Wikipedia defines foreign language anxiety as follows:

Foreign language anxiety, or xenoglossophobia, is the feeling of unease, worry, nervousness and apprehension experienced in learning or using a second or foreign language. The feelings may stem from any second language context whether it is associated with the productive skills of speaking and writing or the receptive skills of reading and listening.

In the Western world (and probably also elsewhere), Chinese is considered a very difficult language, mostly due to its writing system. However, is the Chinese writing system also the most important cause of foreign language anxiety among (Western) language learners? If not, what is the most important cause according to the scientific literature?

(Note: native speakers of Japanese are excluded from the scope of this question.)

  • What anxiety do you mean? failing at learning, using the language (e.g. speaking it in front of others), etc. Commented May 9, 2019 at 6:57
  • 1
    @MathieuBouville As you can see from the definition, it can refer both to learning and using the language.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 11:24
  • How probable is it for language learners to get this anxiety? Depending on the number, it is very difficult to answer, given that very few Westerners learn Chinese.
    – Blaszard
    Commented May 11, 2019 at 15:40
  • I don't have hard evidence to back this up (hence the comment), but I would argue that it stems from Chinese people repeatedly insisting on speaking English. Time and time again, a learner will speak in understandable Chinese, and they'll switch to English usually beginning with "your Chinese is very good". (It's worse on university campuses, and outside of China.) Commented Dec 23, 2019 at 12:49

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure of any formal studies that prove which element would cause the most anxiety per se for learning Chinese, but intuitively it would seem to make sense as in this article. If difficulty = anxiety, there is no question that this would be the number one cause of anxiety. No detailed explanation as to difficulty is elaborated here, but it clearly shows that Chinese is among the most difficult for native ENGLISH SPEAKERS (not native speakers of other languages.)

From my experience, a close second to learning new characters would be the tonal aspect of Chinese. I would argue that this compounds the difficulty of learning the characters. Here is an interesting study that was done to compare language learning of tonal languages between two groups- one that had learned a tonal language, in this case Mandarin, as a native language and the other, English speakers. In this study, they both tried to learn Cantonese.

  • Tones are more problematic for natives of certain languages, but the writing system is equally hard for all but Japanese (and old Koreans). Commented May 11, 2019 at 9:06

Speaking for myself, it would be nervousness about speaking Chinese in an English-speaking environment as someone who doesn't look like a native speaker. Even at a Chinese restaurant that caters to Mandarin speakers, I worry about making a fool of myself if I try to speak it. This is despite my being reasonably conversational.

  • Please be aware that I am specifically asking for scientific literature.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented May 19, 2019 at 17:35

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