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Speak Here Now! Why the silence in Japanese classrooms?

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.”


“Huh? Wh–?”


“Ok. You first. Go!” He crosses his legs overeagerly in anticipation of this hoped-for ‘communicative encounter.’


“Huh? Why…?”


“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…



train convo



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’.

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:

  1. Fear of mistakes or embarrassment regarding their English ability, with a Waseda Univ. linguistics professor adding that students might think that they have to converse at an unrealistic native-speaker level. (IMO this is over-rated as a factor since the majority of such students are low intermediate speakers, so strength in numbers and all that. However, the Japanese predilection for ‘not performing until perfected’ is indeed a significant cultural consideration)
  2. Possible face loss (often connected to the above) (a little too pat, and slightly orientalist)
  3. Cultural factor of a high degree of awareness of others in the classroom (this is huge — read later)
  4. Teacher-controlled/centered classrooms, with sensei’s input being viewed as the central feature of the lesson, thus inhibiting active student participation, which is thereby often limited to mere one-word responses or choral repetition (no doubt — scattershot lesson planning and poor classroom management skills are mainly to blame here, and I’ve seen this equally among Japanese and NJ teachers)
  5. Cliques and, often related to group dynamics, a deliberate ‘dumbing down’ by more proficient students (this is a new, interesting factor, and certainly not one unique to Japan)
  6. Inability to understand the teacher, resulting in silence, and, no, silence is not considered some kind of inherent Japanese classroom virtue (absolutely — and again true for both Japanese and NJ teachers. I will address native English speakers who seem to have problems using English in my next blog post)
  7. Silence as a type of protest for unchallenging or uninspiring lessons (Right on — read on)
  8. Lack of motivation due to easy passing standards and speaking as not being viewed as sufficiently important by ‘the system’ (the former is, IMO, a minor factor while the latter seems to be a perfectly reasonable response to me, given that over 90% of high school students will never have reason to utter more than a few sentences in English and will almost certainly use the language more for reading and writing. No, it is not only due to the university entrance exams…)


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?


  1. Any extended classroom speech activity or content should be student-to-student, not teacher-student.
  2. The reason, goal, or purpose of the speaking activity should be clear. It should be clear how it connects to larger classroom/institution goals and previous/ following lessons and activities. Also, for learners beyond puberty, it’s not likely to be ‘fun’ unless it has a point. Given this, content trumps form.
  3. Topics for productive speech much be cognitively stimulating or otherwise challenging. And no, talking to classmates about your winter holiday plans or shopping habits meets neither of these criteria.
  4. Students will usually need some preparation time for speaking. Give it to them. This is not to formulate grammatical detail but to help them frame the contents (good old ‘schema activation’).
  5. In cases where the teacher wants a verbal response from students the type of response that would be appropriate should be made very, very clear in advance. Teachers should make developing clear instructions and explanations of tasks/activities the focal point of their lesson plans.
  6. Rotate partners regularly. Have meaningful extensions ready for more proficient students.
  7. Be very clear to separate prestige speech production (anything done in front of the whole class or for grading purposes) from practice or fruitful discussion.
  8. King’s helpful suggestions: Break up cliques, and, don’t focus overtly on error correction.


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!





Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

3 Responses to Speak Here Now! Why the silence in Japanese classrooms?

  1. Give students a paradigm. something they are familiar with (maybe one new element)
    Tell them to create a conversation based on the paradigm (their own thoughts and words)
    Tell them that if they do if satisfactorily ( no eeeto, nandeke or unnatural pauses) they can go

    This does a lot to eliminate silence. (course it is only appropriate at the end of the class)

  2. Hi Jim.

    Curious as to what you mean by a ‘paradigm’. Do you mean skeleton forms or frames such as set openings, transitions, closings etc?

    Personally, I’m more focused in my teacher training classes upon the external features of a given spoken activity. This includes understanding why students are required to do this activity, what the communicative point is(non-grammatical), how does it connect with what students are doing utilizing other skills, how does it fit in with what students did before or will do after this activity, how it advances their knowledge/skill (linguistic or other cognitive) as a whole, especially in terms of the goals of the course or curriculum. If these are clear and meaningful I find that students are more willing to actively engage.

  3. A: Greet B
    B: Greet A
    A: Ask a “Do” question.
    B: Answer
    A: Ask a “Wh-” follow question.
    This is adapted to level and what we are focusing on. The conversations are progressive with various functions (like asking for repetition) introduced and then used every time.

    Talking advances skills. (Swain Output Hypothesis).

    We do this a lot, to the point that the students groan when I introduce the exercise. I laugh (diabolically) and explain that talking takes practice just like serving a tennis ball or playing a guitar riff. I tell them that if they practice, they will be able to talk with a foreigner. Not panic, like so often happens. They will be able to ask and answer questions, ask for repetition or clarification, change the subject etc etc. They will have the skills necessary to carry on a conversation.

    No further justification is necessary

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