by Fernanda Carvalho
I often see people who have been studying English for years constantly experiencing feelings of frustration because they still don’t feel confident in their communication. This lack of confidence not only affects their communication, but also negatively impacts their chances of professional, academic, and personal growth. Likewise, teachers oftentimes feel their hands are tied. Despite their best efforts to motivate students, there seems to be an invisible barrier that even teachers can’t reach or break- through.
How can they help students overcome their feelings of failure, insecurity, and shame when communicating in English?
Find the answers in your brain
Since the days of our ancient ancestors, our brain has been programmed to survive. If you think our modern world is dangerous, imagine living in the Savannas without electricity, a safe house, and no guarantee of food. As you can guess, there were a lot of threats that could really end one’s life. Fortunately, times have changed and our life has improved in many aspects. We don’t usually need to run from lions anymore or fight for our food.
However, our modern society presents other situations that our brain perceives as threats. One of the most “dangerous” situations for the modern woman and man is the risk of social shame. Although there are no lions running after you anymore (I hope!), there are people judging you all the time at work, at home, in the university, at events, etc. All these situations can cause social shame, making you feel inadequate, insecure, and isolated. The anxiety we experience when we have to communicate in English can be associated with fear of social shame. Because social shame is perceived as a threat, our brain response can be similar to how it responded when our ancestors were about to be attacked by a wild animal in the savannas.
Try to remember the last time you felt social shame. Did you feel any unpleasant reactions in your body like heart palpitations, excessive sweat, and stomach ache? This was your body reacting to a perceived threat. What happens in this situation is that our brain limits its cognitive resources when it is working in the threat mode, what neuroscientists call the fight-or-flight mode. We probably inherited these brain responses from our ancestors.
If a lion was about to run after you, would you a) think about the best way to deal with the situation or b) RUN! Well, we are the descendants of those who chose option B, so it must be the right one. Maybe, the first human beings that were faced with a lion didn’t run. Maybe they had a slow reaction which resulted in them being killed or seriously injured. If they were seriously injured, chances are that after that situation they learned that the first thing to do when we see a lion is to RUN. By learning this lesson, he survived just fine. But if we were to interview this survivor and ask him which memories he associated with lions, he would probably remember that one day he was almost killed by one. However, it is unlikely that he is going to mention all the other thousand days that he escaped successfully and nothing happened. That is because our brain has learned to focus on threats to survive and because threats teach us something, while the situations in which we were successful pass unnoticed by the brain.
What does it have to do with communicating in English?
I strongly believe that this story can explain part of what happens with English learners. When learning English, we start collecting negative emotions and experiences associated with our communication. In fact, just the classroom itself, regardless of the subject, is unfortunately associated with many negative emotions that we carry throughout our adult life. These emotions and experiences are the ones we register while the moments in which we were successful when communicating pass unnoticed.
There are a couple of problems with that:
- Your past experiences frame your present and future experiences.
- Not being able to see our achievements makes our confidence go down.
Our brain is fantastic!
It’s a machine full of chemicals and substances that are released or retained in response to different situations. If you want to achieve better performance when communicating with people in English, you need to find your “happy brain” state. This is the state where your brain is not perceiving the situation as a threat, which will facilitate your access to the necessary resources to communicate successfully, such as grammar, sentence structure, cultural awareness, and everything you have learned all these years in your English classes. Here are some strategies to help you with that!
As English teachers, it’s important that we are aware of how emotions affect our students’ performance and also to help them develop strategies to reframe past experiences that they labeled as “failure” or “shame” into opportunities for growth. When communicating, we need to be able to calm our brain down so that it doesn’t work on the fight-or-flight mode, otherwise, our cognitive resources will be limited. Instead of seeing communicative situations as threats, we need to develop the ability to reframe them.
For example, if you have a presentation at work, don’t frame it as “a situation where people will be judging me, where I have to be perfect”. Instead, frame it as “an opportunity to share what I know with my colleagues.”
Labeling your emotions
One way to calm our brain down is to label what we are feeling. If you are about to go into a meeting with executives where you are expected to give opinions, discuss projects etc, the chances are that you may be feeling nervous. Instead of arguing with yourself to inhibit your nervousness, just label your emotion by saying: “Ok, I’m feeling a little nervous for this meeting. It’s ok to be nervous because I will be speaking in front of other people.” Then, apply the reframing strategy “but this is a good opportunity to share what I know with my colleagues and hear what they have to say.”
Register moments of success in your brain
We need to teach our brain how to recognize, value and remember moments of happiness and achievement. Our brain has been programmed to focus on threats because it wants to protect us from dying, thus preserving our species. In this survival mode, good feelings and success go unnoticed. But life has changed and feelings of positivity, happiness, and accomplishment now play a big role in our modern life. Use your memory to go back in time and remember the moments in which you used English successfully in the classroom or somewhere else. Think about the strategies you used at that time, and especially how you felt when people understood you. And from now on be more attentive to your communication so that the moments in which you feel satisfied and accomplished don’t pass by unnoticed. Register every good feeling in your brain, even if it comes from an apparently insignificant moment.
Tell your brain:
You see how well I communicated in this situation? See this feeling of achievement I’m experiencing right now? Remember that, I want to feel it again!
I have had opportunities to apply these techniques and feel their impact on my communication. My most remarkable moment was when I had to defend my thesis. For those of you who have already gone through this process, you know how nerve- wrecking it can be. It was the beginning of May and I was getting ready to defend my thesis in two weeks. I had plenty of time to prepare my powerpoint presentation, rehearse, get a second opinion, make some corrections, and I would be good to go!
However, I had an unpleasant surprise. My advisor called me and said I would have to defend my thesis the following day. I thought “I’m screwed! How am I going to get ready to defend my thesis in 24 hours?” There was no point in arguing, the more time I spent complaining the less time I would have to get ready. To cut a long story short, to be successful in this presentation, I had to calm my brain down by applying all three techniques: labeling my feelings, reframing the situation, taking my thoughts back to moments of success. In the end, that was one of the best presentations I have ever done in my life.
I suggest that you expand your knowledge about how the brain works so that you can identify some of the root causes of your insecurity when communicating in English. The truth is that just attending English classes, studying grammar, and practicing may not be enough to make you feel confident in your communication. Maybe you will need to go a little bit further and adopt a more holistic view to identify what makes you insecure and what strategies you can use to overcome your fears.
We are very far from completely understanding how the brain works, but the advancements in the neuroscience field can help us improve our teaching/learning methods. So, why not expand our horizons and explore how neuroscience can help us? I strongly suggest that you read the book and listen to the podcast I recommend below. That will be a good start!
I want to give the due credit to resources that inspired me and gave me interesting insights to address this matter. Article:
- “Our bodies, our minds, our selves: social neuroscience and its application to education,” by Mary Helen
- Immordino-yang (2009). Book: “Habits of a Happy Brain,” by Loretta Graziano Breuning.
- Podcast: The Neuroscience of Good and Bad News, with Dr. Rick Hanson.