Are Japanese Children "Just Shy" Or Is It Something Else?

Some of my students don’t talk. At all.

At first I thought they were just extremely shy and I tried to be patient with them. I figured they only needed a little time to warm up to me. So each week, I’d spend the 50-minute class having a conversation with myself as my five junior high school students stared at their notebooks in a meditative silence.

Our ‘conversations’ would go something like this:

Me: Soooo, what are your hobbies?

Students:

Me: What do you like to do for fun?

Students:

Me: Do you like to read? (mime reading a book). Do you like to play basketball? (mime playing basketball).

Students:

After a month or two of these conversations, I grew bored. And tired. And more than a little irritated.

Me: Do you like to play basketball? Yes or No.

Students:

Me: Yes? No? Someone. Anyone.

Students:

Me: Do. you. like. to. play. basketball? Please say yes or no.

Students:

Now it’s six months later and they still aren’t talking. Although I must admit, there’s been a little improvement. Now if I ask a yes or no question, one of my 15-year-old students has started to move his head in a way that vaguely resembles a nod. When he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll sort of slowly, very slightly tilt his head to the side. And if the answer is yes, he’ll tilt his head back and blink at me. I swear, that’s about the extent of it.

Can you imagine trying to conduct a class this way? And these are freakin conversation classes, too.

I tried to play hangman with them the other day, but they were too shy to even write down their guesses, let alone actually say anything out loud. I nearly lost it. I called on individual students and then just sat there staring at them expectantly.”Say a letter. Say ‘a’. Say ‘b’. Any letter. Say it. Please.”

But then the seconds drew out to minutes while the class sat watching a spider crawl up the wall, their faces completely blank…and I knew that I wasn’t going to break them. So I went back to doing grammar exercises from the text book.

Then, yesterday, it all sort of came to a head. One of my six-year-old students had thrown rocks at me while I was trying to get a coffee out of the vending machine. So I was already feeling disrespected and mistreated when I walked into the classroom, and in about as cheerful of a voice I could muster, asked the students: How are you?

Simple question. Simple answer. Fine, good, ok, so-so…anything would have been acceptable. Instead I got room full of poker face stares and all my determination to “just be patient” went out the window.

“You need to answer me when I ask you a question!” I bellowed.” If you don’t understand, you tell me. But you don’t just sit there and stare at the ground. It’s rude!”

Then, to drive the point home, I cruelly imitated them by sitting slumped over in my chair. I know, it was horribly mean, unprofessional and a wee bit on the dramatic side.

I just want so badly for my classes to be fun. If not for them, then for me.

But now I’m thinking that I was interpreting their silences all wrong. Because they aren’t shy. At least not outside of the classroom. I’ve spied on them while they’re waiting out in the hallway.They loudly gossip and name-call and rough house and make quite a collective racket. They engage in all of the activities shy kids would be too embarrassed to do. But then, one step into the classroom, and it’s like the volume switch has been turned off and it’s the same movie, but in silence. It’s like these loud teenagers are suddenly withdrawn, sullen robots. It’s totally bizarre.

So if it’s not shyness, then what is it?

Maybe it’s that they are extreme perfectionists. They would rather remain quiet then speak and risk saying something wrong. If so, then where is this enormous pressure to be perfect coming from? The school? Their parents?

Or maybe it’s that they are secretly really angry and resentful at their parents for making them take English lessons. Maybe it’s just a matter of them not wanting to be there. Their silence is an act of rebellion. Let’s see how long it’ll take for the Eigo no Sensei to have another mental breakdown.

I guess the most important question: What do I do about it?

Note: I was a shy kid. So it’s not that I’m not empathetic…I am. I know how scary it can be to be called on to answer a question, especially when it’s in a language you don’t know very well. Even as an adult, it’s tough. I take Japanese classes and sometimes I feel like an idiot when I repeatedly make the same mistakes. It’s embarrassing.

But even at 14, no matter how nerve-racking it was, if a teacher called on me for an answer, I would respond. And it had nothing to do with wanting to show respect to the teacher. I supplied an answer because even if it was wrong, at least it was over quickly and the teacher would correct me and then move on. It was certainly better than offering no response at all. That would just mean that everyone would sit in an awkward silence and stare at me, waiting expectantly for me to say something.

So that’s why I’m having trouble understanding where they are coming from with this behavior. Are they hoping that if they stay quiet long enough, I’ll just quit talking to them? Do they behave the same way with their Japanese teachers?

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Comments ( 6 )

  1. Beth

    I was JUST writing to my friend about this. I'm a new ALT at a junior high and the hideous change that comes over 14-15 year olds when they get into the classroom is just, !!!! Outside of class, they're unbelievably outgoing and eager to try out their English. But in the classroom, even the most outgoing, obnoxious students just go blank. The only time they'll speak is to repeat an established phrase, and then only in unison with the rest of the class. It's so frustrating. It just cannot be possible to learn to be comfortable with English this way.

    Even at lunch! I eat with a different class each day, and I dread the third-year shift. I'll be sitting there at a small group of desks with 5 students who I feel like I have a good rapport with. But as soon as I ask anything in English, they get that terrified, pitiful, helpless look on their face, and eventually turn to their friend and say, "Wakannai."

    Either they're putting on an act for the JTE (which wouldn't make any sense), OR, they really are just terrified to make mistakes within the confines of the classroom.

    Either way, it's really, really hard not to get irritated. I'm not an angry person either, but I can totally understand how you lost your temper. The not-answering thing is the worst. I resolved today to start hammering in that they really do need to say "I'm sorry, I don't understand" if they can't say anything else, because the whole Stare Blankly, Turn to a Friend, Say "Wakannai" and Never Look Back routine is INEXCUSABLY rude, in any universe.

    Anyway, great blog, you're bookmarked!

  2. Reannon

    Hi Beth,

    Wow, that's awful that you have to eat lunch with them! I would just hate that. You need a break! And so do they.

    I tried teaching the "I don't understand" thing too...but I found that it didn't work for me! They wouldn't say it. I think it's because they don't have to say it with their Japanese teachers.

    Instead, they do that weird half shrug/head tilt thing when they don't know the answer and that's understood by all to symbolize "I don't understand" or "I don't know".

    Plus, I think verbally admitting they don't understand is extremely embarassing thing to do. They feel ashamed. It's a perfectionist society, afterall.

    Anyways, I just realized this recently. But maybe it'll work with you.

    Keep me posted! I'm curious to see how it works for you.

  3. Beth

    Actually no! The lunch system is pretty good. My job is way less hardcore than yours was. I'm at a public school and I'm shared by the first, second and third year English teachers for thirteen different classrooms. The kids are not exactly assaulted with English on a constant basis. And my lunch schedule runs through the homerooms of each grade twice, then moves to the next, so I only eat lunch with each classroom every 2-6 weeks. They can handle it.

    Most of them are actually pretty stoked about it and it can be a lot of fun. The first-years and second-years have no problem seeing it as a chance to talk to me in a more relaxed environment, and it gives us a chance to get to know each other better, which I think has helped them be a lot more comfortable and vocal with me in class.

    It's just the third-years, and really just a couple of the third-year classes. Two of the classes are super-outgoing and chatty at lunch, and one of them has been getting better. It's just one class really that's holding out on me. And actually, yesterday was their day to eat with me and I sat with a different group, where one boy was willing to talk. As soon as we started chatting, a couple of the others lightened up a little and answered "Yes" to "Do you like music?"

    Then today, I was scheduled to teach their class. When I started to ask easy questions about some pictures on the board, there was the typical blank silence for several moments -- but then, the chatty boy from lunch raised his hand. And after that, THREE DIFFERENT STUDENTS RAISED THEIR HANDS TO ANSWER QUESTIONS! I was SO HAPPY.

    So, I don't know. Of course a couple of strong personalities can consistently control the atmosphere of a whole classroom, especially in a junior high, maybe especially in Japan. I just would really like to figure out how to navigate it better than, Hope There Is A Chatty Kid With Leadership Qualities and Manipulate That Kid into Leading the Way. Because that does not seem like a very reliable or levelheaded strategy to me.

    Also, bummer that you couldn't get them to say "I don't understand." I don't know if I'll do any better. It's so important though!

  4. Reannon

    Wow, that's interesting. It just seems so crazy that we have to psycho-analyze these kids just to try to figure out what's going on in their heads...being that they won't tell us. And no one else has any insights.

    I got a three week training when I first started teaching, (on teaching techniques) but I really wish the training had focused more on the problems you might encounter due to all of the cultural differences. And what to do about them. A manual would have been nice.

    It's just so hard to play psychologist to kids who's culture is just so foreign...and the parents are so closed off and unwilling to even acknoledge that there IS a problem...Ugh.

    Is being an ALT any easier? Do you have more support? Or are you just sort of left to figure it out on your own?

    My old boss tried to help me...but he didn't really know what to do about any of it either. And he'd been teaching in Japan for eight years!

    Now that I'm back in NY on vaca, I've been telling some of my friends a little about what it's like to teach there...and it's just so hard to explain. I don't think they believe me...the kids' behavior just sounds so crazy.

  5. Beth

    Being an ALT, geez. It's all over the place. I got three hours of training before I started. That has more to do with my arrangements with my company (I'm dispatched), I guess, but from what I gather it's not an uncommon occurrence for ALTs.

    On a POSSIBLY related note, not much is expected of ALTs. You really are just an assistant to a native Japanese teacher. Depending on the teacher's personality and preferences, you might plan entire lessons, or you might spend 80% of the class standing respectfully to the side until called upon to read things aloud and demonstrate correct pronunciation. Most cases land somewhere in-between, like with me -- the teacher fills me in on her lesson plan and is open to any suggestions I have. I'm always encouraged to come up with worksheets and activities for the current material, and if it works, we use it. But really not much is demanded of me. I'm pretty content with where I've ended up. It's easy money. I teach anywhere from 1-5 out of 6 periods a day. Usually it's around 3, and I'm trusted to occupy myself during my free periods.

    In general though, I'd say, and I think most ALTs would echo this, that having so little expected of me is a little sketchy sometimes. It's great when I want to take it easy, but not so great when I feel like I have something to say. At this point I have no complaints about my job and my relationship with the teachers, but when I first got here, I had the distinct expression that they did not see me as a valuable, capable co-worker. My status felt like, basically somewhere between an intern and an exchange student. I can understand why I was initially viewed this way as most ALTs have no formal teaching experience or certification (I'm no exception), and most come from non-language-related fields, and are just in it for the travel cred. But I'm an experienced language tutor and I have a degree in English and I don't know, I'm pretty brilliant sometimes. Hahaha. It was basically really frustrating to feel like I had to fight to prove that. But, again, now that I've put in the effort, I can't complain about much.

    Anyway I got off-track -- as for guidance, I don't get training or lots of tips, but I do get to observe how the Japanese teachers deal with the classrooms. And believe me, they don't have much luck, either, in getting a 15 year old to speak up in class. But I'm paying attention to how they work around it, like with pair and group activities. The third-year teachers want less from me than any of the other teachers, and aren't terribly helpful when it comes to giving guidance on lesson plans, so teaching lessons alone is still nerve wracking -- but, they're both very, very good teachers, so I'm happy to be able to observe them when I'm not failing miserably. I don't think the ALT position is getting me any rigorous training in intercultural communication and cross-language teaching methods, but I'm free to observe as much as I want, and the teachers are available for my questions. Especially because I'm guilty of having no certifications, I definitely take the ALT deal as a valuable educational experience, and I feel most ALTs have the opportunity to contribute as much to the classroom as they feel able, though it is at the discretion of the JT.

    Broke as fuck though. Dispatched ALTs do not rake it in. I wanted to ask you -- I read in one of your other entries that you did private lessons through a website in Tokyo. Did that work out well for you, and what website did you use, if I may ask? If you want to share and would rather email, it's in my profile!

  6. Mark

    Hi. I work as an ALT in Japan and I completely understand what you are going through with the shyness of Japanese students. I eat lunch with my students and am expected to talk with them in English (using Japanese only as a last resort), but that can be a daunting challenge to say the least! They are just super embarrassed to talk, it seems! I try to use language that they are currently studying or have studied so that they have a model to use and then sometimes I will ask a question in English and then translate into Japanese if they are struggling, but even then, they don`t like to talk. Of course, it depends on the student or the group they are in. I try to put myself in their shoes and think about how traumatizing it must be, I guess, to talk with a foreigner (in either English or Japanese) in front of their friends while trying to finish their lunch before the bell rings. It can be a daunting task for both teacher and students! Anyway, I enjoyed reading this article! I can definitely relate!