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More cultural differences in the Japanese classroom

This is Part Two of: Cultural differences in the Japanese classroom

1. Interrupting
In Japanese it is normal to wait until people have completely finished speaking before you start your turn. This can leave Japanese at a disadvantage when speaking to people from countries where it is normal to speak over each other, such as the Spain, in class, in EFL exams such as FCE and CAE, or in business meetings. This effect can be made worse by a general lack of fluency. You can teach the language of polite interruption with many communication games, and you can also give pairs of students points for speaking exactly 50% each on a shared topic.

2. Directness
People who are aware of the Japanese reputation for being even more indirect than the British can be surprised to be told “People in your country are fat” or asked “Are you married?” in Japan. This could be a misunderstanding about how direct non-Japanese are, enjoying the lack of restrictions of not speaking Japanese, or just a personality trait of the kind of person who is interested in learning English and meeting foreign people. Alternatively it could be a lack of language, and Japanese students usually appreciate and benefit being taught how to be indirect in English more than being taught to be more direct. One vague use of language that doesn’t transfer from Japanese to English is that excuses and apologies in Japanese do not include specific reasons, and so the Japanese can come over as if they are saying “Sorry, I’m washing my hair”. As with many things in the classroom, giving a totally natural reaction to rude or too vague questions is usually the best way of showing their effect.

3. Hospitality and gift giving
In Japan it is traditional to take a gift away and open it when you get home, but a young person or foreigner doing this might be met with surprise. The same thing is somewhat true of the Japanese habit of opening presents slowly and carefully. The best thing is simply to ask “Can I open it now?”, to which the answer is usually yes, and then to open in a way that is a happy medium between Japanese grandmother and Western kid at Xmas. Teachers are not usually expected to return presents, but a little snack from your country would be much appreciated. Japanese people often make a disparaging comment about presents similar to “It’s just a little something I picked up” or “Don’t get too excited, it’s nothing special”, so teaching phrases like this in a connected lesson might be appreciated.

4. Nationalism/ attitudes to foreign countries
Many of the strange comments and questions you get from Japanese students like “Do you have four seasons in your country?” or “I want to learn English so I can tell foreign people about Japan” come from a combination of the things taught in school and the media, and so as in any country it is going to take several years of lessons from you before any false impressions are going to change, if indeed such a thing is possible. Another thing that is true anywhere is that them criticizing their own country does not necessarily mean it is okay from you.

5. Status
This can be a huge problem with in company classes, where for instance a roleplay meeting can always end up with everyone agreeing with the proposal of their real boss, even if he was just reading it off a piece of paper. It is particularly bad if the highest status person, e.g. the oldest, is the highest level, has a habit of using obscure vocabulary or likes to guide the conversation to topics they only know about, as the other students might be shy about asking them to explain. Status and language level can also be a problem the other way round, with people unwilling to show that they know more English than their boss. One solution to all of these is to use lots of pairwork, with in the worst cases the highest status person usually being paired up with the teacher. The other approach is just to group Business English classes by management level or starting year in the company rather than language level, and although this leads to mixed level classes students are usually happier with that than with being in class with their managers.

6. Gender
There are not usually status problems involved with mixed male and female classes in Japan, but most Japanese people do spend most of their lives after primary school in single sex groups and the usual rule of a better atmosphere amongst single sex teenage and housewife classes are even more true in Japan.

7. Food and drink
One factor relevant to Japan is the fact that Japanese teachers usually avoid drinking even water in class and certainly try not to drink straight out of the plastic bottle. Another is that the Japanese are outdone only by the Italians in their love of talking about food, making this a great classroom topic- if one that needs a lot of language input in order to make it possible for them to talk about properly. Japanese students often ask “Can you eat (sushi)?” rather than “Do you eat sushi?” or “Do you like sushi?” This could be because of direct translation and/ or surprise that foreigners like raw fish etc, and subtly pointing out that it sounds strange in English is often helpful.

8. Embarrassment
Signs that a Japanese person is embarrassed include nervous laughter and rubbing the back of the head. Things that can make people embarrassed in class are the usual things of taboo topics, insensitive correction, suddenly realising that they’ve been doing the wrong thing for ages, making them seem ignorant about their own country or the world, making people stand out, and too much praise, with the last three often more of a factor in Japan than in some other countries.

9. Small talk
Japanese meetings tend to start with quite a lot of small talk but have a clear transition to the business of the day, so students might be caught out by teachers trying to move smoothly between the two or think that the small talk is going on too long. Students will often expect small talk at the end of the lesson as well, so finishing on a crescendo bang on time is not often a success.

10. Politeness
Although Japanese politeness is famous, it is fundamentally different from British politeness, for example, in that someone being served like a customer in a shop is not expected to use polite language. This could mean that polite language in restaurants etc. needs more practice than you might think. Students might also expect to be shown a very clear step up in politeness between words and expressions in the way that such groups of words exist in Japanese keigo, and be confused by vague answers. Otherwise, the rules of “more polite equals longer sentences” and “more polite equals more indirect” translate well from Japanese.

11. Eye contact
Asian students often close their eyes to concentrate during listenings etc, much to the annoyance of their teachers when they study abroad. There is also a tendency to avoid eye contact that can result in businessmen etc giving a bad impression and is well worth practising in class.

12. Writing styles
You only have to read one newspaper editorial translated from Japanese to see that their is a cultural tendency for writers to chase around an idea with lots of seemingly unrelated facts and opinions, and without a clear beginning and end. This can translate into your students’ writing, and lots of work on paragraphs with one single topic etc is especially important for academic writing but can even be a factor when they are writing to penfriends.

13. Attitudes to strangers
Japanese people tend to be uncomfortable around strangers but get very attached to who and what they know, so with new classes and when a new teacher starts there tends to be a period of adjustment. This can be shortened with intensive application of the usual activities for good classroom dynamics, such as lots of GTKY activities, learning people’s names, introducing new things slowly and boosting their confidence.

14. Attitudes to grammar
Japanese people often have the opinion that they have been taught too much grammar at school already and that anymore will just be a distraction from finally learning how to speak. This can be a battle, as the fact that they have been taught the grammar in such a boring way that it hasn’t stuck or even that the grammar they have been taught is wrong means that it is actually grammatical range and accuracy when speaking and writing that is holding them back from reaching the next level. A good approach is often to show them that they can use the language they do know in communication, e.g. getting them to make a story out of the irregular past tenses they learnt at school, show them the gap in their knowledge such as the pronunciation and uses of those past tenses, fill in the holes, and then give them more communicative activities.

15. Attitudes to games
Although there are the usual businessmen who think games are beneath them, most Japanese people study English as a hobby and therefore expect it to be a morally acceptable way to have a bit of fun. Games therefore go down well in even most Business English classes, with the only difficulty being that learning new rules tends to be a struggle as they are unfamiliar with games like dominoes and their school teachers tend to just reuse the same old games. This can be made easier for the first few attempts by using games that also exist in Japanese such as Paper Scissors Stone (janken) and pellmanism/ memory game/ pairs.

Part one: Cultural differences in the Japanese classroom

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net April 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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TEFL.net : TEFL Articles : Home and Abroad : More cultural differences in the Japanese classroom