The anxiety of learning English as a second language, and the challenges non-English speakers face

Elise Hearst
Elise Hearst | 1 Apr 2019

I said, “Do you speak-a my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich


If only integrating into Aussie society was as simple as chugging a beer and smashing a vegemite sandwich. With 1 in 4 Australians born overseas, and a thriving international student population, many new residents in Australia need to undergo the daunting task of learning English in adulthood. Extensive research points to significant deficits in terms of access to services and health literacy for Non-English speakers. In most cases the onus falls on the user to gain the requisite skills they need to effectively access public services, including health and welfare systems. On top of this, new arrivals need to manage day-to-day interactions with dinky-di Aussies, who probably won’t be speaking the Queen’s English.

Learning the local language can be an intimidating and anxiety inducing task (Woodrow, 2006). Consider the simple issue of geographically distinct colloquialisms. Ask a Victorian what ‘pluggers’ are and they’ll look at you quizzically. It’s QLD slang for thongs in case you were wondering. Now imagine being invited to a BBQ and being told it’s “casual dress, wear thongs”. A quick trip to google translate would lead you to a very different item of clothing than the common flip-flop. Can you imagine how intimidating this could be for someone learning English?!


In professional circumstances there are many great communication solutions available which can be used to improve engagement with your non-native speakers, and address the inherent deficit in their ability to access your services.


A 2006 paper delivered by Lindy Woodrow (Honorary Senior Lecturer in TESOL¹, University of Sydney) details the results from her study about foreign language anxiety. Woodrow looked at students in their final months of studying English, prior to enrolling in university courses in Australia. The study revealed that learning English as a second language can be a negative and potentially damaging experience both in and out of the classroom (Woodrow, 2006). This may impact a learners’ capacity to master their new language and achieve confidence in handling day-to-day communications.

¹Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

“Anxiety experienced in communication in English can be debilitating”

Lindy Woodrow


Living in a land down under
Where women glow and men plunder


According to the Department of Education, the number of international students in Australia increased by 12% in 2018. Foreign students currently make up more than a quarter of enrolments across varying universities. The majority of these students (31%) hail from China, followed by India, Nepal, Malaysia and Vietnam. Many of these students are seeking to access Permanent Residency in Australia via a Skilled Migration pathway. One of the prerequisites to enrolment is adequate English language skills. Research reveals, however, that in-class anxiety as a consequence of language skill is commonplace, and further research suggests that this anxiety may continue as they enter society and the workforce. This is certainly a concerning situation when we consider that in 2017-2018 there were 111,099 Permanent Residencies delivered under the Skilled Migration stream.

Evidence from Woodrow’s study shows that above all else, the top two stressors in learning English are speaking with native speakers outside of the classroom, and presenting in front of a group. This is not one of those situations where imagining everyone in their underwear is going to solve the underlying issue.

The classroom is a fairly structured and predictable environment, and in that sense it is distinctly different from social, public and workplace environments where there is a high degree of linguistic unpredictability and situational variance. Seemingly trivial interactions with passers-by, or a lack of familiarity with procedures (coupled with a limited ability to convey this), can become a significant issue. The challenge for organisations that interface with Non-English speakers is not just in managing the lack of linguistic competence and comprehension (in their native tongue as well as English), but also in creating an organisational awareness around cultural sensitivities and blind spots.

Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?​ ​You better run, you better take cover


What does this mean for your organisation?

Woodrow’s study suggests that the anxiety experienced by Non-English speakers comes down to three main points

  • Difficulty in navigating unpredictable situations
  • Difficulty in conveying their desired meaning
  • Difficulty in speaking in group scenarios


“Anxiety is clearly an issue in language learning and has a debilitating effect on speaking English for some”

Lindy Woodrow.


There are many rich linguistic resources available to both learners and organisations to lubricate interactions, improve engagement and reduce this inherent anxiety. For example, encouraging participation in social activities, accessing local council and library services, or utilising Non-English resources to build knowledge of and familiarity with services and procedures.

According to the Department of Education, universities are now seeking to diversify their international student population, with figures showing big increases in the numbers of students from Brazil and Colombia. With the international student population growing, and also contributing to a significant number of permanent migrants to Australia every year, service providers should rethink their approach to non-English speaking customers. It is important to take into account cultural sensitivities and potential anxieties, whilst actively seeking ways to improve the effectiveness of and appeal of client interface points. This will ultimately enhance client engagement, improve outcomes and contribute to a culture of inclusion – and that would be, well, bloody bonza mate.


Think about how you can help your customers from non-English speaking backgrounds ease their anxiety.



  • ABS Australian Social Trends 2102.0 June 2009
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