Foreign language anxiety

Written by the Kontula-Gårdbacka Group

I thought about what I was going to say the whole bus ride. I even looked some words up on Google translate and jotted down some notes. I walked into the classroom, my palms were sweating, and my heart was beating extra hard. I really wanted to turn around and leave, or spend the lecture hiding under a desk. I went through these feelings every week because we had to speak in Swedish during the group work and I am not very comfortable speaking in this language. It seemed to come so easily to everyone else and I felt so alone in my distress. I was afraid if I told the instructor they would tell me I could not be in the course and I really needed the credits. 

(Photo: University of Helsinki Material Bank)

The above vignette is an illustrative example of the feelings and sensations someone might experience when feeling anxiety about speaking a particular language.

It is relatively common to suffer some nervousness when speaking or writing foreign language. However, this can escalate to the level of a phobia, Xenoglossophobia, when individuals suffer persistent and debilitating feelings of anxiety, nervousness and worry using the foreign language (Malik et al. 2020). This might affect their cognitive skills and could lead to unwanted developments such as avoidance of speaking in the foreign language or misunderstandings between group members about the reluctance to speak.

Thus, Xenoglossophobia hampers the studying of foreign languages, but could also weaken a team and group in other ways. In today’s globalized world, communication and cooperation skills are essential to an individuals’ career prospects, as well as to international businesses overall. Therefore, it is crucial to highlight the possible ‘mental blocks’ that individuals could be experiencing and further investigate possible solutions.

The academic community is accustomed to using English as the lingua franca or language of communication. To the point that in teaching it is often considered the standard. However, anyone in the community may still actually be afraid to speak another language, but it can be difficult to express this fear. Maybe a student who stays quietly on a course is too scared to speak in English or a native English-speaking colleague is afraid to speak Finnish because it feels distressing.

Authentic communication becomes problematic because the speaker may experience an inability to express themselves in the way they want in another language. Awareness of this limitation makes the fear of speaking a foreign language special (Horwitz, Horwitz & Cope 1986).

The literature suggests that an atmosphere that allows mistakes and encourages individuals to participate in the discussions are effective at decreasing anxiety. Thus, a positive atmosphere that supports self-confidence and allows one to experiment to speak and write foreign language is highly recommended in the universities (Gregersen & Horwitz 2002; Malik et al. 2020).

Teachers’ have a central role in creating an atmosphere of trust among students in and out of the classroom. The teacher can foster this atmosphere through the use of small “tools,” for example by giving formative positive feedback, and encouraging the learner to use the language that helps to easy the anxiety. Flexibility, patience, and kindness can go a long way in helping the University community face the potential barriers to developing a freely multilingual environment. Language use and creating an open and anxiety- free environment is particularly important as this topic so directly intersects emotions and learning, and we must remain aware that these are interconnected.


Gregersen, T., & Horwitz, E. K. (2002). Language learning and perfectionism: Anxious and non‐anxious language learners’ reactions to their own oral performance. The Modern Language Journal, 86(4), 562-570. Retrieved from

Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B., & Cope, J. (1986). Foreign language classroom anxiety. The Modern language journal, 70(2), 125-132. Retrieved from

Malik, S., Qin, H., Asif, M., & Muhammad Khan, S. (2020). An Investigation of Xenoglossophobia among Chinese Postgraduates. European Online Journal Of Natural And Social Sciences, 9(1), pp. 104-120. Retrieved from


Is being international problematic for sustainability?

by team INSUS – Internationalising Sustainability


This blog entry primarily touches upon the following Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs;

Sustainablity goals

Joint master programmes and international projects as a source of emissions

Apart from being a massive industry, business travel and tourism – also in the form of e.g. conferences and symposia globally – form a vivid part of researcher and student academic life and professional development. Face to face is the most engaging way for collaboration and meaningful discussions, but travel, in particular air travel, creates emissions. Often, due to lack of time or lack of funds, the choice of transport are still airplanes. However, the overall impact on e.g. biodiversity of different modes of travel is not completely straightforward, and for instance train travel (high-speed rails in particular) should be considered also in terms of the whole infrastructure needed for its construction and maintenance (Cornet, Dudley & Banister, 2018).

Recently, joint masters programmes have become increasingly common. For example, the Erasmus Mundus programmes have funded and continue funding prestigious double degrees, where students spend a part of their studies at different universities. These programmes aim to further the integration of European higher education (Papatsiba, 2014), but also necessitate travel between sites involved. As joined programs have been created for the goals of integration and cooperation, the sustainability of the modes of work have rarely been addressed.

Certain kinds of technological, digital solutions are needed to make joint programmes and inter-university learning modules communicatively meaningful and authentic. For instance, one member of our team has an EU-funded, EIT project where learning modules in circular economy are created and shared between technical universities in 5 European countries. Already at the planning phases of the project in 2018, the intent was to find new ways that enable student interaction without the (obviously hard-to-fulfill) need to fly between the participating countries, north and south. As part of the solution, Virtual and Mixed Realities (VR, MR) were considered (Sandström et al., 2020). However, even in a situation where multi-player VR is nowadays possible as such, the resources required for setting it up for the course purposes are often lacking or scarce.

Recently, some foundations have started to give grants to support the extra costs of sustainable modes of travel, but is travel always necessary? It is not simple deciding what the solution in terms of travel during a course should be.

Being international locally

The University of Helsinki includes over twenty foreign languages in the BA degree programs. In this regard, the Department of Languages could be viewed as a small whole world within a university in Helsinki, as teaching a variety of languages used by both large and tiny populations in all the continents. Learning a foreign language brings its culture and society to the learner’s mind, so that the education may yield a global citizen who is capable to handle sustainability issues in a multicultural context, being active online at home, with more communicative attitude. Lack of communication, especially on global level, could cause prejudice which might be developed to form a nationalism. Cliffon & Haigh (2018) states that “education helps learners recognize that humans are stronger and happier when they work together.” Foreign language education at a local institute may enhance international cooperation and collaboration, interdependence, diversity, cultural tolerance, etc. by equipping the learners with linguistic and socio-cultural capacity.

The value of local knowledge and traditions

As such, sustainability is often perceived as being universal for any country setting. In practice, the definition is sufficiently open to be flexibly adopted to the local needs and contexts.  The challenge is to integrate and translate this flexibility into education, especially in the joint master’s programmes, where students are exposed to the teaching from multiple country settings. Often, the dominant view of sustainability is the vision inspired by Western standards of living, corresponding challenges of wealthier lifestyles and solutions via more sustainable production of more sustainable goods. But in many locations around the world aside technology and product innovations, there exist many everyday practices inspired by the local environment, traditional knowledge and frugal thinking. For example, Vergara et al. (2016) measure the informal traditional reuse of textiles in Bogota, Colombia and estimate it to be much more efficient in terms of reduced GHG emissions as compared to formal recycling or landfilling. Learning about such local practices is equally valuable for advancing sustainability, and learning about them is of great importance not only for promoting environmental sustainability, but also supporting the cultural dimension of sustainability, and contributing to social equity by considering how these traditional practices could be integrated to national economies.

Consider the international programme as a change maker?

One way of approaching the teaching and learning modules is to use three perspectives: systemic, socio-cultural, and longevity. The module could be seen a process and an outcome – a product. Transforming the modules and, eventually, the programme so that it is based on not only user-centric but planet-centric principles, can be achieved through certain steps. The content of the steps can be negotiated locally and glocally, and used as learning tasks in the programme.

Some guidelines towards planet-centric outcomes and processes might be the following (see

  • Align the programme goals, where possible, with the SDGs
  • Design the goals with the institutions involved, in a planet-centric way
  • Test and iterate the approaches to improve the programme over time
  • Evaluate and create a road map for the micro goals, making progress visible and understandable

Setting actionable, accessible and understandable micro goals whose fulfillment can be measured and evaluated makes the task more feasible. The action points should also be geared toward building and communicating a vision for sustainability, the core elements of which are embedded in the participating organisations’ strategies and missions. Internationalising sustainability starts with the participants, the owners of the intellectual property of the learning modules.


Cliffon & Haigh 2018: Internationalisation of the curriculum comes of age –

Cornet, Y., Dudley, G., Banister, D., 2018. High speed rail: Implications for carbon emissions and biodiversity. Case Stud. Transp. Policy 6 (3), 376–390.

Papatsiba, V. Policy Goals of European Integration and Competitiveness in Academic Collaborations: An Examination of Joint Master’s and Erasmus Mundus Programmes. High Educ Policy 27, 43–64 (2014).

Sandström, N., Nevgi, A., Betten, T., Balkenende, A.R., Danese, P., Danese, Graf, R., Grönman, K., Holopainen, J. & Olsen, S.I. (2020). Excellence in education requires excellence in collaboration: learning modules in circular economy as platforms for transdisciplinary learning. A paper accepted to be presented at the 10th Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD2020), University of Cork, Ireland.

Vergara, S.E., Damgaard, A., Gomez, D., 2016. The Efficiency of Informality: Quantifying GHG Reductions from Informal Recycling in Colombia. Journal of Industrial Ecology 20 (1), 107-119.


Online sources

Planet-Centric design:

United Nations Sustainable Development:


Are we still counting apples, not footprints?

By INSUS – Internationalizing Sustainability


Back in 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro has produced a historical document – Agenda 21. This document was a first of its kind, an action plan and non-binding United Nations resolution for the governments around the world to promote sustainable development. Notably, it was the first international document to name education as an essential instrument for achieving sustainable development.

The ultimate hope of Agenda 21 was to achieve global sustainable development by the 21st century. Today, 28 years later, we are facing a planetary crisis, whereby global warming is no longer avoidable. The new goal is to find ways to keep it under 2°C.

Education for sustainable development has expanded tremendously in scale and availability in every country of the world. But it is still possible to enter a university and graduate with a degree without having taken a single course devoted to sustainability. On September 25th 2020 in a Sustainability in Education workshop by UNIFI – the network of Finnish universities – a vice-rector of the University of Helsinki has proposed that each course of any university should have sustainability integrated into it.

This suggestion has far-reaching implications and concerns virtually every university teacher. In this blog post, we go on to examine how teachers of different disciplines feel about it. We use three lenses to the topic: sustainability science, physics, and foreign languages.

Sustainability science 

Teaching sustainability can be both inspiring and dispiriting. It is inspiring when you notice that students of different disciplines start making sense of sustainability in their own way: they may ask provocative questions and may sometimes make hopeful/less statements, as their reflection process continues. But it is dispiriting to observe how some students perceive sustainability as yet another “add-on”, a side affair next to their core studies. What would it take to convince that sustainability is indeed relevant to all of us? In addition to the great speeches, the art of subtle messages can be very convincing (Stroebe 2012). In math we could start learning about calculating footprints. In physics, we could learn about the speed of oil spreading in sea water, and in veterinary science – what health effects it would mean for the sea animals. In accounting, we could learn about emission credits. We could start by challenging every university teacher to design a task in their course using sustainability as the background context. And when it starts to “seep” through every course, it will become the new normal.


Sustainability definitely links to physics. Physics deals with the environment, the climate and technology. Physics is needed to find solutions to sustainability issues, and many physics students specialize in matters related to the environment. Certainly, all students need to be aware of the sustainability of their choices: how they travel, what they buy, and this concerns their actions in their studies also. Also, using environmental examples can make physics seem more important for non-major students (Busch, 2010).

But physics also covers topics which do not have links to sustainability. For example, take a course on quantum mechanics. The topic is what quanta do, the tools: pen and paper. The learning goals are to be able to understand quantum mechanics on an introductory level – for example up to a treatment of a hydrogen atom. How should we approach sustainability there? Tell students to restrict their air travel, or tell them to think about the problems of cobalt mining? It does not link to quantum mechanics, and hence feels artificial. Whenever the topic is relevant, it should be used in calculation exercises and reading materials. But when there is a course where, for example, a carbon dioxide molecule is too big a system, integrating sustainability in the course content is not productive for learning. We should look at curricula rather than individual courses.

Foreign languages 

Any language use for communication must be culturally and socially appropriate, and the social-linguistic competence is a crucial element in international contacts; therefore, the development of socio-linguistic ability in a foreign language, parallels the socio-cultural development of language users, engaging them in international sustainability issues with more communicative attitude and eventually contributes to their sustainable development. Accordingly, it is necessary to regard foreign language education as making people understand each other better across cultures. All knowledge is transmitted via languages through generations and across communities. Due to globalization, the role of foreign languages, combining linguistic and socio-cultural aspects, emerges more important to understand the international environment, as means of human sustainability.

Sustainability can be seen as actions. Strong sustainability has benefited from work integrating social and cultural measures and values to for instance planning work (Axelsson et al., 2013). This also has to do with awareness in relation to sustainability, a framework developed as sustainability consciousness by for instance Gericke and colleagues (2019). The question is: How can we promote sustainable solutions also socially and culturally so that sustainability becomes a part of the process, not only a measurable  add-on outcome in itself?



Axelsson, R., Angelstam, P., Degerman, E., Teitelbaum, S., Andersson, K., Elbakidze, M., & Drotz, M. K. (2013). Social and cultural sustainability: Criteria, indicators, verifier variables for measurement and maps for visualization to support planning. Ambio, 42(2), 215-228.

Gericke, N., Boeve‐de Pauw, J., Berglund, T., & Olsson, D. (2019). The Sustainability Consciousness Questionnaire: The theoretical development and empirical validation of an evaluation instrument for stakeholders working with sustainable development. Sustainable Development, 27(1), 35-49.

Busch, H.C. (2010) Using Environmental Science as a Motivational Tool to Teach Physics to Non‐science Majors, The Physics Teacher 48:9, 578-581

Stroebe, W. (2012). The Subtle Power of Hidden Messages. Scientific American Mind 23 (2), 46-51.

Tomaz Zygmunt (2016) Language Education for Sustainable Development, Discourse and Communication for Sustainable Education, vol.7, no.1: 112-124

Words don’t come easy: Experiences of Multilingual Communication

Written by the group Kontula-Gårdsbacka Team



University of Helsinki Material Bank

Language use is a central element to include personnel and students in the teaching and research in a multilingual university. In my own multilingual context (Swedish, Finnish, English, Danish), there are many examples of using different languages, although the use of multilingualism is not always acknowledged. This blog post will give a small example of how to include a variety of languages in daily communication, for example with colleagues.

It is possible to communicate, orally and in writing, with several colleagues in several languages. However, for multilingual communication to succeed one must agree in advance on the communication language. For example, one could agree to speak Finnish in-person, while e-mails are in Swedish and  co-writing is in English. Or we could speak our own languages when we meet, but written communication is only in one language. Mobilising our colleagues and students’ lingual resources seems evident as a part of university pedagogy.

In addition, this lingual flexibility is an asset for the University of Helsinki, and supports integration of  more international staff and students (Language Policy of the University of Helsinki, 2014).  It should be noted that questions of global citizenship (Clifford & Haigh, 2018) and theoretical considerations on global education (e.g. McGaha, 2017) are always interwoven in highly specific local contexts and can change across cultures.

While official language policies should be integrated into the everyday life of the language users, sometimes carefully crafted instructions can be stifling. In practice, it is often the shared conventions that shape the interaction. One particularly interesting phenomenon is how the first interaction with someone shapes the future communication if there is not further focused discussion on the subject.

Maybe you have had the experience that you tend to continue with a person in the same language you used when you first met.  It can be very difficult to change the language of your initial communication  – it can sometimes feel that communication in another language takes place with a different person.

The context and skill associated with a particular language can also shape one’s behaviour and personality in social interaction. Limited vocabulary can result in a sense of awkwardness that disappears immediately after switching to another language. A language used mostly in casual interactions can be very difficult to transfer to professional contexts. Shared sociocultural norms have an effect on individual expression (see Wang & Moskal, 2019).

Therefore, it takes an effort but is truly valuable to consciously experiment with different combinations of languages in various settings. Rather than allowing a lingual mismatch to cause awkward silences it should encourage us to establish more straightforward and comprehensive interaction with one another and embolden us to be freerer in mixing and matching the languages we use in certain situations.


It is not always easy to find a common language but definitely worth trying! (Creative Commons CC0)

Original Blog for International and Collaborative Environment Course: Kontula Gårdsbacka team


Clifford, J., Haigh, M. (2018). Internationalisation of the curriculum comes of age. University World News. 23 November 2018.

Language Policy of the University of Helsinki. (2014). Retrieved 1.10.2020 at

McGaha, J. (2017). Popular Culture & Globalization: Teacher Candidates’ Attitudes & Perceptions of Cultural & Ethnic Stereotypes. Multicultural Education. 2015. Fall. 32–37.

Wang, S., & Moskal, M. (2019). What is Wrong with Silence in Intercultural Classrooms? An Insight into International Students’ Integration at a UK University. Journal of Comparative and International Higher Education. 11, 52–58.