CHAPTER 4 THE USE OF SILENCE
Roy Miller, in his book Japan's Modern Myth, argues against the mythical proportions attributed to the difficulty in learning Japanese or the impossibility of acquiring fluency in silence. 1 As someone who has attempted to master both, I would be more sympathetic with the opinion of Saint Francis Xavier, the sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary to Japan, who called the Japanese language the devil's tongue. Both spoken and silent Japanese demand considerable study.
The use of silence in communication is not an exclusively Japanese phenomenon and all languages make extensive use of it. In Japan, however, it is a particularly important part of the language, and I have found it helpful knowing how to use it. Each day in the classroom, I find myself becoming more aware of what my students are saying when they are not speaking, in those delicate pauses placed inside their comments. I am beginning to understand better what is actually being said.
While we in the West have fine-tuned ourselves to listen for hidden meaning in the words, trying to read between the lines, Japanese students listen to the silences, for hidden innuendo and deeper meaning, almost as if reading between the words. Just as the white space on the paper in Japanese graphics is an integral part of the design, spoken Japanese flows among the silent spaces. Silence speaks loudly and clearly to the Japanese, much like the emptiness found in Zen rhetoric, or the silent spaces surrounding the notes of a bamboo flute. There are many examples in Japanese culture where silence expresses meaning with great force or subliminal elegance.
In the EFL classroom, where fluency is developed through spontaneous use of the new language, silence can be frustrating for the teacher. The teacher struggles to understand what has caused the silence and how it may be overcome. A Western student may use silence to draw the listener in, to slow down the flow of events, or encourage the teacher to pay attention while the student justifies or explains. In the Japanese classroom, however, silence may be a polite acknowledgment of failure or inability. Students often assume there is only one specific way to answer, as is customary in test-oriented Japanese education. Silence signals to the teacher to move on to the next student, maintaining the flow and harmony within the classroom.
While an American student may try and explain his dilemma, the Japanese student, particularly the majority unfamiliar with foreign expectations, will tend to become more reticent. Seldom will the student abandon the silence. This may appear to be obstinacy from the viewpoint of a non-Japanese instructor. To the student however, either silence or the correct answer is the only socially acceptable reaction. The teacher needs either to instruct the student in a variety of correct reactions, or to design exercises which take the spotlight off the student. The student's identity among his or her peers is usually the students first concern. From the students perspective, their ability to adjust to their own society will serve them far more than acquiring a foreign style of expression.
Students who consistently follow the behavior patterns of the target culture and not their own, may face social ostracism and even employment and marriage problems further down the line. Though this may seem extreme, it is a factor that students and analysts often use to explain student behavior in the EFL classroom.
The following are all social skills far more useful to most students than learning English;
A students ability to keep his or her opinion silent, surrendering to the will of the group or those in charge.
A students ability to sublimate strong emotional reactions with polite silence, for the sake of harmony within the group.
A womens femininity expressed with silent blushed innocence and lowered eyes.
A mans strength expressed with his silent stoic stare of defiance.
The first step in overcoming silence is to recognize its importance to the student, and then to find ways to encourage the small talk and other social language skills which are considered equally useful within the framework of the culture.
As advanced students move up to new challenging levels, they begin to face the issue of two distinct codes of behavior. Most learn to deal with the Western anxieties towards Japanese silence by developing two distinct ways of communicating, one for the Japanese environment and one for Western audiences. Within the framework of the Japanese classroom, the code of silence will almost always take precedence over the Western argumentative and expressive forms of classroom behavior. However, in an environment where most people are non-Japanese, as the students familiarity with Western patterns grow, eventually Western patterns of behavior can take over.
For those teachers working in Japan, silence remains a crucial element in the classroom. Learning to accept its presence calmly, to read the messages behind it clearly, and to develop methodology to work around it, or even with it, is essential. The following section is an overview of the different kinds of silences that I have come to understand in the Japanese classroom.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------1 Miller, Roy, Japans Modern Myth, Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1982.