Category Archives: cross-cultural communication

Back to life – starting over

I’m resurrecting this blog after many years (last update was 2010).

I will write about some chronic issues that I’ve encountered over the years, and which never go away or seem to improve. These are the major speed-bumps in my teaching.

After teaching for over 30 years, and now approaching retirement, I want to pass on whatever wisdom or insight I may have acquired with regard to teaching English to college students in Japan, and if possible, to throw some light onto these major stumbling blocks or obstacles.

The major obstacle, I’ve found,  is a culture gap: a gap between (obviously) my English/British/European culture and the Japanese, but also a gap between European and Japanese values, and perhaps between the older and the younger generation.  The gap is only partly linguistic: it is not just because they don’t speak or understand English and my Japanese is still limited. It is also because of major differences in values. The problem becomes one of how to identify these differences, and then how to talk about them and resolve them if possible. Until recently, I had no real way to talk about them with students, except privately with a very few interested ones, and mostly they would agree with me but be unable to offer any practical suggestions for future action.

Here is a brief summary of some of the issues I encountered, with a list below of other topics I plan to address in future posts: Continue reading Back to life – starting over

Roundup August 26th, 2007

From a comment Larry left, I discovered his blog, and from there this page of resources for students. An impressive list, although there are lots more resources than student-produced pages.

One of the links was to Dandelife “a social biography network”.

One of the stories I clicked on at random referred to sleep apnea and a successful treatment this guy found called Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, which I wasn’t particularly interested in until I read this: The examples and perspective in this article or section may not represent a worldwide view of the subject.

The Wikipedia article on this topic and a related one on the Neutral Point of View, are both fascinating, revealing a global awareness and how this affects point of view, bias and accuracy in writing, something I blogged about a few months ago: blogging to broaden your perspective. If you’re writing on the Internet, you can assume you’ll get readers from all over the world, and you can’t assume, as so many writers do, that your readers are like you, or have the same point of view.

On the Wikipedia page on countering systemic bias, I found these points to be particularly interesting:

  • The origins of bias
    The average Wikipedian on English Wikipedia is (1) male, (2) technically inclined, (3) formally educated, (4) a native or non-native English-speaker, (5) white, (6) aged 15–49, (7) from a nominally Christian country, (8) from an industrialized nation, (9) from the Northern Hemisphere, and (10) likely to be employed in intellectual rather than practical or physical jobs (see Wikipedia:User survey and Wikipedia:University of Würzburg survey, 2005).
  • Why [bias] matters and what to do
    Many editors contribute to Wikipedia because they see Wikipedia as progressing towards, though never reaching, an ideal state as a repository of human knowledge. The more idealistic may see Wikipedia as a vast discussion on what is true and what is not from a “neutral point of view” or “God’s Eye View”. The idea of a systemic bias is thus far more troubling than even widespread intentional vandalism. Vandalism can be readily identified and corrected. The existence of systemic bias means that not only are large segments of the world not participating in the discussion, but that there is a deep-rooted problem in the relationship of Wikipedia, its contributors and the world at large.

    The systemic bias of the English Wikipedia is permanent. As long as the demographic of English speaking Wikipedians is not exactly identical to the world demographic, the vision of the world presented on the English Wikipedia will always be askew. Thus the only way systemic bias would disappear would be if the population of the world all spoke English at the same level of fluency and had equal access and inclination to use the English Wikipedia. However, the effects of systemic bias may be mitigated through conscious effort. This is the goal of the Countering systemic bias project.

    There are many things you may do, listed roughly from least to most intensive:
    * See if there are web pages on a particular subject which were written by people from other countries or cultures. It may provide you other places to look or other points of view to consider.
    * Be more conscious of your own biases in the course of normal editing. Look at the articles you work on usually and think about whether they are written from an international perspective. If not, you might be able to learn a lot about a subject you thought you knew by adding content with a different perspective.
    * Occasionally edit a subject that is systemically biased against the pages of your natural interests. The net effect of consciously changing one out of every twenty of your edits to something outside your “comfort zone” would be substantial.

Cultural difference

Teaching English in a foreign country is a whole different game. I read a few teachers blogs, teachers in the US, UK, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Canada. Almost all are teaching in their own native language, and teaching students who mostly have the same native language as the teacher. When you’re teaching students who do not share not only your native language but also your cultural values, it seriously warps the playing field.

A couple of days ago, I had a final, last-day-before-the-summer-vacation class. As we had already had our exams and tests, I brought in a couple of English games: Clue and Scrabble. We played Clue(do) first.

This is a board game with cards for all the suspects, the murder weapons and the rooms in the mansion. By a process of elimination, players figure out who dunnit using what weapon and where: a player enters a room and makes a guess; if the player to her left has any one of the cards (suspect, weapon, room) named in the guess, that player must show the card.

It was amusing to watch my students play. They did not seem to know the concept of elimination. They all seemed to be most pre-occupied with finding out what cards the other players held, not by elimination but by pure guesswork. Whenever a player, in response to another player’s guess, showed that player a card, some would shout “Oh, I know! I know” (often, this was mere theatre), while others shouted, “Wait! Just hang on a minute!!” while they perused their own cards and stared with fierce concentration at the board.

Very soon after the game began, at least two of the 6 players abandoned their checklist saying it was no help or it confused them! The other players sometimes used their checklists and sometimes not. It seemed that, rather than using a process of elimination, they were trying to intuit which cards were in the envelope (the crime cards). Some students actually encouraged each other, or claimed to, “read the air” literally (空気を読む kuuki wo yomu).

I was strongly reminded of John Holt’s elementary school pupils who seemed to avoid using their knowledge and powers of reasoning, and, instead, using guesswork and intuition to try and divine the “right answer”.

If I were teaching people from my own or a similar (say, European) culture, I would have no hesitation in labelling these efforts as misguided, ineffective and “wrong”. But I’m a stranger in a strange land. For all I know, this way of “thinking” may be just as effective as my Western rationalism. I have come across some examples of intuition in this culture which I would flatly have refused to believe if I had heard about them at second-hand and not experienced them myself.

Students seem to use a similar approach when learning English: rather than recognizing patterns or thinking things through using their knowledge of English syntax or spelling patterns, they try to intuit (pronunciation, meanings of words or phrases) – they are hoping to hit the jackpot with an inspired guess.

A slightly different tactic, but which to my mind springs from the same mindset, is to try and memorize everything: when practicing conversations, I fondly imagine I am giving them the lexical and syntactical “building blocks”, which they must then put together to create something new. But often they reproach me saying they are not ready, they haven’t memorized the examples yet!

Despite my tendency towards cultural relativism (not to be confused with moral relativism), I still strongly suspect that my students are trying to take a short-cut where there isn’t one.

So, which is it? Are these students culture-bound, using an approach to learning which is familiar to them, but unfamiliar to me, and which I should therefore tread lightly around before criticizing? Or are they exhibiting a tendency fostered by schools? A tendency that John Holt described as a strategy* designed to fool their teacher into thinking they know what they really don’t know?

*The anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don’t know.

Cultural difference
Originally uploaded by passionfly

Cultural differences in self-introductions

In a comment to my previous post, Cleve reported:

One technique I try to do with the “state the class objective” slice is to borrow a page from the marketing book and frame the objective in a way that Ss feel is important – (simplistic) example with my adult BE Ss: instead of saying “today we’ll be working on the conditionals” I’ll say “After today’s session you’ll be able to discuss future scenarios for your marketing plans when you have a presentation…” which is more meaningful to them.

Because the situation in this week’s class was introducing yourself, Cleve’s comments reminded me of a big difference between Japanese and English-speakers when it comes to social introductions. Perhaps it’s because Japan is more of a collectivist society, but one of the first things I had to learn when I came here was how to “do a self-introduction”, which is always to a group, often a large one, like, the whole school.

Conversely, Japanese are generally poor at small-group social interactions. At a party where I invited both Japanese and non-Japanese, most non-Japanese stood around chatting and eating and drinking in small groups: the Japanese teachers from my school came right in, sat down at the only low table and ensconced themselves there for the duration of the evening, calling loudly for beer and food at irregular intervals. At another similar party, a Japanese guest came in, took his plate and cup, then stood around embarrassed, completely incapable of insinuating himself into a group. He gave up after 10 seconds, handed me his plate, said “Some other time” and left.

A “party” for Japanese is a chance to bond (and bitch) with your co-workers, not an opportunity to mingle and meet new people.

Here: introduce yourself to this lot.