Anyone who has taught EFL in an Asian classroom has likely experienced moments of dead silence in the room.
You ask a question and…nothing.
While the common assumption is that silence is a culture issue, many researchers have presented arguments that factors other than culture are the stronger influence.
One such study that questions the relationship of culture and silence is Ways to Promote the Classroom Participation of International Students by Understanding the Silence of Japanese University Students by By Soonhyang Kim, University of North Florida, (USA); Burcu Ates, Sam Houston State University, (USA); Yurimi Grigsby, Concordia University Chicago, (USA); Stefani Kraker, Queens College, City University of New York, (USA); Timothy A. Micek, Ohio Dominican University, (USA).
About the Study
In this study, the researchers asked 45 Japanese freshmen and sophomore English majors in a Japanese university two questions:
- When you ask a question of someone, how long do you wait for a response?
- Do you feel uncomfortable with silence? If so, why and what do you do to avoid silence?
For question 1, the data show that 20 of the 45 participants reported being willing to wait longer than 1 minute for a response.
For question 2, a fairly even spread of 16 participants feeling comfortable with silence, 15 participants feeling uncomfortable with silence, and 14 replying it depends. 12 participants indicated that if with friends, silence is not uncomfortable.
Questioning the Cause and Solution
While I appreciate the study and find the issue of silence in Asian classrooms very interesting as an EFL teacher in Asia, I have some questions.
First, based on the evenly dispersed answers for question 2 regarding comfort with silence, the researchers conclude that silence is individual, not cultural. Brooks Peterson defines culture in the following way:
Culture is the relatively stable set of inner values and beliefs generally held by groups of people in countries or regions and the noticeable impact those values and beliefs have on the peoples’ outward behaviors and environment ( Peterson, 2004, p. 17).
While I understand why the authors made the conclusion that perhaps silence is an individual trait, I think it would be difficult to make judgments on culture based on 45 students in one university.
Furthermore, the study is suggesting implications for classrooms. The “culture of Japanse society” could be different than the “culture of the Japanese classroom.” The authors actually hint at such in the following quote:
The results gathered from Japanese participants who were comfortable with silence suggest the importance of the degree of relationship. Talking was deemed unnecessary between individuals involved in an exchange if they were friends. However, if the relationship was more formal, as with a professor, they might feel uncomfortable (Kim, Ates, Gigsby, Kraker, & Micek, 2016, p. 446).
This suggests to me that there may be a different cultural protocol in the classroom.The common perception of cultural protocol in Asian classrooms is the instructor doing the talking and the students listening. The data from this study does not adequately convince me of the contrary, that silence by students is not a cultural norm.
Second, I question one of the suggested recommendations to prevent silence-classroom icebreakers. As a former introvert, icebreakers did not make me feel more comfortable in a classroom. In fact, I found them quite tortuous. If silence is an individual trait as suggested, my experience suggests that icebreakers would not help. Icebreakers rarely, if ever, were the reason I found comfort in the classroom. I would be interested to see data to substantiate the effectiveness of icebreakers in the classroom.
Toward a Different Perspective on Silence
Despite some of my reservations, I do think the study offers a few important points for teachers working with students from other cultures.
First, silence does not mean a student is passive and not engaged. In many cultures, silence is a form of active engagement and active engagement does not always have to be verbal. I think instructors should be cautioned on how they perceive silence and the judgments they pass on students who are silent in class. The study offers this advice:
It would be acceptable to allow students to remain silent as long as they show other signs of active participation rather than pushing them to speak for the sake of speaking, especially if they are new to the U.S. classroom with the extreme initial stress in a foreign environment (Kim, Ates, Gigsby, Kraker, & Micek; 2016, p. 443).
Second, the study suggests that the interlocutor is the significant factor. In other words, the teacher can be in control of the silent situation. Although I questioned the suggestion of icebreakers, the other suggestions such as small group work, allowing students to write before speaking, and using technology such as online message boards are all techniques that seem to have potential. However, implementing a strategy does not guarantee success. For instance, just setting up small groups without any thought to the members may not work. For this, the authors give further advice for coordinating small group work:
For example, one student (who enjoys talking the most) can be the lead speaker and another one (who prefers to observe and listen) can be the lead note- taker. It is important for the teacher to recognize early on which students prefer silence or no silence in order to coordinate projects this way. (Kim, Ates, Gigsby, Kraker, & Micek; 2016, p 444)
Silence in the classroom can be frustrating for teachers who approach the classroom expecting open discussion. While some instructors may blame the individual or the culture, I think it would be more appropriate for the instructor to look inward for the solution rather than place blame.
Whether culture or an individual trait, a better understanding of our students and their silence will help both the teacher and the student feel comfortable in the classroom. Silence does not mean unengaged, and the student who prefers silence can still take an active role in the classroom.
I personally still have questions why there appears to be an agenda in the literature to prove culture is not the reason for silence. Perhaps it’s because such views are used to discriminate against students? If that’s the case, should we not be promoting more cultural awareness rather than trying to define something cultural as not-cultural?
Although I am still inclined to view silence in Asia from a classroom culture perspective, I believe my understanding of my students’ silence, not how I define it, will determine my success in the classroom.
Kim, S., Ates, B., Grigsby, Y., Kraker, S., & Micek, T. A. (2016). Ways to promote the classroom participation of international students by understanding the silence of Japanese university students. Journal of International Studies, 6 (2), 431-450.
Peterson, B. (2004). Cultural intelligence. Boston: Intercultural Press.