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Understanding Your Japanese Students

Understanding Your Japanese Students
By Andrew Moxon

Teaching is without doubt one of the finest professions one can become involved in. To play a part in another’s educational growth can be rewarding on many levels. Within the hands of the classroom teacher lay the future possibilities and potential of the student. Their hopes, wishes and dreams can often begin the fulfillment process in the classroom. However, it goes without saying that students are different. Some learn quicker than others. While some seem to have a natural gift for learning or absorbing information. This is no more evident than in the ESL setting. Here, the teacher will be confronted with not only the task of imparting keys to the second language, but also will need to deal with a variety of already established language ability learned from a variety of sources from comics, TV, native speakers and from teachers at high school whose usage and understanding of English may not be the most sound. Thus, the teacher’s role is not only to teach a standard framework of skills (grammar, listening, reading, writing and the all important conversation) but also unpick those inaccuracies acquired in the Mother Culture. In addition to this there is Cultural Influence and this is an area of understanding quite often neglected in the classroom.

When there is a class of mixed nationalities, it is generally not too difficult to identify the ‘stand outers’. For example, most European nationalities and South Americans are not afraid of verbalizing their points of view even though grammar and pronunciation may not be accurate. However, the South American and European cultures tend to be more outgoing as part of their cultural pattern. Saudi Arabian students, especially the ladies, appear to be more studious and therefore more reserved, also controlled by their cultural constraints. Added to this cultural combination are Asian (Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese and more recently Chinese) students who more often than not, tend to represent the higher numbers in the Australian ESL classroom, also controlled by their own cultural limitations. And whereas it may be said that students, no matter where they are from, are students and therefore the same rule of thumb can be applied, this risks forfeiting student development for the sake of standard practice. There are many factors which dictate how well, or badly, an Asian student does or does not progress in the learning of a second language in the target language environment. In the following discussion, Japanese examples will be given as: a) these are the writer’s experience of having lived in Tokyo for some 10 years and b) are fairly representative of the Asian learning model in general.

Japanese society is an organized society founded on the important principle of ‘Kata’. This broadly means there are long established roles and rules which help to ensure that the balance and harmony within society is maintained and education in these begins from a very early age. The Japanese understand the protocols and keep quite rigidly within them. However, these same protocols have led to serious misunderstandings when naturally applied in an overseas learning environment.

‘The Japanese have nothing to say’.

In general, it can be said that Japanese learning is very much passive. This stems from the ancient Chinese system where learning was the prerogative of the elite and the best employment situations were to be found in the administration of national and local government. Thus it was required that students be of the highest level and having studied under the most prominent scholars of the day where one was required to listen and learn. To a large degree, little has changed and this is worth keeping in mind. Especially for those teachers who are as yet unfamiliar with teaching Asian students.

In classroom speaking activities, teachers will note their Japanese/Asian students will respond well to topics such as sports, hobbies, interests, family and so forth. But when asked why they like these activities or what especially they like or enjoy about them they are less forthcoming. Asking about global or social issues is also likely to return a more negative response. In regards to the first point, in the Japanese view, liking or simply enjoying something, someone or activity need go no further than that. He, or she, simply likes or enjoys. The reason for this need not be analyzed. If a Japanese friend were to tell about taking up rock climbing, for example, other friends would simply say how good or great it was and possibly say they had often thought about doing something similar. Very few would volunteer to ask the whys or wherefores for this choice. When it comes to more complicated topics and questions, teachers often come up against either a minimal response or nothing. But this is not because the Japanese student has no views but rather because analysis plays little or no part in daily life and in the classroom at school.

Another important aspect of Japanese communication is what is not said. In general, the Japanese do not like to deal with complex issues, especially in public. And for the student, this spills over into the classroom earning them the reputation of having nothing to say on anything of depth or importance. The reason for this ‘appearance’ is largely concerned with what is appropriate to say and how strongly, and more importantly how a response may affect the speaker who asked the question. This is to say, it is better to say little or nothing rather than cause possible embarrassment. Especially if the response is strong. Thus, the student will sit in on a paired activity contributing little and being able to withstand any ‘pushing’ to respond. Which raises another key point in understanding the Japanese mind.

In Western systems of education, individualism is encouraged. Asking a question in class may receive many responses. Ask an individual student a question and some form of response can be guaranteed. Indeed, in the Western classroom setting, individuals may even freely volunteer questions and responses. Or perhaps even challenge what the teacher has said. All of which goes to promoting a healthy study environment. In contrast, Japanese society functions on ‘group-ism’. Groups play an important role in all aspects of Japanese society. And not surprisingly, this is also found in the classroom. When there are activities, they are carried out within one’s group with the ‘Sempai’ or group leader taking charge. There is no real equivalent definition of ‘Sempai’. Even ‘Group leader’ does not accurately convey what this position is. In Japanese society, however, it is very clear. It is a position of trust and authority in which the Sempai is quite often the link between the group and the teacher. Within a class then, there will be different groups, under different Sempai and all competing with each other. Nobody wants to let their group or Sempai down. As a natural consequence, all decisions or responses are made by the group with the Sempai supplying the outcome. Individuals are rarely asked to respond to questions or volunteer opinions. Even though a student may have an answer, he or she will rarely give it on the off chance it may be incorrect, thereby ‘letting the side down’.

Western teachers, in contrast, may particularly target a student as a means of sounding out the student’s depth of ability. A question may be given and even extended. If the student is unsure, the teacher may resort to prompting or redirecting until the student begins to understand and respond more clearly. In the Japanese classroom, this strategy simply does not work. Students do not like to be cut out from their group and often feel threatened by a well-meaning teacher when they are and this may be for a combination of reasons. The student may genuinely not know how to respond; there is the embarrassment of being singled out; the pressure of group responsibility and shared class embarrassment (as other students in the class empathize). In the ESL setting, teachers will hear students say they want to communicate with ‘foreigners’ (the Japanese still have a clear division between themselves and others). And this may be truly a heartfelt wish, but breaking through cultural constraints is difficult. Asking a student to give personal views is problematic. Even for Upper Intermediate and Advanced levels, Asian students will mostly work within their comfort zone. Strategies such as argument and speculation they find difficult in that these are almost unchartered waters.

Being aware of cultural background, the ESL teacher can begin to establish new ground for the Japanese/Asian student. However, extending ability is not enough, the student also needs to be guided in to a new area of confidence: to be able to give their views without the restrictions of cultural concern; to be able to volunteer views even though they may not be in agreement with others; to raise objections when appropriate. Those traits Western students willingly show, need to be carefully implanted into the learner’s skills base if they are to function effectively in the second language and in particular going on to tertiary study. Japanese/Asian students need to be made aware that the western way of education is more flexible and an essential key is interaction; to be able to freely participate.

Often, Japanese students say other students dominate in speaking activities. This is a result of not interrupting others while they are speaking. It is considered extremely impolite. But if it is explained that interruption is an essential skill in the discussion process and is therefore acceptable, students can then begin to make inroads to this particular form of communication although teachers should not expect overly strong interjections. The Japanese will remain polite even when interrupting.

To Western non-native speakers of English, the second language can become a convenient extension with very little cultural interference, as there are many cultural similarities. Being outspoken, body language and gestures, the expression of personal views and interruption are natural aspects of western communication, but not in Asia. Thus in the ESL classroom, more thought needs to be given to how these subtle communication keys are introduced so that the learners’ skill is enhanced and not distanced.

It can be seen then, that teaching Japanese students is, to a large degree, to meet the culture head on and Japanese culture is complex. What is seen in the classroom, in many cases, is the tip of a much deeper iceberg. There seems to be very little awareness to how much pressure Asian students are under and how much responsibility and obligation they have. Often, the expectations they have are unrealistic. All of which, in addition to the cultural dimension, can make progress difficult. But with understanding and care, ways can be found to help them overcome the many barriers they have.

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