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 either with the teacher talking or the entire class in silence, reading, writing or listening to audio devices. Conversations initiated by students constituted a startling 0.21 percent of the total time.
He observed cliques in some classes that inhibited students from participating.
Of course, in some cases, the silence was because the students genuinely did not understand the teacher.
However, King said English standards in Japan are not as poor as frequently claimed and often the best speakers feel they have to dumb themselves down in order to fit in with their respective group.
At other times, students said they kept quiet as a kind of protest if they felt the lessons were not sufficiently challenging.
But the problems are more fundamental than just psychological factors, and stem from teaching styles and the educational system.
King noted that students knew they would get a pass simply by attending some first-year compulsory English lessons at university.
“There was no reason for them to talk. Talking would be risky. Sitting quiet was the sensible option,” he said.
And he also thinks that by the time they reach university, many people are already socialized into keeping quiet because junior high and high schools do not sufficiently value the skill of being able to speak English.
Traditional teaching styles left students “disengaged,” and often they were only required to give a one-word reply. King witnessed quite a few students dozing off during classes that involved little interaction in the second language.
King, who spent seven years in Japan as a teacher trainer and lecturer, says teachers must be prepared to step back and let their students speak and not try to fill the silence if they do not initially get a response.
Teachers should encourage task-based activities in groups and pairs and allow time at the start of lessons for a general chat. The instructor must ensure their use of language is appropriate to the level of the class and not spend so much time correcting errors.
They should also shake up the composition of groups and seating arrangements in class to prevent cliques from developing.
Kazuya Saito, a linguistics lecturer at the University of London who has taught English at Waseda University, said: “The causes of silence are multifaceted . . . and depend on context. It is very difficult to make generalizations.
“In my classrooms at Waseda, a questionnaire of students showed silence was due to them being afraid of making errors and placing great importance on achieving the same level of accuracy as a native speaker. They were also unfamiliar with conversational activities.”
Saito encouraged conversations with native speakers and saw significant improvements among his students. He believes all the relevant agencies in Japan need to coordinate their efforts to increase the level of spoken English.
King’s book “Silence in the Second Language Classroom” is published by Palgrave Macmillan.