Language Shame: The Invisible Emotion?

Author: Dominique Galmiche, University of Nottingham


A variety of studies have shown that a number of emotions can be used to promote higher levels of engagement and motivation on the part of the language learner in the educational context, while some others can act as deterrents (Dewaele, 2011; Dörnyei, 2005, 2009; Gregersen & Horwitz, 2002; MacIntyre, 2002). Research on the role of negative emotions in the context of foreign language learning (FLL) and teaching has so far largely focused on the role of learner language anxiety (Dewaele, 2017; Horwitz, 2010; MacIntyre, 2017; Şimşek & Dörnyei, 2017).

Over several years working with learners, I have grown aware that, of all the emotions experienced during the language learning journey, shame could be a non-negligible factor that may contribute to students’ disengagement from L2 learning, and it is argued in this paper that this phenomenon has been conspicuously absent from many motivational theories and from applied linguists’ agenda. The fact that shame has been invisible in FLL research is all the more surprising as the detrimental role of negative emotions in the context of language learning and teaching has been clearly established over the past decades.

The present paper, drawn from my PhD dissertation, tries to fill this gap by unravelling some of the elusiveness surrounding language shame and suggests that researching this phenomenon is crucial to a better understanding of the language learner’s psychology. It is hoped that it will provide a springboard for the development of a new model of motivation in the field of second language acquisition (SLA) and help teachers become more attuned to their students’ emotional needs.

Methodology and participants

The main goals of the research project were to explore the phenomenon of L2-related shame in detail (Galmiche, 2014, 2017), generate context-sensitive insights about its nature and workings, and open up pathways for future research. The study revolved around the following research questions:

  1. What are the main sources of foreign language classroom shame (FLCS)?
  2. What may be the consequences of linguistic shame on learners and its manifestations?
  3. How far can learner characteristics such as (a) proficiency level, (b) strength of motivation, (c) number of years of study and (d) age contribute to FLCS?
  4. How does shame interact with other emotions?
  5. Why do some learners override the feeling of shame, why others do not?

The overarching hypothesis at the beginning of the research project was that shame might be a factor contributing to learners’ reluctance to use the TL and a predictor of their disengagement from FLL and of their ultimate achievement. An in-depth qualitative, interview-based approach was judged apt to capture the complexity and diversity of FLL, as it has the merit to provide depths of insights into a construct that is not easily observable for obvious ethical reasons and to remain open for variations in how learners experience language learning.

There were 34 participants in the study, 22 females, and 12 males, aged 13 to 49 − they had been studying English for 4 to 10 years at the time of the interviews. According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, their level of competence ranged from A1 to C2. The sample that was interviewed in the study was composed of miscellaneous participants, most of them apprentices in an Apprentice Training Centre (a vocational school) and in a GRETA (a public educational school for adults) from various stages of their studies, but also college, university students, a school principal, working mothers, unemployed people, and a football player. Out of the 34 interviewees, I selected 19 for the reason that the others claimed that they had never experienced shame but other negative emotions during their FLL journey (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Interviewees’ emotions distribution

Figure 1. Interviewees’ emotions distribution

In this paper, I deal mainly with the data coming from four focal participants because they yielded particularly insightful information about language-related shame and their testimonies revealed complex relationships between shame and L2 learning.

Findings, pedagogical implications and suggestions for future research

With its focus and approach, this paper addressed a number of current issues in language learning and teaching and suggests several possible future directions. By relying on in-depth, face-to-face interviews with French learners of FLs within the context of the language classroom, I could obtain data that allowed me to (1) explore the presence of shame in French learners of FLs in France, (2) assess the relationships between shame and learner behaviour, as well as the consequences of this emotion on the students’ engagement and (3) arrive at a deeper understanding of the effect of learners’ shame experiences on their L2 identity. The themes which emerged from the data were investigated against the research literature and language learning theories, and according to the research questions posed.

The analysis of the data of the four focal participants has provided a number of intriguing findings and interesting insights into the shame patterns within French L2 classrooms and it highlights the prevalence of this emotion within this particular educational context. The focal participants provided detailed and vivid descriptions of the antecedents, workings and consequences of FLCS. Among the participants who experienced shame, three profiles of learners and reaction styles have been identified: 1) those who do everything possible to avoid shame, 2) those who are resigned and quit L2 learning and 3) those who develop strategies of resilience and fight. The results confirm the belief that students’ engagement is related to their teacher’s motivational practices and attitudes, and they highlight the significant role of negative emotions, including shame, in the students’ willingness to pursue or give up the learning of a FL.

The analysis provided ample evidence and convincing support for claims that, due to the uniqueness of the language learning situation, shame is a prominent emotion in the French language classroom and may shape learners’ decision to pursue or give up the study of English.

Shame is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon which may emerge via diverse routes, in particular during oral tasks. Among skills, speaking the target language was reported to be the most liable to elicit shame (see Figure 2) because of the likelihood of displaying an incompetent self to others and of being ridiculed for making mistakes. Other powerful sources of language shame were reported to be the accent and the pronunciation (see Figure 3), and the participants reported feeling judged on the intelligibility and comprehensibility of their utterances. Likewise, poor vocabulary or grammar inaccuracy elicited shame in learners (see Figure 3).

By establishing links between teacher attitudes, the emergence of a shame-prone personality and student motivation, the study provides a first step toward putting the topic of shame on the teacher education agenda. Of course, teachers cannot do wonders, but it is my conviction that if teachers manage to consider their students’ emotions (positive and negative) in a more systematic manner, and if they work with them in a holistic way, this may result in tangible positive changes in students’ perception of FLL and may thus translate into higher motivation to learn and use the TL.

Although there is no single and straightforward solution to enhance learners’ self-esteem, teaching approaches can be found which create a comfortable and anxiety-free learning environment. Such an environment may lead learners to feel more secure, to be more motivated to take the risk of making mistakes and be less fearful of losing face.

Viewed from a dynamic systems theory perspective (DST), it clearly appears that single cause-effect explanations for the reasons why a significant number of French students are likely to experience shame during their FLL journey are not sustainable. Affective statements and shame-related issues appeared to have permeated nearly all the aspects of the data which emerged from the study, suggesting the significant influence, persistence and severity of this emotion in FLL.

The analysis of the results suggests that shame is such a widespread experience in France that French learners seem to be drawn towards a ‘natural’ tendency to experience this emotion in many domains. Said differently, shame is a paramount feature of the French language classroom, but my dataset revealed that it also features in French students’ lives outside of the FLL context; it was found that, when experienced regularly, this emotion may be conducive to the internalisation of shame, that is, the tendency to experience shame recurrently and in several walks of their lives results in a stable personality trait and a settled disposition. The data also show that shame is often bypassed or brushed under the carpet. The results of the study confirm research on shame in psychology (for a review on this topic, see Galmiche & Oades-Sese, 2020) and in particular that shame and identity are intertwined

The shame-prone language learner is a student who perceives FLL as an uncomfortable, destabilising and ego-threatening experience. The analysis of the data allowed me to propose a definition of language shame (Galmiche, 2017): Foreign language classroom shame can be seen as a complex, dynamic, self-evaluative and particularly debilitative and paralysing emotion arising in the specific context of the FL classroom, found at all levels of proficiency, and composed of a diversity of interrelated factors such as learner beliefs, self-perceptions, feelings, emotions, personality traits, as well as contextual variables (e.g. teacher, peers), and leading to enduring anxious states, avoidance of, or disengagement from FL learning and use, to a persistent diminished sense of self and perception of a flawed identity.


The findings of the present research make a strong case for developing teachers’ concern for their students ‘shame experiences. The scarcity of empirical studies in this area and the implications of the phenomenon and its connectedness with a number of variables and with identity make it an absolute necessity to investigate into it further. This project attests to the role played by affective factors, including shame experiences, in learners’ engagement with the learning of another language. The obvious implication of the study is to provide teachers with training concerning the role of emotion in FLL and teaching. Given that students’ lack of motivation to learn a FL and their reticence to use the TL within the context of the language classroom is a major issue in France, finding ways to raise teachers’ awareness of their students’ language learning histories and training them to detect in their learners those who may have suffered from shameful experiences at early stages of FLL should be a prominent concern.

To offer possible guidance for future research, it is hypothesized here that shame-reducing techniques would involve training students to become aware of their shame and “capitalize on the positive-broadening power of facilitative emotions” (Gregersen & MacIntyre, 2014, p. xiv). It has long been acknowledged that teachers and learning environments can have a notorious effect on learners’ emotions. Having an ‘unconditional positive regard’ (Rogers, 1957), that is, seeing students in a caring and non-judgmental manner, can be seen as a useful ingredient that contributes to turning FLL into an enjoyable experience.

The data also suggest that it is important that teachers “correct errors gently” (Horwitz, 2008) and help students learn from their mistakes and envision error as a necessary step towards progress. L2 learning should be seen as a process in which learners, after making mistakes, obtain feedback and make new attempts, and whenever feedback is provided in a respectful and tolerant manner, learners are likely to receive it as legitimate, less threatening and less demotivating.

It should be kept in mind though that the suggestions that are made may not be appropriate for every teaching context, or for learners of other FLs, from other cultures and countries, or with higher levels of proficiency. The affective variable of shame has its place as a valid subject for further investigation into the multifaceted and complex phenomena underlying the acquisition and use of an additional language.


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