One part of our jobs as ALTs is to introduce and promote culture. Arguably more important though, is to understand the culture of Japanese students, particularly when it comes to communication activities.

Note: This article is a summary and interpretation of "Japanese Learners' Reactions To Communicative English Lessons" by Ted Miller. A link to the original writing can be found at the bottom of this page. If you find this article interesting, the original writing is definitely worth reading.

Cultural Communication Norms

In many western cultures, individualism is a strong part of the culture and this is shown in the way westerners communicate. Each person is responsible for themselves, and it's important to speak up or be left out. A strong belief in equality also permeates western culture. This is shown in communication by how everyone's opinions are treated as equal. For example, those of lesser rank or experience within a company may feel no qualms venturing an opinion in a company meeting.

In Japanese culture, being conscious of the group is the emphasis and again, this is shown is communication styles. Everyone is aware of others in the group and conversations are more of a "take-a-turn" style. In group discussions, care is taken to sense the mood before opinions are shared. Status is also something that is valued in Japanese culture. In communication, those of lower rank or status often defer to those with higher rank.

Content-Student Culture Clash

With these two cultures that are almost opposite when it comes to communication values, it's easy to see why ALTs might have some difficulty teaching or executing activities. Especially for ALTs new to the job and without a nuanced understanding of Japanese culture, frustrating swing-and-miss experiences are to be expected.

We often want to give students a chance to communicate because, obviously, students should be communicating in English. The thing is, we can't expect students to become different people and start communicating with a completely new set of cultural values. The teacher from the study (linked below) approaches with obvious logic: "I expect Japanese people to be like Japanese people."

Student Sympathetic Teaching 

To create and run more successful communicative activities in your English class, you need to understand the culture underlying communication in your students' daily life. If you can create activities that work within that context, and run activities is a way that shows understanding of communication culture, you will experience more success.

For example, asking students to express a personal opinion in front of the class clashes with their cultural understanding of how to behave in this communicative setting. The student will feel very uncomfortable doing this without first feeling out the group.

Disrupting group harmony is something students have been taught is bad, just the same as we (or those brought up in a western culture) have been taught that it's important to have your individual opinion heard. 

Teaching Western Communication Norms

Initially, you'll want to be understanding of students' communication boundaries. Gradually though, you can introduce western communication expectations - you can teach students how to behave in a way that is more "normal" for western styles of talking.

Two of the biggest challenges for students would be:

  • Avoiding silence
  • Expressing a personal opinion

It's important to remember that you are asking them to do something that goes against their social norms and makes them feel uncomfortable so be understanding and introduce this communication culture slowly, but also make sure to do it consistently. Set a rule and re-set it every class.

Some rules I use in class are:

  • "Me too!"
    Whenever someone expresses a personal opinion you agree with, you voice your agreement. This encourages listening for non-active students and provides positive feedback for those students who do express personal opinions.
  • "I don't know."
    If you don't know an answer, say so. I always thank students for telling me this because they have spoken up in English, quickly, and it helps avoid long silences. I never scold them for not knowing.
  • "One more time, please."
    A listening activity specific response, but if students need to hear something again, I encourage them to say this at any time. For communication activities, encourage students to use more appropriate phrases like "Sorry, what did you say?" or "Sorry, I couldn't hear you."
  • Avoid calling on the same students
    I try to make sure lots of students get to raise their hand and share an answer or opinion. Even if they don't raise their hands, I like to call on students. It's funny how many students seem to appreciate this, especially among teenagers who may not want to be seen actively participating. If you can make sure they have the answer before calling on them, it works a whole lot better though.
  • Reactions
    Whenever I do a question and answer walk-and-talk, I make sure students give reactions to the answers they get. If not in English, I encourage a reaction in Japanese. This gives students a reason to listen for the answers and makes it feel like more authentic communication.

How do you introduce western communication norms in your classes?

For further reading, please see this study: https://jalt-publications.org/files/pdf-article/jj-17.1-art2.pdf.

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