It was completely ridiculous the first time I heard it. Of course there is a whole community of dog owners who purchase entire wardrobes of clothes for their best friends, but this was taking it to an uncharted level. The first time a colleague told me she put her anxious little dog in a tight-fitting jacket to calm him down during thunderstorms, I had to fight back the urge to reach for my pepper spray. Okay, I don’t carry pepper spray, but if it hadn’t been for the fact that this person’s approval was essential during my university tenure review process, I might have laughed out loud. Instead, I courteously smiled and said, “Really?” in the most interested voice I could muster. But it turns out this is a thing. It’s called a ThunderShirt. If you have a dog that gets nervous or scared during stormy weather, you simply strap this neoprene-like sweater around him or her and cinch it down tight with velcro latches. Just imagine what we Americans call a pig in a blanket, a small sausage wrapped in a biscuit, but with that biscuit squeezing the hotdog to the point of near explosion at both ends. Yes, that technique seems to solve animal anxiety. I know, wow.

Decreased Anxiety Leads to Better Learning

As funny as this sounds, the reality is that it really seems to work. No, I have never stuffed a helpless animal in a spandex straightjacket, but from online testimonies, this practice seems to work. Believe it or not, the concept is grounded in some legitimate research regarding anxiety and what we can do to decrease anxiety brought on by certain stimuli. Similar research has also indicated that when we, humans, can reduce anxiety, we tend to learn better. About a decade ago I conducted a study on teacher immediacy behaviors and found that teachers have the ability to create a calm classroom atmosphere wherein student learning is enhanced. What was significant about this study was that it was performed in speech classes. That’s right, speech class. Public speaking is our number one fear, with death coming in at second place. So that means people would generally rather die than go through a speech class. But this was the perfect setting for studying how teacher-directed classroom environment could affect student learning. We could talk some pretty boring stats here, but what we found was super interesting. When a teacher helped a student relax about giving speeches, the student’s overall learning increased. In other words, decreased anxiety leads to increased learning.

What is interesting here is that the same is true across many contexts, including language acquisition. A large percentage of language learning programs, and certainly some of the best, require students to live among people groups wherein they can immerse themselves in the target language. This makes sense. If we are forced to use a skill, we are more likely to master it over time. So placing someone among target language populations has proven to greatly increase language acquisition leveling. In many of these cases, students choose or are required to move abroad to Mexico City to immerse in Spanish, Paris to practice French, or Moscow to master Russian. And it works. But not always.

Acculturation Aptitude Aids in Language Learning

Just like the scared student in speech class or the anxious dog in the thunderstorm, we can become extremely distracted by acculturation factors when relocating to learn a language. Peripheral studies have alluded to the importance of acculturation aptitude for adequate second language learning in a host culture. But cultural relocation is difficult for most people. In fact, the failure rate for relocation sits at 64%, or nearly two out of every three people. There is a myriad of reasons why certain individuals struggle to acculturate, or become at ease in a new culture, but the truth remains that if we are going to improve target language skills while abroad, we must simultaneously focus on the skills necessary to feel at ease. Remember, decreased anxiety leads to increased learning. If you are currently, or are planning to, live abroad where you must learn or practice a new language, consider these helpful tips to keep you on your feet and socially engaged.

1. Fight Reclusivity with Scheduled Outings
Set consistent dates with new, developing relationships early on so that when you begin to experience the lull of the U-Curve and find yourself preferring to just stay in the apartment rather than engage with the locals, you will have a set agenda to keep you out and about.

2. Avoid Like-Minded Peers
When relocating abroad, it is normal to seek others who share your cultural baggage. In fact, this is so normal that in many expat-heavy countries it is quite simple to locate and surround yourself with others from your home culture. There is something comfortable about escaping the challenges of acculturation to the group dinners of bemoaning the cultural divide and the anecdotes of how each person despises his or her current plight. Don’t fall for this optical illusion; it does not improve your experience abroad and it certainly does nothing for your language acquisition.

3. Become a Teacher
While meeting people and making friends during the honeymoon stage of culture shock, make a commitment to help someone learn English. Yes, you came to this place to learn a second language, but just think how valuable your contribution would be to a local young adult if you promise to speak English to him or her on a weekly basis. This selfless act will in-turn prove beneficial to you because it gives you a rewarding reason to push through cultural discomfort and engage.

 

Dr. Justin Velten is President of Go Culture International, a leading online assessment and coaching program for global expats. Dr. Velten has published numerous academic research manuscripts on acculturation and shared helpful insight at a number of national and international conferences during his 14-year tenure as a college professor.