LONDON – English-language teachers in Japan often complain about being met by a wall of silence when they ask students to talk in class.
But until now there has been little, if any, academic research into the reasons why Japanese pupils are particularly afflicted by a reluctance to speak in a second language.
Jim King, an expert in linguistics at Leicester University in central England, has been looking into this phenomenon and recently presented his findings in London to an audience of Japan experts and educationalists.
King, who has experience of teaching in Japan, argues that Japanese students are often unresponsive due to a multitude of factors, including psychology, culture and teaching methods.
The academic, who studied the behavior of 924 students at nine different universities, discovered many had a “neurotic dread” that their English was not up to scratch and felt that if they tried to use it they would “lose face” among friends.
This hypersensitivity and constant feeling of being monitored inhibits their willingness to contribute, King concluded from his hours of classroom observations and interviews.
He also found that many teachers spoke too much and gave students little opportunity to practice their English among themselves. Considerable time was spent translating English text into Japanese.
King believes Japanese students may be more at ease with silence in class due to cultural practices that emphasize the importance of being indirect, deferring to authority and not wanting to stand out in a crowd, for example.
But he cautions against relying solely on stereotypes and previous studies which indicate a greater tolerance toward silence in East Asian cultures.
Indeed, one of his later experiments with British and Japanese students showed similar levels of unease when the teacher stopped speaking and the classroom fell silent.
“I think culture can lay the foundation or backdrop to explain some of this silence,” King said. “Many Japanese learners are socialized into being aware of people around them and are taught to consider other people. This causes people to monitor themselves.”
The academic observed 30 classes for a total of 48 hours and found “irrefutable evidence” of silence. A large portion of the classroom time was spent eith