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Classroom silence: voices from

Japanese E F L learners
Seiko Harumi

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This article explores Japanese EFL learners’ classroom silence in a Japanese EFL
context. The existence of silence in second language learning contexts can be
a source of conflict between students and teachers and even among students
themselves. It can also be an obstacle to acquiring the target language. In order to
tackle this problem and to illustrate the dynamic characteristics of classroom
silence, this study draws on insights from the ethnographic approach and
interprets the roots, functions, and meanings of silence from a sociocultural
perspective. It was conducted through a questionnaire survey which aimed to elicit
learners’ and teachers’ views on silence and also to examine whether a mismatch
of perceptions exists. The issues of identity and the role of cultural and contextual
factors in the use of silence are discussed and possible pedagogical approaches
which could be implemented in varied learning contexts are suggested.

Classroom silence in Classroom silence, particularly among Asian E F L learners, continues to

EFL contexts attract discussion which emphasizes its sociocultural influence on active
learner participation in class. Particular attention has been paid to students’
lack of confidence in speaking and native English teachers’ (N E T)
frustration when encountering prolonged silence, not knowing what it
means, why it occurs, or how to respond. Anderson (1986: 35), for instance,
illustrates the problem as a teacher and regards learner silence as a wall.
However, he also sympathizes with students’ frustration with teachers who,
rather than understanding their responses, interpret them as a lack of
initiative or a refusal to participate. Similar problems have been recognized
when Japanese E F L learners are mixed with students from different cultural
backgrounds: not only do they find it difficult to participate in class, but their
silent behaviour is also regarded as uncooperative.
This implies that a cultural gap exists in classrooms. In response to similar
problems faced by NETs and Japanese E F L learners, an increasing number
of studies on learner reticence (Korst 1997; Nakane 2005) have been
conducted both in monolingual and multilingual contexts. Interestingly,
although the traditional linguistic approach tends to emphasize the role of
speech in communication, these studies indicate positive interpretations of
the use of silence in Japanese E F L contexts. For instance, although McPake
(1999: 49), referring to her E F L classroom observation, regards silence as
an example of dissonance which prevents students from learning through
speech, she also recognizes that Japanese students learn by listening to their

260 E LT Journal Volume 65/3 July 2011; doi:10.1093/elt/ccq046

ª The Author 2010. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
Advance Access publication September 30, 2010
teachers. The significance of silence as a listening strategy is also supported
by Goldstein (2003), referring to the attentive silence in a multilingual
Canadian E F L context as acute listening, empathy for others, and awareness
of even the subtlest signs from a speaker.
As relates to the Japanese EFL context, Donahue’s (1998) study of classroom
observations concentrates on the role of silence and the significance of
listeners’ responsibilities in Japanese communication, suggesting that they
aim to avoid social confrontation. His classroom observation reflects the
results of a study by Harumi (1999), which investigated Japanese E F L
learners’ use of silence. In her study, video-viewing sessions were set up to
see how differently or similarly the Japanese and British informants
interpreted E F L learners’ classroom silence, focusing on particular extracts

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in which individual learners remain silent while interacting with a NET.
Most Japanese informants interpreted silence as face saving, a ‘difficulty-
avoidance strategy’, or a silent request for help which is acceptable, tolerable,
or indeed productive if teachers are able to engage with students’ non-verbal
However, most British informants interpreted silence negatively as a sign of
disinterest, boredom, or laziness. Thus, the degree of tolerance and
acceptance of silence from the British point of view was relatively low. It is,
as these empirical studies suggest, vital to acknowledge that multiple forms
of classroom silence exist, with various functions. Furthermore, Lebra
(1987) highlights the significance of silence in the Japanese context as
culturally salient and highly valued, outlining the following four principal
n silence as truthfulness (inner true expression)
n silence as social discretion for the sake of social harmony (silence because
of taboos against expressing strong emotion)
n silence as embarrassment (fear of alienation)
n silence as defiance.
To these, I also add another function: silence as a ‘sense of sharing’ (mutual
intuitive understanding) (see Harumi op.cit.: 53).
These studies clearly demonstrate the positive value of silence as showing
appropriate listening behaviour and its active role in communication.
Following this line, if we focus on the question of how to teach the
appropriate use of spoken language, it is necessary to look at silence as
a significant social component in its own right since talk and silence
mutually influence each other. Thus, the present study aims to foster an
awareness of existing practices and conventions, while also proposing a new
perspective on treating classroom silence.

The study The studies referred to above draw on a number of sources: classroom
Purpose observation, learner interviews, and reflections on teaching experience. This
study further attempts to explore the use of silence by Japanese learners and
also proposes pedagogical approaches which reflect learners’ points of view.
It therefore consists of a questionnaire survey to elicit voices from Japanese
EFL learners and native and Japanese English teachers (N E Ts and JETs).
In examining their responses, the following pedagogical issues arose:

Classroom silence 261

1 How do Japanese learners of English use silence in their own social
context and in cross-cultural communication?
2 To what extent do Japanese sociocultural norms or beliefs concerning the
use of silence affect learners’ language performance in class?
3 Is it more desirable for students to change their learning style or should
teachers adjust their teaching style? If so, to what extent and how?
In examining these issues, the questionnaires served three purposes. The
first was to elicit learners’ interpretations of the use of silence in EFL classes.
Although their self-observation may contradict their behaviour, their
explanations themselves can reveal partial, though significant, reasons for
silence and indicate the extent to which learners are actually conscious of
their language behaviour. The second purpose was to assess possible

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differences between teachers’ and students’ perceptions of silence. Finally,
the questionnaire also sought students’ and teachers’ views on the role of the
teacher in easing student anxiety in class. The questionnaires administered
to the learners and to the teachers (N E Ts and J ETs) had the same content,
with the only difference being the phrasing of the questions to reflect the
different participants.

Participants Students’ questionnaire

A total of 197 Japanese intermediate EFL learners on a first-year English
degree course participated in this study. All had received at least six years of
formal prior English instruction. Seventeen students of the 197 had
previously studied English abroad for at least one month.

Teachers’ questionnaire (N E Ts and J E Ts)

In parallel with this, 52 N E Ts and 58 J ETs at Japanese universities completed
a questionnaire. This was intended to investigate whether N E Ts and J E Ts
perceive the use of silence by Japanese learners differently and to determine
the nature of any such differences. The N E Ts had experience in various
types of institution and setting. All the NETs taught English or had been
trained in multilingual contexts. The amount of teaching experience varied
from 1 to 35 years. This variation in teaching experience influenced
respondents’ different perspectives on learners’ cultural backgrounds.
Overall teaching experience of the J ETs also varied; however, with only one
exception, none had taught English in a multilingual context, rendering
comparison with other learning cultures more difficult.

Procedure Both the learners’ and teachers’ questionnaires consisted of two parts. Part I
of the questionnaires sought general background information on previous
learning and teaching experience. Part II of the questionnaires dealt with
the use of silence by Japanese learners of English in monolingual E F L
contexts. This section comprised open-ended questions. As Dörnyei (2007:
107) points out, an open format helps to identify issues which are not
previously anticipated. Students’ questionnaires were administered during
English lessons with the classroom teacher and the researcher present in
order to ensure that clear instructions on completing them were given. The
aim and the procedure for completing the questionnaire were explained to
the teachers, either orally or in a covering letter, and respondents completed
them in their own time.

262 Seiko Harumi

Data analysis Learner background: English language proficiency level
Part 1: background In the first part of the questionnaire, respondents were asked to evaluate
issues their level of language proficiency in four skills: reading, writing, speaking,
and listening. As this was a self-evaluation, the enquiry focused on their
perception of their proficiency level as an indication of their confidence in
each of these skills. As far as their proficiency level in English was
concerned, a large number of students considered that their speaking ability
was at a beginners’ level (60 per cent), although they appeared to be slightly
more confident in reading (19 per cent at beginners’ level) and writing (22
per cent at beginners’ level). Their lack of confidence in speaking was
particularly noticeable. It is interesting to note that the students’ self-
evaluation of their speaking ability matches with the teachers’ assessment,

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i.e. there is a large gap between linguistic knowledge and oral skills, with
students being weaker in the latter. This appears to be particularly evident
when students are required to speak in English, which, compared to
Japanese, has more spontaneous turn exchanges and a more speaker-
oriented communicative style.

Japanese language proficiency level of the NETs

Two-thirds of NETs’ Japanese proficiency was at the beginner’s stage. Seven
of 52 were at an intermediate level and four were fluent speakers of
Japanese. Based on their replies to the questions on Japanese cultural
norms, the N E Ts seem to be aware, regardless of their Japanese language
proficiency, that learners’ silent behaviour is influenced by the ‘Japanese
culture of learning’ and cultural background.

Part 2: reasons for The following questions were asked to attempt to determine reasons for
remaining silent being silent. They took the form of an open-ended enquiry in order to elicit
learners’ and teachers’ intentions and interpretations of silence.
1 Teachers’ interpretation of students’ silence
If your student remains silent when you communicate individually in
class, how do you interpret the use of silence and its meaning? (Table 1)
2 Students’ reasons for remaining silent
If you remain silent in class during an interaction with a teacher, what are
the possible reasons? (Table 2)

Teachers’ interpretation N ET (n ¼ 52) % J ET (n ¼ 58) %

Linguistic problems
Student does not know the answer 6.7 29.4
Student does not understand 33.3 11.8
Problems with time
Student thinking how to answer 22.2 29.4
Psychological problems
Shyness 6.7 7.3
Boredom 4.4 11.8
table 1 Cultural reasons 20.0 4.4
Teachers’ interpretation
Depends on the situation 6.7 5.9
of students’ silence

Classroom silence 263

Students’ reasons %
Linguistic problems 67.2
Problems with vocabulary
Problems with expressing myself in English
Problems with comprehension and listening
Doubts about accuracy of grammar
Problem with time 1.3
Lack of time to answer
Psychological problems 22.8
Lack of confidence; nervousness; shyness
Feel desperately in a hurry

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Because of my level of the target language
Because of tense atmosphere
Lack confidence in my own idea
I whisper something in my mind
Lack of confidence in pronunciation
I tend to depend on others
Problem with turn taking 8.7
Was not given chance to speak out; turns were not allocated
Missed timing (others speak before I do; teachers move
table 2 on to other students; difficulty in claiming turn)
Students’ reasons for Teacher did not notice my soft voice
remaining silent

Communicative style
The results indicate various reasons for being silent and students’ silent
responses appear to be strongly influenced by Japanese cultural norms.
Nevertheless, both learners’ and teachers’ intentions and interpretations of
silence fall into similar categories, although learners’ responses were both
more varied and more specific. While linguistic problems were prominent
in the responses, the influence of students’ issues with turn taking were also
significant in terms of cultural values. Some respondents seem to have
found it difficult to claim their turn and thus missed the chance to express
themselves. Also, some stated that they were not given opportunities to
express themselves and that turns were not allocated to them. Judging by
their responses, some learners think they should respond or express
themselves only when they are nominated individually. It should, however,
be noted that some individuals did not wish to be singled out; their
classroom behaviour differs from the Western pedagogical perspective
which allows learners to compete for turns or volunteer in order to freely
express themselves and exchange ideas.

Lack of confidence
The second prominent culturally oriented reason cited by learners was lack
of confidence in self-expression. These students lack confidence with their
level of English, pronunciation, grammatical accuracy, and also in their own
ideas. What is interesting here is the fact that their lack of confidence stems
from the presence of other students or classroom atmosphere. They seem to
be silent when they are not sure whether their answers are right or if
their ideas differ from those of others. This involves a Japanese cultural

264 Seiko Harumi

norm, Wa (harmony) or ‘groupism’: the opinion of a group is valued more
highly than that of the individual. There are students who think they
should provide answers which match the ideas of their peers in order to
maintain group harmony. Thus, having analysed the reasons for remaining
silent, it can be seen that, along with linguistic problems, differing
expectations of turn-taking systems and group mindedness are also
culturally prominent.

Different perceptions between the N E T and the J E T

A final interesting finding in the interpretation of the use of silence is the
difference between the N E T and the J E T perceptions. One possible
explanation for silence which is caused by linguistic problems is the use of

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the mother tongue. J E Ts have a wider range of options to address learners
in their mother tongue in order to assist their comprehension according
to their specific needs. However, N E Ts may tackle the initial hurdle of
making their questions understood through, for example, the use of
Interestingly, this also mirrors the results from the questionnaire regarding
attempted teaching strategies. N E Ts seem to be more aware of the culturally
oriented use of silence than J ETs, although the exact meaning and functions
of this silence may not be clear for them. J E Ts, however, are not aware of the
full range of effective strategies to facilitate active learner participation and
appear to be reluctant to try different approaches, preferring to interpret the
silence as a sign of boredom.

Strategies for What can learners and teachers do to tackle students’ silence? Teachers
students to provided strategies which they normally use to break students’ silence.
overcome difficulties Students were also asked what they expect teachers to do for them in order to
in expressing overcome difficulties in speaking.
1 Strategies to elicit students’ responses
What do you do if your student remains silent when you interact
individually in class? (Table 3)
In contrast to the J E Ts, more N E Ts listed the varied and concrete strategies
mentioned above. It is very interesting to note that although N E Ts may find
it more difficult to understand learners’ cultural norms, as demonstrated,
for example, by the comparatively lower instances of individual nomination
by N E Ts, they actually appear to be more aware of cultural differences. They
also use more varied teaching techniques because they have greater
experience of multilingual contexts.
This may explain why J E Ts, despite sharing a common cultural background
with learners, tend to provide less varied responses. This result mirrors the
hypothesis of Cortazzi and Jin (1999: 213) that there is a paradox in the inter-
relationship between learners, N E Ts, and local English teachers in China.
Although local teachers are in an ideal position to understand students’
approaches because they share the same culture of learning, they are so
firmly rooted in their culture that they cannot easily transcend it and engage
with that of the target language.

Classroom silence 265

Teachers’ strategies NE T JE T
(n ¼ 52) % (n ¼ 58) %
Linguistic support
Teach useful phrases for fillers 3.7 0
Repeat, rephrase, explain, ask again 14.8 0
Give clues (verbally/non-verbally) 7.5 49.9
Time support
Give/wait time 12.9 16.7
Psychological support
Advise not to be silent, say something to benefit, 3.7 0
and talk as much as possible

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Encourage students to say something 16.7 0
Support with turn taking
Return to the student later 3.7 0
Call on a student by name individually 7.4 16.7
Move on to another student 14.8 16.7
Other strategies
Be patient 3.7 0
Adjust teaching style 3.7 0
table 3
Try to remain relaxed 3.7 0
Strategies to elicit
Allow students to work with friends 3.7 0
students’ responses
2 Students’ expectations of teaching strategies
When you have difficulties in explaining yourself in spoken English,
what do you expect your teacher to do for you? (Table 4)
Students referred to concrete strategies which they expect from teachers
to help them to express themselves. Japanese students’ responses suggest
that they seem to be more comfortable with semi-structured guidance: even
the taking of turns by students to express their ideas is expected to
be initiated by teachers. Students also stated that they needed psychological
support from the teacher to express themselves confidently.
Interestingly, respondents emphasized non-verbal communication. One
respondent clearly stated that they expected teachers to understand their
non-verbal behaviour. Two respondents referred more specifically to the use
of back-channelling cues: they commented that they expected teachers to
show they understood what students wanted to say by using Aizuchi. It
is important to note that the use of Aizuchi (spoken affirmatives) in
Japanese is unique in terms of their high frequency and multiple functions,
such as
n interactional function: continuer, filling silence, rhythm-taking
n discoursal function: agreement, understanding
n social function: strong emotional response, vague agreement
(Miyazaki 2007).
Although positive use of silence as a listening strategy is not directly
expressed here, the high expectation that learners’ non-verbal cues be

266 Seiko Harumi

understood, and even requests for their use, appear to be significant cultural

Students’ expectations %
Linguistic aspects 57.9
Give clues/examples
Give advice on how to say something
Help with vocabulary
Help with how to start
Help in my mother tongue
Explain in detail
Give feedback and correction

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Time support 6.5
Give more time to think
Questioning 20.8
Make the meaning of questions clearer
Use more simple words (paraphrasing)
Use further questioning
Use yes/no question first
Psychological aspects 10.0
Offer back-channelling response when teacher understands
what I want to say
Show willingness to understand
Give encouragement, especially on not being afraid of making errors
Display understanding of non-verbal behaviour
Do not force a reluctant student to speak
Turn taking 4.8
table 4
Speak slowly/slow down the pace
Students’ expectation of
Give me an opportunity to talk
teachers’ teaching
Do not call my name individually

Pedagogical Having examined the culturally specific use of Japanese classroom silence,
implications it has been shown that the functions and sources of silences are varied. This
can be either positively or negatively interpreted across cultures and can be
a source of misunderstanding. From the results obtained, several pedagogical
approaches can be considered effective. The key principle in facilitating active
learner participation is the interplay of balanced activities which provide
a step-by-step approach as a solid foundation from which to build learner
confidence. Teachers may find it difficult to determine the extent to which
localized pedagogical techniques can be adapted in foreign language
teaching with a differing interactional style, especially in a monolingual
setting. In this sense, the approach suggested by Leather and Gray (1999),
‘Safety and challenge’, specifically for Japanese E F L learners, is significant.
From the results of the questionnaires, it is clear that both J E Ts and
NETs, dealing with silence in any context, need to be fully aware of the
balance and interplay of challenge and learner readiness in teaching and
More specifically, I believe that the following key elements need to be
reflected in classroom activity.

Classroom silence 267

1 Activities should build up learner confidence and facilitate learner
2 Teaching should be reflective and interpretative in nature.
3 The classroom environment should encourage mutual participation to
accomplish the aim of communication.
First, as far as ‘confidence-building’ is concerned, it would be useful to teach
basic survival techniques such as fillers and predetermined useful phrases
as well as nominating individual students to speak, so that learners can
enter and continue the flow of conversation with confidence. Also, the use of
downgraded questioning techniques by teachers can direct students
towards an awareness of how to respond to questions.

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The use of self-feedback sheets can facilitate learner autonomy, by helping
students assess their own oral skills, subsuming clarity, frequency, speed, and
confidence and the use of gestures. Moreover, project work ‘in group’ can
foster the learners’ sense of responsibility for their learning as it provides
less stressful, but at the same time, stimulating opportunities for learners to
interact or work together. Assessment can focus on teams or individuals.
The second element, ‘reflective and interpretative’ tasks, can employ video-
viewing sessions and role play involving non-verbal communication
including the use of Aizuchi across cultures, focusing on culturally different
ways of communicating. As Erickson (1996: 300) notes, video and non-
linguistic cues can provide insights into speech and listening in these
participation frameworks.
Finally, mutual learning opportunities can be facilitated through all the
activities mentioned above, and the ‘negotiation’ of learning and teaching
styles is necessary. The results of the questionnaires suggest that not only
learners but also teachers lack confidence in dealing with silent moments in
EFL contexts.

Conclusion This study has illustrated the characteristics of Japanese classroom silence
Identity and the role and affirms its varied and unique functions. A number of interrelated
of cultural and factors explain learner silence; the roots lie in linguistic, psychological, and
contextual factors sociocultural factors, including communicative style. Although each factor
can independently account for classroom silence, they appear to be linked,
and cultural norms, especially groupism, often underlie learners’ silence.
Learners’ expectations are part of this dynamic process, with students likely
to respond better to teachers who empathize with their use of silence. The
difficulty for teachers is that significant silence is inherently difficult to
interpret and deal with. This study also reveals certain individual differences
in learners’ expectations of teaching strategies. It is also important to note
that the use of silence by Japanese E F L learners appears to have been
similarly interpreted or to have something in common in varied learning
contexts—from the purely monolingual E F L context in Japan to
multilingual contexts abroad where learners’ linguistic and cultural
background within a class are more evenly balanced. Other contexts can be
defined as semi-mono or semi-multilingual. These include year abroad
programmes or the English–Japanese immersion programmes which have
proliferated over the past ten years in Japan and Japanese schools abroad,
where learners’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds, along with their

268 Seiko Harumi

identity, vary, as reported, for instance, by Ofsted (2008) with reference to
the situation in the United Kingdom. The extent to which cultural,
individual, and contextual factors—such as differences in topics, group size,
and teacher and participant backgrounds—influence this phenomenon
remains to be further investigated.
The degree of mutual influence of the factors above constantly changes for
individuals, depending on how learner identity is shaped in specific
contexts. Nevertheless, these invisible and fluid aspects within individuals
need to be constantly taken into account in language teaching as a learner’s
identity is expressed through silent behaviour. It is my belief that fruitful
cross-cultural communication can only occur with simultaneous and
constant mutual participation both by learners and by teachers in the

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classroom that support and respect multiple cultural values concerning
speech and silence. I also regard learners’ indirect and ambiguous silent
messages as an opportunity—indeed, a starting point—to search for
fulfilling interaction. A holistic approach, taking into account learners’
sociocultural, linguistic, and psychological backgrounds, with the emphasis
on teachers’ cross-cultural awareness, may be the key to communicating
with learner silences.
Final revised version received May 2010

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