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"?
(Hofstede, 1986:305)

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' expectations

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!


These differences illustrate that students and teachers do not share the same understanding of what compromises 'proper' classroom behavior. Any resistance to a new approach will be because of these beliefs (Wenden, 1991:55). Students' knowledge and attitude are the key to success, so incorporating their cognitive and learning style preference in the collaborative process appears to be an important element. It is also important to recognize that because of these different cognitive approaches teachers need to adopt a wide range of strategies which enable students to improve their learning abilities (Bialystok, 1990:28). Some language learners may agree with the notion that they should be more responsible for their learning, while for others an independent role is something they may prefer to avoid. This reticence shows that they do not study the same way and so must be taught ways to engage, and to avoid student frustration teachers need to supply outlines of the 'rules' expected (Jones, 1995:230). These kinds of false assumptions and prejudices which underlie their attitudes towards their role in learning must be changed, a process Holec (1981) terms 'de-conditioning'.

Once a range of possible strategies has been obtained, the teacher will be able to provide an environment which should enable students to identify those strategies that work best for them. The aim of which is to make students realize the importance of skills that include taking charge, organizing, practicing, memorizing, guessing, and accepting uncertainty (Rubin and Wenden,1987:99). By not stressing strategies, teachers in essence discourage students from developing and exploring new skills, and in so doing, limiting their awareness of their cognitive capabilities (Wenden, 1991:14). Offering the learners the reward of mastering skills that will equip them to proceed would appear to be a basic requirement for teachers. If the students can learn some of these skills they may help overcome any cultural barriers that arise, as good language learners develop and use these strategies for coping with difficulties in communicating (Brown, 1994).


In a country like Japan that values conformity and group feelings over individual expression, trying to inspire some kind of rigorous challenge or competitive interaction can sometimes prove frustrating. Japanese students tend to value consensus rather than confrontation resulting in activities such as discussions that require active involvement appearing somewhat passive and orderly. Students also tend to restrict their use of vocabulary and structures to avoid making mistakes thus reducing the risk of losing face, a powerful deterrent in many Asian countries including Japan. This inhibition can stand in the way of progressing in speaking a foreign language. Feeling uncomfortable in unstructured situations can also prevent learners from seizing opportunities to practice and learn (Rubin and Thompson, 1982:7), another important element of learner autonomy. Such risks are inherently unavoidable as it is recognized that language learning involves some risk to the speaker who must therefore extend the available resource (Bialystok, 1990:28).

In Japan, the teacher 'bestows knowledge' while the learners are passive, letting 'the teacher's wisdom 'pour into' him' (Brown 1994:17). This type of formal environment means that learners have a reluctance to engage, interact, and fully question the teacher because of this status. If the students continue to perceive the teacher as a distant authority they are unlikely to approach thereby limiting their contact. It seems preferable for students to be able to approach teachers if they need help to overcome any linguistic difficulties. Therefore in order to facilitate more interaction activities that promote group work tend to reduce the students' apprehension while at the same time building confidence. Also if teachers actively participate in activities and games during class students can see that they are not there just there to 'teach' but also interact and so will gain confidence and also understand that to interact fully with the teacher is an expected and beneficial exercise of learner-centered learning. This type of interaction will help them to be aware that they need to contribute and will need to be coached in what to do and what the teacher expects from them personally. It is also necessary to make the students aware that the risks cannot be completely avoided merely reduced.


Student autonomy

Student autonomy and other learning styles and strategies are mental steps that students use to learn a new language (Wenden, 1991:18). Unfortunately they are not possessed by everyone and appear to be age-related skills which students acquire as they get older. It therefore seems unrealistic for younger learners (including university students) to possess such skills. Successful students, it has been pointed out, are those who learn to adopt active strategies for themselves, rather than relying on the teacher (Tyacke and Mendelsohn in Wenden, 1991:12). This 'psychological proportion' (Allwright, 1981) is part of helping students take responsibility for their learning. However the cultural aspect of autonomous strategies are concepts which Japanese students have little experience of as their teaching methods, as mentioned, are mainly teacher dependent (Jones, 1995:229) where teachers are viewed as the respected 'bearers of knowledge' (Stapleton 1996:14). Therefore this way of learning must be explicitly taught to Japanese university students, otherwise due to different learning styles it will be unknown by all. This process of attitude change in adults is intended to teach learners to recognise the 'right' attitude (Petty and Capioppo, 1986 in Wenden).

This concept of student autonomy is a broad field which incorporates numerous definitions, including 'autonomy' (Rubin and Thompson, 1982); 'independence' (Nunan, 1988:3; Cooker and Torpey, 2004); and 'responsibility' (Wenden, 1991:53). Research has led to some general agreement on the key factors of what characteristics a 'good learner' should possess. They include that the learner:

1. Is actively involved in the language learning process

2. Attempts to decipher how the language works

3. Adapts even in situations they don't like

4. Knows that language is used to communicate

5. Adopts strategies to assist with their language learning

(Naiman et al, 1978; Rubin, 1989; O`Malley, 1978; Rubin and Thompson, 1982; Saville-Troike, 1984).

In other words if students made more effort to decipher what is involved in learning a language, and attempted to overcome any shortfalls, this would have a beneficial influence on their learning. It would therefore seem appropriate to promote the qualities, which make a 'good student' as:

…one reason for the widespread acceptance and growth of autonomous...activities, it tends to be regarded as promoting autonomy, which we all know to be a highly valued goal.
(Technology, autonomy: A word of caution)

Due to the difference in cognitive profiles the culturally insensitive approach would be to expect learners from other cultures to be able to adopt these 'foreign' strategies immediately. Why would Japanese students, who have experienced years of passive learning, suddenly realise that they have to take more responsibility? This lack of awareness of alternative learning techniques obviously limits a learner's ability in situations requiring the use of these learning strategies (Dansereau in Wenden, 1991:4) thus appearing shy.


Overcoming "shyness"

As stated earlier, Japanese students could benefit greatly in the long run if a substantial portion of the lesson were given to teaching them ways of leaning for themselves. This would include strategies, activities and techniques students need to use to improve their progress in apprehending, internalizing and using English (Oxford, 1990:235). Students, especially those from 'collectivist societies' (Hofstede, 1986) such as Japan need to build self-confidence in their capability to work independently of the teacher (Sinclair and Ellis, 1985). Activities are also useful for developing pragmatic awareness and opportunities for communicative practice, especially role-playing (Kasper, 1983:20) which also helps promote the process of cross-cultural dialogue. As second language learning is a highly interactive process the quality of this interaction is thought to have a considerable influence on the learning process (Ellis, cited in Richard and Lockheart, 1994:138) with research showing that the conscious use of such strategies is related to language achievement and proficiency (Oxford, 1990; Rubin and Thompson 1982). This can help turn the learning experience into one of increased cultural and self-awareness by encouraging greater cooperation and teamwork.

In teaching an 'alien' language teachers need to be sensitive to the fragility of using techniques that promote cultural understanding (Stevik, 1976: 173). Therefore we should not expect learners to deny the frustration they feel. The reason that these methods play a more significant role in Japan is because the teacher's role is more of a factor in helping student's progress through their development stages of language learning (Brown, 1994:174). Becoming partners, however, imposes its own responsibilities, ones which have again not traditionally been accorded to the 'recipients' of teaching. Important among these responsibilities is that of consciousness about ones own learning process and strategies. To force one technique onto students as a means of becoming a 'better learner' will only lead to problems when it is surely realised that 'one fit does not suit all' (Jones, 1995). This focus on the learner changes quite radically the typical distribution of power and authority in the classroom. How learners go about making sense of language data therefore becomes of central importance and it is these psychological traits (attitude, personality) that appear to be related to successful language learning (Rubin and Thompson, 1982:6).


While it is acknowledged that there are many significant factors which affect the relationship in the classroom, if teachers are aware of them there are strategies which can be adopted which reduce their effect. These other factors are much more difficult to quantify than by directly asking the students. So the onus of responsibility must be on the teacher to recognize and to be aware of factors affecting the success of the class. Once the teacher is aware and understands the reasons (e.g. shyness), then they will be able to adjust their methodology to overcome perceived barriers.

Teachers should also be sensitive and perceptive to the unique situation and not expect learners to deny the anger and frustration they may feel. These are real feelings and they need to be openly expressed. To smother these feelings may delay and actually prevent progress. So it is important to recognize the influence of shyness rather than dismiss it as a problem. This 'mental handicap' (Doyon, 2000) may cause students to feel uncomfortable in unstructured situations resulting in taking a longer time to process what is expected; or a reluctance to fully participate in the lesson (e.g. answer questions, volunteer information etc.); or a general restriction and limiting of their answers due to uncertainty. Also worries about accuracy may make students feel reluctant to take a risk or venture an opinion. These traits are often observed especially in the Japanese language class that I join every week. I would observe that many of the foreigners appear shy when asked to answer to the whole class in a language they do not have full command of. I have not considered these people 'handicapped' merely unaccustomed to the situation and lacking the linguistic ability to express themselves freely.

Bialystok, E. (1990) Communication Strategies - A Psychological Analysis of Second Language use. Cambridge, MA : Basil Blackwell.
Brown, H.D. (1994) Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. (3rd edn.) New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Doyon, P. (2000) 'Shyness in the Japanese EFL class: Why it is a problem, what it is, what causes it, and what to do.' The Language Teacher (24/01).
Faerch, C. and Kasper, G. (1983) Strategies in Interlanguage Communication. London: Longman.
Hofstede, G. (1986) Cultural Differences in Teaching and Learning. International Journal of Intercultural Relations. 10/301-320.
Oxford, R. (1990) Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.
Rubin, J. and Wenden, A. (1987) Learners Strategies in Language Learning. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.


Christian Burrows has been teaching at various levels within the Japanese education system over the past 8 years. Since April he has been teaching at International Pacific University, Okayama. He graduated from the University of Sheffield (England) with a B.A. in Politics and the University of Birmingham (England) with an MA in TESOL. When he is not devising ways to make Japanese students speak in English during the class he continues the struggle of mastering the Japanese language.

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