Throughout this series, we’ve explored ways in which insights from the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) can be applied to learning programming languages.
In part one, we introduced the field of SLA, and looked at how beliefs about language learning can help or hinder the language learning process.
In parts two and three, we introduced the linguistic environment, and explored five elements that SLA researchers consider necessary for successful human language learning: authentic language input, interaction with native speakers, meaningful language output, attention to new linguistic elements, and attitudes toward the native language community.
In this fourth part, we’ll take a look at something SLA researchers believe hold outsize influence on language learners’ persistence through the many (and inevitable) challenges that arise during the language learning process: learner affect.
What is affect?
The American Psychological Association defines affect as:
Any experience of feeling or emotion, ranging from suffering to elation, from the simplest to the most complex sensations of feeling, and from the most normal to the most pathological emotional reactions
Simply put, affect refers to a person’s moods and emotional states, whether they be positive or negative. Affect in the context of learning a language can be influenced by a multitude of factors. For example, a student of Mandarin who has dreams of one day translating great Chinese works into her native language may experience a positive affect while working on grammar translation exercises, as she can see a clear connection between this activity and her long-term goal.
Conversely, a middle school French student who has been seated next to a bully likely sits through French class with a negative affect, as the presence of the bully causes anxiety and distracts from the language learning tasks at hand.
How does affect impact language learning?
SLA researchers and language teaching practitioners have known for a long time that students with negative affect are less likely to succeed in acquiring a language. In summarizing this research, Magdalena Kebłowska writes:
"In many instances it is emotions rather than intellect that account for the difficulties students may experience when learning a foreign language."
Anxiety: A Type of Negative Affect
Because of its detrimental effects on language learning, a robust body of research has sprung up around negative affect, and in particular, anxiety.
Just how exactly does anxiety impede learning? Kebłowska writes:
"Since anxious individuals have to divide their attention between task-related cognition and self-related cognition, their cognitive performance may not be effective."
Essentially, the learner’s anxiety prevents her from fully concentrating on the linguistic elements she’s trying to learn. The result is that less linguistic information is apt to stick around in the anxious learner’s short-term memory, preventing that information from ever being committed to long-term memory.
MacIntyre and Gardner wrote of even more far-reaching cognitive effects of anxiety. They stressed that anxiety interferes not only at the input stage, but during the processing and output stages as well. They wrote that anxiety can negatively affect learners’:
- choice of learning strategies
- the amount of time required to process new material
- ability to retrieve new material from memory
- willingness to practice in front of others
In other words, anxiety has the potential to interfere with multiple cognitive components of the learning and acquisition process that have been shown to be crucial to ultimate attainment.
Let’s now examine a few of the factors that can induce learners’ anxiety, and connect them to learning programming languages: ego, other people and deadlines.
Language learners must take linguistic risks in order to gain fluency. They must experiment with the language in front of others, knowing that their utterances and output might not be perfect. This can be an extremely ego-threatening experience for some, and paradoxically, the ensuing anxiety prevents some learners from participating in the practice opportunities that will garner the feedback necessary to advance their knowledge and skills. Highlighting this phenomenon, Lourdes Ortega writes:
"Learning and using a foreign language poses a threat to one’s ego. It makes people vulnerable - particularly grownups who are accustomed to function perfectly well in their own language."
I myself have experienced this many times in language classrooms. I remember feeling embarrassed to make mistakes in front of my classmates and teacher while learning French in middle school, as well as while learning Spanish in both high school and college. The anxiety prevented me from seeking opportunities to practice the language - something that is crucial to the acquisition process - which undoubtedly slowed or downright impeded my acquisition.
This plays out frequently in the coding world, as well. Coding is a communal activity, in that we write code with and for others, and sharing our code with others for review and feedback can inspire great anxiety.
As a woman wishing to break the stereotype that women are not as strong at programming as men, I myself have allowed the anxiety of revealing my gaps in knowledge and skills to prevent me from asking for help when I should have. This ends up being a detriment only to myself, though; in avoiding that anxiety and attempting to protect my ego, I forfeit valuable opportunities to learn and practice with the benefit of feedback.
This leads to a second source of language learning anxiety: other people. Our classmates, colleagues and interlocutors have the power to induce anxiety where it might otherwise not exist. I experienced this sort of anxiety while living in South Korea. I was intent on learning the Korean language, but practicing in front of my Korean co-workers frequently garnered laughter and teasing over my mistakes and pronunciation. It was all in good fun, I’m sure, but it felt infantilizing and made me anxious. I eventually stopped practicing with my co-workers, which is a true shame, because it eliminated a potentially rich learning environment in terms of linguistic output, interaction and input.
Likewise, in the programming world, our learning partners and teammates have enormous power to inspire in us the sort of anxiety that can seriously impair our ability to learn new components of the languages and frameworks we use. I once had a teammate who disparaged my work to my face, asking derisively, “Why did you do it that way?”
What I should have said was, “Because I’m learning! Please, patiently and kindly teach me the way you think this should be done.” I didn’t, though, and the mounting anxiety of interacting with this teammate eventually resulted in my avoiding interactions with him. As he was the only other backend engineer on this team, the removal of a mentor and teacher surely slowed the development of my skills in the language and framework I was trying to learn.
Finally, deadlines can cause paralyzing anxiety. Imagine the stressed-out university student preparing for finals, trying to memorize mass quantities of vocabulary and grammar structures in a small amount of time, knowing they’re racing the clock and truly don’t have sufficient time left. Or the world traveler, who waited until the flight to a foreign country to begin learning the basic phrases and language elements required to move about the country. These impending deadlines - this lack of sufficient time to learn and acquire - can cause learners extreme anxiety and impede the acquisition process.
We see this sort of anxiety frequently in the software world. What teams don’t operate with at least a soft deadline? And yet, we software engineers are frequently pressured to meet deadlines in the face of unanticipated technical complications; or bugs surfacing in earlier completed components of the software; and even - and perhaps especially - stressful things happening in our personal lives.
The anxiety caused by racing toward deadlines can become paralyzing, and more than once for me personally, it has resulted in my actually taking longer to solve a problem or complete a task, as my cognitive resources were reallocated to managing my anxiety, rather than solving the technical problems at hand.
With the substantial impact affect and anxiety in particular have on learning and acquisition, it’s important for folks who are acquiring new programming languages and skills - as well as their leaders and mentors - to understand its potential causes and effects. This understanding can lead to active efforts toward diminishing or eliminating sources of anxiety so that learning efforts can be maximized!
Here are some takeaways for both learners and leaders:
Takeaways for Programming Language Learners
Reflect on and be aware of the factors in your programming environment that cause you anxiety. For you, is it ego? Is it certain of your teammates, or perhaps deadlines? Explore whether there is logic behind these anxieties, as well as what you can do to mitigate their sources and effects. Perhaps share them with your leader or teammates so that you can get some coaching and support.
Be mindful of your teammates’ potential anxieties, especially for those teammates who are relatively new to the field. Junior software engineers often feel the immense weight of there being too much to learn, and not enough time to learn it, and this overwhelm can induce extreme anxiety. Helping to mitigate anxiety for these learners in our environment is a net win for the entire team, as well as the right thing to do as a teammate!
A skill that every software engineer must learn - and that many never perfect - is knowing when to ask for help. Asking for help can be extremely ego-threatening, but remember that the learning rewards are worth it.
Takeaways for Technology Leaders
Have candid conversations with the engineers on your team in which you welcome them to discuss the factors in their work and programming environment that cause them anxiety. You can tactfully elicit information around which team members are working well together, and which team members might need a little coaching in how to be good, helpful teammates and mentors. Ask your engineers what effects deadlines have on them and their ability to concentrate and perform.
Do what you can to make sure that the engineers on your team are not sources of anxiety for their teammates. You can pick up on potential problems by remaining alert to teammates’ interactions during meetings, mob programming sessions, and even asynchronous code reviews.
Find out what causes your engineers’ affect to soar. Create a working and learning environment that bolsters positive affect in order to foster your engineers’ skill acquisition, efficiency and productivity.
Bibliography & Suggested Reading
- American Psychological Association. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Affect. https://dictionary.apa.org/affect
- Horwitz, E.K., and D.J. Young, eds. (1991). Language anxiety: From theory and research to classroom implications. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.
- MacIntyre, P. D., & Gardner, R. C. (1994). The subtle effects of language anxiety on cognitive processing in the second language. Language learning, 44(2), 283-305
- Kebłowska, M. (2012). The Place of Affect in Second Language Acquisition. New Perspectives on Individual Differences in Language Learning and Teaching, Second Language Learning and Teaching.
- Ortega, L. (2009). Understanding second language acquisition. Hodder Education
- Young, D.J., ed. (1999). Affect in foreign language and second language learning: A practica guide to creating a low-anxiety classroom atmosphere. Boston: McGraw-Hill College.
- Zhang, X. (2019), Foreign Language Anxiety and Foreign Language Performance: A Meta-Analysis. The Modern Language Journal, 103: 763-781.
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