CHAPTER 6 CONCLUSION
To summarize what I have stated thus far, the key factors for understanding the prominent use of non-verbals and silence in the Japanese EFL classroom are:
Students are traditionally not encouraged to speak out of turn, or in ways that suggest a challenge to the authority of others. This Confucian educational tradition, which later adapted the European lecture and Grammar translation methods, encourages students to remain silent, placing emphasis on nonverbal signaling in classroom communication.
Speaking often is not as necessary, as it is in American classrooms. Japan is a high context culture in which students already assume the meaning behind interpersonal activity. In a low context culture, as in North America or in Northern Europe, explanation is considered part of social etiquette, making speaking-up more important than in Japan.
Japanese students retain a positive trust in implied or intuitive meaning, and less in dialectical skills. While Western education draws its sources in the Socratic techniques of exposing false beliefs and eliciting truth through dialectics, Japanese education evolves out of Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, where all intellectually inspired ideas are suspect, experience and intuition taking precedence over thought. This places more emphasis on the gestalt of each moment and not the ideas behind them.
Japanese culture assumes an interdependence and commonality within each group. Values are to be shared and assumed and are considered essential for harmony. Complaisance in the group presupposes a collective consciousness that needn't be articulated. Western pluralistic societies require much more negotiation for consensus, and so sharing divergent opinions in discussion is a respected part of Western education, not necessarily encouraged in Japan.
Expressing divergent, conflicting opinions is considered rude. In pre-Meji Japan, sword carrying Samurai could kill commoners for ill-chosen words. To express the slightest nuance of disrespect could result in instant death. Though Samurai no longer walk the streets of Japan, remnants of their values still exist, with students hesitant to express themselves spontaneously.
Students are insecure about their English abilities, most having had very little first hand experience expressing themselves, despite years of English study.
Students, particularly those from the smaller cities and towns, have had very little experience being with Westerners, and often feel ill-prepared for Western instructors and their expectations.
Many students study throughout their educational careers in all-boy or all-girl schools, and so feel flustered and insecure in coed classes, or with teachers of the opposite sex.
In situations where two people do not share a common language, as in a Japanese classroom where the teacher does not speak Japanese, it is a natural tendency to use body sign language. Unfortunately these signs may not necessarily be recognizable, based on different cultural traditions.
Conversely, the use of non-verbals and silence by Japanese students in the EFL classroom can create situations which are not advantageous:
Western teachers cannot completely comprehend the implied meaning of students and therefore may miss clues to their learning needs.
Teachers may wish to encourage spontaneous use of the target language, and discourage students from mental translation or oral reticence.
Students may trigger Western teacher's anxieties about silence or reliance on non-verbals in the classroom, or appear indifferent, or hostile, to the teacher.
Students need to eventually comprehend the linguistical and social patterns of the target language, including the appropriate use of non-verbals.
Despite these differences, between the realities of the Japanese classroom and the needs of the EFL instructor, Western instructors may wish to employ patience before stepping in to correct what may appear to be excessive use of silence or non-verbals. As Charles A. Curran writes . . .one runs the danger of overstanding, thereby creating defense and resistance on the part of others. This can happen, for example, when one is teaching, or otherwise offering instruction or information that is threatening or confronting; he or she will then have to cease standing for and begin to understand if open communication is to be once again restored. 1 Given the realities of the Japanese classroom that have been discussed thus far, the following steps can be recommended:
Vary exercises, to allow students with different learning styles to find ways to join in. As students may be reacting to a wide variety of factors, silence and restlessness may be a sign that the situation is uncomfortable. Unfortunately Japanese students find it difficult to express directly when and why they are not responding well to a lesson.
Solicit feedback, through written journals, private interviews, and exercises that allow students to discuss their feelings and ideas about the class. Among other advantages, this has helped me understand better the nonverbal messages sent by students that I may have found puzzling.
Design lesson plans and class activities around related themes, i.e., nonverbal communication, contrasting cultural behavior, techniques for answering verbally questions normally answered with silence, ways of saying a no and a yes in English, etc. As students learn of the differences, and how they cause cultural miscommunication, they will usually make an effort to overcome them.
Look for subtle body movements and facial changes in your students. I find the more carefully I watch for nonverbal clues, the better I get at guessing the feelings of my students. Though I still may misread my students, by showing an active interest in my students, they become more willing to express themselves to me.
- Look to the face to monitor subconscious forces, like the emotional response of a student to the interaction.
- Look to the hands to intercept messages being sent to the teacher or other students.
- Look to body gestures to receive the broad theatrical displays used to rectify or clarify a student's social message. This tells how the student wishes to convey himself or herself to the class.
The challenge of teaching English as a foreign language in Japan continues to test the skills of the serious EFL professional. Though Japan spends more money on English education than any other nation, it can still be considered a monolingual society. Most college students have studied English for six to eight years, yet most feel incapable of saying even the most rudimentary things in English.
Of course this kind of statistical view of language training is misleading. Most of the money spent on language learning is in fact throwing good money after bad. Yet many good programs have been born from it. Class sizes remain too large, many programs are ill directed, with institutional change slow and not necessarily helpful. Yet I cannot help but feel, as I continue to meet new dynamic EFL professionals working on my campuses each year, that new answers are just around the corner.
Though Japanese students do in fact study English in high school, they do so from nonnative speakers who, in many cases, cannot speak English. Often these English teachers stress grammatical rules and vocabulary, designed to help students pass college entrance examinations. Yet each year I meet students inspired by their high school teacher enough to make the study of English a life long pursuit. And each year, from a variety of factors, students seem to be getting better and better.
Despite this cycle of non-speakers teaching non-speakers, or perhaps because of it, a fertile field exists here in Japan. All over the country, teachers are sowing seeds of English into the hearts of millions of young Japanese students. From these seeds blossom enthusiasm and interest, recognizable by that special sparkle in their eyes. New students come each spring stronger and more willing to learn, than ever before.
My task at the university is to nurture this fragile flower of interest, so that it may bloom again and again throughout each student's life. For me, the tough part about this nurturing, has been putting my teaching methodology into cultural perspective. While at college in New York, I enjoyed debating controversial issues in spicy fervor, testing the skills of my peers, while improving my own argumentative talents. As this thesis tries to illustrate, this is not how people generally learn speaking skills in Japan.
While my friends and I would accelerate the intensity of the discussion by jumping in with witticisms, critique, and challenges, here I find meaning dependent on inferred and subtle innuendo, accented with seas of silence. Here my style appears rude and one-sided, lacking the very qualities of subtlety and strength I believe I had in New York. I find myself diving into this silence, desperately trying to fill a void, an emptiness I am beginning to understand was always quite full of meaning, if I had only taken the time to see it.
Now is the time for me to grow, to become culturally multilingual, not only as a teacher but as a member of a world society. I have before me a wonderful opportunity, to overcome my American need to fill the silences and to learn to listen. Cross-cultural communication can be elegant and rich when care is taken.
As I allow myself to open up to the multitudes of nonverbal messages being sent by my students, I feel my classes improving. I am enjoying my classes more, because student behavior makes more sense to me now. I feel more in control and more relaxed, and just as important to me, my students appear more relaxed and more willing to try. The idiom Mi ni shimite wakaru (understanding seeps into my body) is how I feel about my evolution as a teacher in Japan. Much of what I experience still remains alien intellectually, yet if I allow my pores to remain open, intuitive insights seep through my skin and I feel that things do in fact make sense. As a teacher, where once I found alienation in the silences of my class, I now find moments of peace and inspiration. It is my hope that by describing what I have experienced and learned in the Japanese EFL classroom, I have helped other Western teachers to be aware of the challenges they face. I hope they can begin with greater understanding in order to become culturally multilingual and to teach more effectively in Japan.
1 Curran, Charles A., UNDERSTANDING, An Essential Ingredient in Human Belonging, East Dubuque, Illinois: Counseling-Learning Publications, 1978.