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«Anxiety in English language learning: A case study of Taiwanese university students on a study abroad programme Yu-Chi Wang Submitted in accordance ...»

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Anxiety in English language learning: A case study of

Taiwanese university students on a study abroad


Yu-Chi Wang

Submitted in accordance with the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

The University of Leeds

School of Education

December 2009

I confirm that the work submitted is my own and that appropriate credit

has been given where reference has been made to the work of others

This copy has been supplied on the understanding that it is copyright

material and that no quotation from the thesis maybe published without proper acknowledgement


To begin with, I would like to express my gratitude to the School of Education at the University of Leeds for awarding me a full research degree scholarship. I also wish to thank my supervisors Dr. Martin Wedell and Dr. Martin Lamb for supporting me through every moment of this research, offering me a great source of encouragement and inspiration. I am very grateful for having had this opportunity to work with you.

I would like to thank the students who participated in this research for sharing their experiences and feelings with me, and the President and Language Centre Chairman ofVanung University for helping me carry out this research. Without you, this study would not have been possible.

I would also like to express my appreciation for Dr. Charles Ong'ondo, my colleague from Kenya, for helping me in the final stages of this work, and to Dr. Su- Yon Yim who gave me the emotional support both in UK and from Korea.

Last but definitely not least, I will be forever grateful to my beloved father, mother, and sister for being there for me each step of the way. You always gave me the love, the strength, and the will to pursue this work. I would like to express my special thanks to Chengyi for patiently helping me through all my worries and stress. Your love for me made me strong and motivated me to work harder on this research.

ABSTRACT This study explored Taiwanese university English as a foreign language (EFL) learners' feelings of anxiety during a short-term study abroad (SA) programme. It aimed to discern what causes anxiety, how anxiety affects students' English language learning while abroad, and students' perceptions of the impact of the SA experience on their later English language learning and anxiety. The background to this research is the Taiwanese university context in which most students' English proficiency is limited. They are usually anxious about English language learning and especially about being involved in verbal communication.

Due to this limited English proficiency and anxiety, sending students to study, English in an English-speaking country has been felt by some, to be a possible solution.

This was a qualitative case study involving eight participants. Data was generated through semi-structured interviews, observations in classroom and outside, and students' diary entries. Four of the eight participants were selected f~r the illustrative individual case studies in which their English language learning anxiety before, during, and after the trip was analysed and discussed in relation to the views on situated learning theory and poststructuralist approaches to Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research.

The findings suggest that anxiety is a symptom of identity conflict, dependent on contextual factors and is always fluctuating. Such a view of anxiety is rarely present in existing literature. The findings also show that various social factors made the students experience identity conflict during the SA programme, which in turn caused anxiety and so impaired their access to social interactions in English, hindering their English language learning while abroad. Hence the SA trip has minimal impact on students' English language learning in general and on reducing their anxiety in particular. This contradicts the common belief that SA programmes provide an optimal language learning environment in which students have unlimited opportunities to practice the L2 with the native speakers. My study thus also raises questions in the field of SLA regarding the benefits of SA trips in enhancing language learning and / or how such trips may be improved to benefit students more.

Such questions on the merits of SA programmes again have rarely been discussed in previous SLA research.

–  –  –

CLT Communicative Language Teaching CoP Communities of Practice EAP English for Academic Purposes EFL English as a Foreign Language English Language Learners ELLs English Language Teaching ELT

–  –  –

1.1. GENERAL INTRODUCTION My aim in this study was to explore the feelings of anxiety among a group of Taiwanese university English as a foreign language (hereafter EFL) learners who were studying English during a short-term study abroad (hereafter SA) programme in America. This study also aimed to investigate students' perceptions of the impact of the SA experience on their English language learning in general and anxiety in particular after they came back in Taiwan. In this study, anxiety is defined as "the subjective feeling of tension, apprehension, nervousness, and worry associated with,an arousal of the autonomic nervous system" (Horwitz et al. 1986, p.l25). Foreign language (hereafter FL) anxiety is defined as "a distinct complex of self-perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and behaviour related to classroom language learning arising from the uniqueness of the language learning process" (Horwitz et al. 1986, p.128). I will further explain the notion of anxiety and FL anxiety in the literature review chapter.

To achieve the aim of the study, I posed five research questions:

1. What English language learning and use situations do participants find themselves in during the study abroad trip?

2. Do participants express anxiety in relation to these situations?

3. What reasons do participants give for their anxiety?

4. How does experienced anxiety, if any, during their study abroad trip, affect their overall study abroad English language learning experience?

5. In the perceptions of the participants, does this study abroad English language learning experience have any impact on their English language learning (including anxiety) once they are back in Taiwan?

This was a qualitative case study involving eight participants who were students of a vocational university in northern Taiwan. All of them joined a short-term (threeweek) SA programme in America. Data was generated over five months using semistructured interviews, observations, and students' diary entries. Data was presented as a cross-case analysis, followed by four individual in-depth case analyses. I then discussed the main findings presented in the individual case analyses.

The thesis is divided into ten chapters. In Chapter 1, I give a detailed description of the Taiwan context in terms of the education system, English language teaching and learning, anxiety in English language learning among university students, and shortterm SA programmes in higher education. I also point out the issues that influenced my interest in the research topic. In Chapter 2, I first discuss the notion of anxiety in general and FL anxiety in particular, and then review research on FL anxiety and SA programmes. I also review the three approaches to research on FL anxiety and second language acquisition (SLA hereafter) cognitive approaches, poststructuralist approaches, and sociocultural approaches. I conclude this chapter with the rationale for the study based on literature.

In Chapter 3, I present the methodology starting with an explanation of the research design, then highlighting the negotiation of access, sampling, ethical considerations, pilot study, data generation process and data analysis. I also explain what I did to enhance the trustworthiness in this study. In Chapter 4, I present a cross-case analysis of data from all eight participants, which highlights the major causes and effects of anxiety expressed by the participants during interviews while on the SA trip.

Chapters 5 to 8 offer in-depth single-case analyses of data from four students (Ryan, Sam, Christina, and Chocolate). Chapter 9 features a discussion of the findings presented in Chapters 5 to 8. The single-case analyses and the related discussion drawn in these chapters are grounded in views from situated learning theory and poststructuralist approaches to SLA research. In the last chapter, I make some general conclusions about the contributions, limitations and implications of the study, ending with suggestions for further research and a brief reflection on what I have learnt from doing this research.

1.2. THE TAIWAN CONTEXT In the following subsections, I first explain the Taiwan education system, the status of English, and English language teaching and learning in Taiwan. Then I focus on English in higher education and university students' anxiety in English language learning, followed by research on anxiety of Taiwanese university EFL learners. I also talk about the short-term SA programmes for Taiwanese university students and the relevant research on it. Finally I present the rationale for the study based on the Taiwan context.

1.2.1. Taiwan education system Taiwan follows the 9-3-4 system of education where students receive nine years of compulsory education including six years in primary school and three years in junior high school. Those who proceed to senior high or senior vocational schools study for three years and those who proceed to university take four years in various professional courses. Those university students who are unable to fulfil their requirements within the designated time may be granted extensions, up to two years.

After the nine-year compulsory education, students have to pass a national examination before they can proceed to the next level. Students with higher test marks go to senior high schools that offer courses in Chinese literature, Mathematics, English language, Chinese and world history, and Geography. Students with lower test marks go to senior vocational schools that focus on technical and vocational training in areas such as agriculture, industry, business, maritime studies, marine products, medicine, nursing, home economics, drama and art. The average percentage of junior high students getting higher test marks and therefore being admitted to senior high schools is 40%, while the remaining 60% go to semor vocational schools (MOE 2009).

Students who want to pursue university education have to pass the National Joint University Entrance Examination. There are two main systems in Taiwan higher education: comprehensive and vocational. Those who perform better in the university entrance examination go to comprehensive universities and they are usually from senior high schools. Vocational university students usually come from senior vocational schools and their test marks in the examination are relatively low.

On average, the percentage of Taiwanese students scoring the required mark to be admitted to comprehensive universities is 36% and the other 56% enter vocational universities (the score of the remaining 8% is too low to be admitted to any universities) (MOE 2009).

1.2.2. English as a foreign language in Taiwan

English plays a significant role in Taiwan's economic, financial, and technological development and this role and function of English have generally been accepted by the Taiwanese public. Huang's (2005) study of Taiwanese students talking about English in Taiwan demonstrated their very positive attitudes towards English language, recognising not only the prevalence of English in the world, but also its importance in their access to information, employment opportunities and the link to the development of Taiwan. They embraced English for individual and national prestige and development and they all think getting good English skills is a good trend and something needed to be pursued rather than resisted.

However, the fact that English is a foreign instead of second language in Taiwan does not grant students many opportunities to use the language (Chen et al. 2005). A foreign language is "one that is learned in a place where the language is not typically used as the medium of ordinary communication" (Oxford and Shearin 1994, p.l4). A second language is "one that is learned in a location where that language is typically used as the main vehicle of everyday communication for most people. The learner of a second language is surrounded by stimulation, both visual and auditory, in the target language and thus has many motivational and instrumental advantages" (Oxford and Shearin 1994, p.14).

Backer and MacIntyre (2000) state:

Foreign language learners are at a disadvantage because they are surrounded by their own native language and must search for stimulation in the target language. The foreign language students typically receive input from the target language only in the classroom setting and lack the opportunities that a second language learner would have to practice the target language on a daily basis (p.67).

In Taiwan, English is mostly used in academic institutions, and most people do not have many chances or need to use English outside classrooms.

1.2.3. English language teaching and learning in Taiwan English is the most commonly studied foreign language in Taiwan. Prior to the year 2000, English had been a compulsory course for students from the first year of junior high school (Grade 7) all the way to the first year of university. During those years, English was not studied at all in formal schooling in the earlier grades. Some students attended private English lessons in language centres during the primary school years, while others did not. Therefore, the English proficiency among firstyear junior high school students usually varied.

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