The Shyness Myth
by Christian Burrows
Many native English language teachers argue that shyness poses such a problem for Japanese students that it is in their best interest to attempt to overcome this feeling, but without offering clear advice on how to go about this task. As a result they fall into the trap of labeling something for no other purpose than to reinforce a certain stereotype, serving no positive function. Many teachers would agree that it is possible to label Japanese students 'shy', 'reticent', and 'quiet', but unless you are proposing ways to overcome this 'handicap' (Doyon, 2000) it appears to do little to further the research. Doyon (ibid) touches upon the real implications that need to be addressed when he lists the traits that are manifestations of shyness in the classroom. It is how this feeling interferes with the language learning process that is most relevant to teachers since teaching in foreign cultures can lead to problems of communication and even conflict due to certain cultural misunderstandings. One reason is because people from different cultures react differently to various situations, meaning the cultural basis of the teacher-student relationship tends to make cross-cultural learning situations fundamentally problematic for both parties as:
"teaching to a student or student body with a cognitive profile different from what the teacher is accustomed to is evidently problematic"?
This can sometimes lead to any differences being viewed unfavorably and negative assessments being reached. The significance of the cultural aspect in the learning of a second language is illustrated in the five traits Doyon (ibid) points out trouble native English teachers:
They are that Japanese students:
(a) rarely initiate discussion
(b) avoid raising new topics
(c) do not challenge the teacher
(d) seldom ask questions
(e) are reluctant to volunteer answers
Although these traits could be used to reinforce the shyness myth, more tellingly they represent certain traditions of learning and teaching in Japan which differ from Western countries, thus necessitating the need for 'a sound, culturally sensitive foundation' (Jones, 1995:229) that recognises these differences and tries to incorporate the different ways of learning. These traditions include students' expectations, risk-taking, and student autonomy.
Students' knowledge about their role in the learning process will be shaped and maintained by other beliefs they hold about themselves as students (Wenden, 1991:54). This knowledge about language learning has been acquired throughout their schooling and has contributed to their beliefs, insights and concepts in regard to the language learning process (Wenden, 1991:34). Several of the traits (a - e) are not due to inherent shyness but the expectations of the students, who after years of being evaluated through tests are simply unused to an environment which requires skills they have little practice in. For many Japanese students who enter university these expectations of what 'appropriate' behavior is are applied to their new situation, meaning they expect teacher-centered, rote-learning rather than independent, creative, autonomous learning. As a result when Japanese students encounter a communicative class they can often experience difficulty adapting to the change of learning styles, and understanding exactly what is expected of them.
If these expectations remain unfulfilled they may result in 'hotspots', (Oxford, 1990:80) where students notice discrepancies between what they expect and what is actually happening in the classroom. This is one of the numerous problems students encounter when they learn a second language. There are other students who experience certain psychological blocks and other inhibiting affects, feelings of alienation, anger and frustration (Brown, 1994:174). From my own experience these are feelings which affect many Japanese students especially those participating in group classes where there is the extra pressure from the other group members. I have observed many Japanese students writing their answers during speaking activities instead of using the time more productively, as they assume their answers will be checked and that having the 'correct' answer is the most important thing. Other students quickly complete speaking exercises, as opposed to using the tasks as a means to communicate and develop their linguistic proficiency. Reliance on the teacher can also lead to confusion when asked to perform independently, leading some students to even question whether they should complete the speaking exercise in English or Japanese!
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