance writer and German-to-English translator. She received her MA in German Studies from the University of Waterloo.