Language learning and stress management

Learn languages October 28, 2013

The world is becoming more stressful. A Google N-Gram illustrates how humans have become more concerned with stress in the last 200 years:


The blue line shows how frequently the term “stress” appears in English language literature, the red line “relaxation”. The biggest spike in “stress” came in the 1970s and 1980s, as the technological revolution brought computers to the masses and life “sped up” significantly. Meanwhile, job security declined.

But is that the reason why stress has become so prominent in modern society?

Writer Alain de Botton suggests that a good deal of modern anxiety is caused by the freedom and equality of opportunity that are the philosophical cornerstones of modern western democracies: work hard and you will succeed. The reality, suggests de Botton, is somewhat different; traditional social structures continue to play a large role in where you start and where you end up. Anxiety and stress live in the gap between the level of opportunity we are constantly told exists and the realities we face.

So how can you master stress while improving your professional prospects?

yoga on the beach

We believe that the process of learning a language can help significantly with managing stress while giving you the best possible chance of succeeding professionally, as language skills are among the most desirable assets sought after by employers. Meanwhile, the soft skills you can develop during a language course are also important professional assets.

Studying in a challenging but supportive environment will allow you to explore and expand your “comfort zone”.

Comfort zones, real and imaginary

The concept of the “comfort zone” has been an area of some debate in recent pedagogical research. According to the theory, which has been widely accepted in many areas of personal development training, pushing yourself to try new things forces you outside of your “comfort zone” into a “growth zone” – the experience will be tough, but through facing and overcoming challenges, you achieve personal growth. The next time you come across a similar challenge, you will be less intimidated and can face it with the confidence of experience.

Luckner and Nadel (1997) sum it up as follows:

“Through involvement in experiences that are beyond one’s comfort zone, individuals are forced to move into an area that feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar – the groan zone. By overcoming these anxious feelings and thoughts of self doubt while simultaneously sampling success, individuals move from the groan zone to the growth zone.” (p. 20)

But as Brown (2008) highlights, being outside of your “comfort zone” is not an end in itself, indeed it is, by definition, a jarring experience. The potential for personal growth comes only when the experience of being outside of a comfort zone is appropriate and leads to achievement, and this is at the very heart of learning a foreign language.

For example, the prospect of giving a presentation in a foreign language is enough to fill most people with dread, yet many language courses will make you do exactly that, especially at higher levels. This is where studying in the right environment makes a huge difference: when you learn a language in immersion, you are constantly pushing yourself to learn and to perform better. A combination of quality tuition at the language school and the experience of living in a different culture will encourage you to try something new every day, therefore organically expanding your boundaries. You will be challenged, you will need to work to overcome the challenge but, ultimately, you will succeed. Not only will you have learned new vocabulary and grammar, but your preparation and stress management skills will have developed.

Learning as part of a group has the added benefit of a positive group dynamic. Everyone in the group goes through similar experiences of leaving their comfort zones and will have their own methods for succeeding. The right environment ensures that the experience is pleasurable and productive, even during more difficult moments.

For example, exam time can be potentially stressful situation. If you are learning a foreign language with the goal of achieving an official qualification, you will inevitably have to sit exams. Anything where you can pass or fail leads to stress: the feeling of being judged and the potential for failure can serve both as stimuli and hindrances to your learning. Through the experience of studying and learning in a supportive, full-immersion environment, you will make rapid progress with the language you are learning, therefore making exams much less daunting. The skills you learn outside of study time will help you with your work.

Outside the classroom, learning a language in immersion places you outside of your “comfort zone”, but the more time you spend surrounded by another language and culture, the easier it becomes. What may have seemed intimidating or alien at first soon becomes everyday. It’s not a process that happens in a single, revelatory moment, but an accumulation of moments over time.

Stress is a form of energy, and energy needs to be used. Learning a language in immersion will help you turn stressful moments into memories and skills that will last a lifetime.

Language courses deliver much more than language skills

Learning a language gives you skills that are essential for modern life: stress management, focus and communication. Through the experience, you will develop as a person and be more prepared to face challenges of all varieties. What’s more, as well as making yourself more employable, you put yourself in a position to understand different cultures without viewing them through the lens of your first language. At ESL, we have more than 15 years’ experience in helping language learners achieve their goals and we would love to help you achieve yours.



Brown, M. (2008). Comfort Zone: Model or metaphor? in Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 12(1), 3-12.

De Botton, A. (2004). Status Anxiety. London: Hamish Hamilton

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Luckner, J. L., & Nadler, R. S. (1997). Processing the experience: Strategies to enhance and generalize learning (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

By Alex Hammond

What do you think?