So there’s this guy sitting next me on the train and he keeps looking expectantly at my face. I’m trying to politely avoid engaging him because I have my own thoughts to entertain for the duration of this short ride. But he just can’t resist and, like a child tempted by candies in a jar, he just has to blurt out his intentions:
“Let’s have an English conversation now.”
“Ok. You first. Go!” He crosses his legs overeagerly in anticipation of this hoped-for ‘communicative encounter.’
“Umm hmm. Umm hmm. Go on,” he responds with a an impatient rolling hand gesture, urging me to continue. Nearby passengers, acutely aware of the jarring exchange in their midst are shuffling in discomfort, studiously looking anywhere else.
Thankfully, the awkward moment is interrupted by the announcement of my station.
“Sorry. My stop.” I get up.
“Thank you. Good effort. Ok, next?” He surveys the remaining passengers for his next conversation target as I alight…
OK, to be honest this never actually happened. But I can’t help imagining that this is how some of our students feel when pressed to converse in English. Just substitute the train for the high school or university classroom and the teacher for the oddball passenger. That passenger may well have been frustrated by the reticence and/or unwillingness of his target to engage him, but should he have been? Doesn’t the setting for ‘having a conversation’ come off as a bit odd, awkward, out-of-place? Yet if one carried out a generic analysis as to how teachers attempt to engage students in English classes in Japan (and often elsewhere) I wouldn’t be surprised if they followed a similar series of discourse ‘moves’.
On Jan. 2/2017, The Japan Times published a piece written by William Hollingworth entitled, ‘Study explores deafening silence in Japan’s English language classrooms’. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/01/02/national/study-explores-deafening-silence-japans-english-language-classes/#.WHbNdIVOKUk
This article focused upon the research of James King of Leicester University, U.K., who is looking into the phenomenon of silent English classes in Japan (having apparently spent 7 years teaching and teacher training in Japan previously).
Based on my own experience and discussions with fellow teachers in other East Asian countries I think this phenomenon could be applied elsewhere on the Asian continent, but Japan represents, arguably, the pinnacle of this type of behavior. The reticent, reluctant classroom (particularly from JHS and up, although the article focuses upon universities) is a common cause for frustration among many English teachers in Japan.
Initially the article put forth some cliche, heard-it-all-before, ‘cultural’ explanations, with the predictable inclusion of the old ‘they/we don’t want to stand out in class’ chestnut (the nail that sticks out and all that — yadda yadda). (Trigger warning — snarky commentary follows — This seemed to me standard fare of The Japan Times, which, for those unfamiliar with the tenor, is basically a newspaper written for a certain type of Westerner living in Japan, specifically the kind who need their expat-in-Japan tropes reaffirmed by reassuring them that Japan is behind the curve on most social issues and therefore needs to follow the advanced methods of Western countries. End snarkiness)
Fortunately, King dug a little deeper, offering more varied and complex explanations while warning of over-simplifactions (which, unfortunately, hasn’t deterred most commenters on the article). These include:
So let me now expound on some of the reasons I’ve noted for classroom silence in Japan, combining a number of the points King made… but with a few new twists.
“In most cases such classroom reticence is … an admirable example of social self-restraint”
First, with a bullet, why on earth does anyone think that academic classrooms (not conversation schools) should or would be a place in which you have ‘conversations’ ? (and yes, I’m separating conversation from the broader category of speech for the moment). The very nature of a conversation is that it is organically or spontaneously generated. They are, as a rule, not demanded by one side, forced upon others, constrained by the need to use a certain linguistic form, or to be completed within, say, three minutes. Hence the awkward encounter on the train that I opened with. A commuter train is not an appropriate or expected place to suddenly initiate a conversation with a ‘target’.
In Asian universities in particular, classrooms are thought of primarily as places where students are to gain academic skills, not to spout their own opinions (and, oh yes, they certainly have opinions) — much less as locations for engaging in light-hearted banter. True, academic institutions in Asia are increasingly incorporating explicit discussion groups/sessions and tutorials in which extended academic exchanges are encouraged, but again, these are settings distinct from the standard lesson classroom environment. The idea, then, that classroom time should be used for something as frivolous as talking to a classroom partner, who you don’t really know, about what they did over the summer seems 1. unnatural and forced, and 2. inappropriate for institutes of higher learning. Once again you can easily draw connections to the commuter train conversation.
Tied to this is a cultural factor — not one that is ‘uniquely Japanese’ but more of a general attribute common to most East Asian cultures: Most students feel that it is self-indulgent to ask questions or provide spontaneous commentary in a classroom because it is simply not good manners, in such a place, to force others to listen to your ‘important’ contribution. The class time is not yours alone. Other people may not be interested in hearing or addressing whatever you might be thinking. In most cases such reticence is not due to conformity or obsequiousness to the authority of the teacher, but is rather an admirable example of social self-restraint — a sign of being a mature member of society.
This also explains why teacher-generated open questions, off-the-cuff attempts at discussion topics, and queries addressed to the whole class fail miserably in Japan. There’s a time and a place — and in the Asian academic classroom, these are as out-of-place as a synthesizer solo at a Taiko concert.
“Getting them to talk doesn’t automatically make the class more student-centered or learning-centered”
The ‘silence as protest’ and ‘silence from confusion’ factors also weight in here. If students don’t think what they are required to speak out is relevant to their overall learning goals, if they can’t see how it fits into the lesson, the course, their holistic educational or skills development, then they’ll resist. Wisely. These are not small children anymore. They will be aware when you are having them talk just for the sake of talking (feeling manipulated, like the guy on the train) and will be even less responsive if the task is not academically challenging, childish, repeats well-charted territory, or has no apparent educational or cognitive purpose. In short, simply getting them to talk doesn’t automatically make the class more student-centered or learning-centered. It’s just another manifestation of teacher control — in this case a rather mindless one. I’d clam up too.
So what techniques or principles do I propose to initiate productive speech (note that I didn’t use the term ‘conversation’) in the classroom?
Now, have a conversation about this blog post with the person currently seated next to you. You have three minutes and must include a subjunctive. Go!