Mirko Fabian

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Native Language Anxiety

Mirko Fabian
Multimedia-Designer

07/07/24

Category: Opinion, Personality, Development

What is this article about?

In this article, I’ll explain a rare form of language anxiety not discussed broadly on the internet. The anxiety of using someone’s native language, what are the symptoms, how is that affecting someone’s life, and how to live with it. This article is not a scientific entry, but rather an opinion and experience-based report for those who can relate to the topic, to make them feel heard, understood, and valued. This article shares a perspective from someone who lives with Native Language Anxiety. 

I wrote an article 1 1/2 years ago that shares similar ideas, but without giving it an actual name, a name that is even hard to find on Google. But when asking an AI model it spits out “Native Language Anxiety”, and that’s what I’ll further talk about in this article. 

What is Native Language Anxiety? (NLA)

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Not often talked about, it’s the opposite of “Foreign Language Anxiety” (FLA), the fear of speaking a different language than the one you grew up with. Native Language Anxiety on the other hand is the fear of communicating in your native language. No matter if it’s in written form, or verbally, reading or listening to. Simply feeling uncomfortable using your native language either in public or/and in personal conversations. 

The importance of language for our personality

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Many different aspects make us who we are, that form our personality. Language is an important aspect of it. Not only the language that we speak, but our accent, dialect, and simply the way we talk is a big part of our personality. It’s how we express ourselves, share our feelings, and talk about what matters to us in life. 

When you’re forced to speak a certain language to interact with people it puts stress and pressure on you, so much that you can’t be your true self. The way we speak, in whatever tone, dialect, or in this particular case in which language shows our character more than you might think of. Because when you speak a language that’s not your primary (either a foreign or in this case your native language) you have to think and maybe translate, which has the effect of losing your personal touch and meaning about what you’re willing to say, no matter the proficiency level your at. 

Language is deeply engrained into our personality, even before we were born. But it doesn’t mean that can change over time. We constantly evolve our personality and grow and shrink emotions as a natural process in our development as human beings. So is it possible to fully change the language we prefer and our native language, the language we grew up with since we grew in whom, can fully change, until the point where the language we prefer becomes very close to what’s considered “native” while the language we initially referred to as native gets more and more foreign. We either distance ourselves consciously or subconsciously. 

Through language we express ourselves and no matter how many languages we speak, we’ll always have tiny differences in how we say something and how we get recognized by others, despite the obvious difference in the languages themselves.

Native Language Anxiety (NLA) vs. Foreign Language Anxiety (FLA)

Both Native language anxiety and foreign language anxiety pertain to apprehension and fear related to language use, but they manifest in different contexts and have distinct characteristics:

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Native Language Anxiety (NLA)

Context of Occurrence:

  • Often arises in situations where one must speak or write in their native language under pressure, such as public speaking, interviews, or high-stakes writing tasks.
  • Can also occur in informal situations, depending on the individuals perception of the language and their heritage. 

Source of Anxiety:

  • Fear of judgment or negative evaluation by peers, superiors, or an audience.
  • Perfectionism and high self-expectations can also contribute to anxiety. 
  • Anxiety may stem from specific traumatic experiences related to language use.

Characteristics:

  • Performance Anxiety: Worrying about making mistakes or not being eloquent.
  • Social Anxiety: Fear of social interactions and being judged based on language use. Furthermore, being stigmatized of ones heritage can have an impact on the anxiety as well. 
  • High Self-Criticism: Overly critical of one’s own language performance.

Manifestations:

  • Symptoms can include nervousness, sweating, rapid heartbeat, and avoidance of speaking or writing tasks.
  • May lead to over-preparation or complete avoidance of speaking opportunities.

Foreign Language Anxiety (FLA)

Context of Occurrence:

  • Occurs when an individual is learning or using a language that is not their native tongue, often in educational settings, travel, or international business.

Source of Anxiety:

  • Fear of making grammatical errors, mispronunciations, or not being understood.
  • Feeling of inadequacy due to limited vocabulary and language skills.
  • Cultural differences and unfamiliarity with social norms in the foreign language context.

Characteristics:

  • Communication Apprehension: Nervousness about speaking in a foreign language.
  • Fear of Negative Evaluation: Concern about being judged for language mistakes.
  • Test Anxiety: Worry about language exams and assessments.

Manifestations:

  • Symptoms include avoidance of speaking in a foreign language, excessive anxiety during language classes or conversations, and physical symptoms like trembling and sweating.
  • Can result in reluctance to participate in language learning activities and slow progress in acquiring the language.

Key Differences

Source and Context: 

Native language anxiety is more about performance pressure and social judgment within one’s own language, while FLA is about the fear of making mistakes and inadequacy in a non-native language context.

Nature of Mistakes: 

In NLA, mistakes are often about failing to meet high standards, whereas in foreign language anxiety, they are about basic communication errors and misunderstandings.

Cultural Factors: 

Foreign language anxiety is more influenced by cross-cultural communication challenges and unfamiliarity with the language’s social nuances.

Commonalities

  • Both types of anxiety can significantly impact communication and performance.
  • They can lead to avoidance behaviours and hinder personal, academic, or professional growth.
  • Addressing both requires strategies to build confidence, reduce fear of judgment, and improve language skills in a supportive environment.

What are the obstacles in daily life?

There are two different scenarios and sets of obstacles someone might have to live with. To give you a better understanding of what a person with Native Language Anxiety might encounter, here are the two scenarios that have different sets of obstacles someone might have to deal with. It can get as extreme as completely ignoring anything that’s communicated in the native language, either personal interactions or a decline in consuming content like videos, films, and music in the native language. Trying to avoid the language as much as possible for various reasons. 

The reasons can be, past traumatic experiences, cultural shame, or misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Scenario 1

Living in the country where the Native Language is spoken 

As someone with NLA living in a country where that language is spoken, they might feel like a stranger, isolated, maybe they even feel as if they are foreigners. Isolating themselves at home, where they can embrace their preferred language without being judged by others. Over time they might develop depression and social anxiety, which can get even worse over time if they don’t seek professional help. But even then they might be afraid, that they can’t get the help or they don’t want to speak in their native language because expressing themselves and their emotions in their preferred language is the only way they would ever talk about it. This tension grows over time and the most logical way to “overcome” this rare form of anxiety is to emigrate to a country where the preferred language of the individual is spoken.

Scenario 2

Living in a country where a different (most likely the preferred language is spoken) 

Leaving the environment where you were judged for expressing yourself in “your language” and not the language of that country can be relieving. You’ll most likely feel more “normal” because all of a sudden, everything around you, is in your preferred language. You can interact, speak, write, and be more yourself. Everything is perfect and seems to be normal, right?

If only that was the case. Immigrating to the country where your preferred language is spoken does a lot, but you’ll still encounter numerous occasions where the topic is brought to the table. Whenever you meet new people and that topic comes up, you get immediately biased (even when it’s by any means not meant to be offensive). The individual will most likely change the topic as quickly as possible to avoid interacting in that particular language when people throw commonly known phrases at them. Most likely they reply in their preferred language to further avoid contact with their native language. 

It’s a social conflict because on the one hand people are interested in you and your culture, so you respond shortly but on the other hand, you don’t want to be too harsh or even rude by avoiding speaking about it. 

Those situations are stressful and highly uncomfortable for someone with Native Language Anxiety.

Awareness in Society

Foreign Language Anxiety itself is something that is more recognized by society but still occurs not too often, and if someone is affected, they might not show or talk about it since a foreign language is not in use in our daily lives for most people. You might have guessed it already, NLA is even less commonly known and probably occurs even less. This can be the result of social distancing and isolation. 

When an individual talks about their feelings towards their native language they might get quite negative feedback on how they feel. They might hear words like “You’re nationality XYZ, so this is YOUR LANGUAGE” meaning that this can’t be how they feel. It’s a normal reaction towards this particular form of anxiety when people aren’t aware of it. Nationality and someone’s background are automatically associated with the language that is spoken and preferred by most of their people. This is another level that can add up to Native Language Anxiety when the individual feels misplaced in the country they were born. 

The transitioning phase is particularly difficult when someone fully turns to their preferred language and tries to continue communicating with family and friends who speak their native language. Not everyone understands or is tolerant of the decision to change your preferred language. 

Talking about it can help, but since it’s not commonly acknowledged it’s really difficult to find understanding in the majority of people we encounter. 

Preferred Language

What language someone with NLA prefers is unknown, due to the lack of data, but it’s assumed to be English for its versatile and global use. 

Whatever the preferred language of someone with NLA is, it’s the language that gives them the most comfort, whether it may be presenting projects in the classroom, or at work, expressing feelings or simply having conversations. Language, as I already mentioned is a crucial part of who we are, what we stand for, and how we express ourselves. It’s deeply woven into our personality. Language is important not only to communicate but to show our personality and the language we choose, how we say something, and which words or slang we choose reflect who we truly are. Certain nuances are unique, that make every one of us unique, and if you choose a different language than your supposed native language to claim for your own, it is legit and everyone should tolerate and respect that. 

Nobody can force you to speak a language you’re not comfortable with, even when this language is the one you adapted before your preferred language today. We all evolve and this is what makes us human.

Conclusion

Most of the research for this article is either based on experiences or ChatGPT. I found out that this type of Language Anxiety is so rare that literally nobody ever talked about it, until today. When you google Native Language Anxiety, all you can find is about FLA, this is what ChatGPT has to say about it:

While empirical research on NLA is limited, anecdotal evidence and some academic studies support its existence …” – ChatGPT.

It shows how rarely it has ever been discussed or researched. It might appear not often but, that does not mean it doesn’t exist. This article should get you informed about this cause, providing real-world experience. If you “suffer” from NLA or know someone who might be, this article is dedicated to those who feel different. You’re not alone, and feeling like that is legit. 

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Mirko Fabian
Multimedia-Designer

Self-educated creative problem solver and entrepreneur. Writing about personal development, self-education, photography & filmmaking. 

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#language #anxiety #nativelanguageanxiety #native #psychology #personality #development