Cultural Matters

Recently, I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks in London, visiting family and friends. I also took the opportunity to assess a CELTA course over there. In one of the pre-intermediate lessons I was observing there were a good many Japanese and Brazilian learners. These students seemed to be playing their stereotypical roles to a tee. Whereas the Brazilians tended to be outspoken, extrovert, and more fluent at the expense of accuracy,  the Japanese learners were cautious, introverted, and less fluent but more accurate. Watching the classroom scene unfold took me back to a time nearer to the beginning of my teaching career.

When I was working as a teacher in London, I was encouraged by the school to attend a talk being given about Japanese English language learners. The school and I thought it might provide some useful insights considering the large number of Japanese students enrolled at the school.

My main focus of interest was why, when compared to some other nationalities, Japanese students were, on the whole, less fluent than other nationalities, like the Brazilians, but when they did speak, they tended to be much more accurate in terms of grammar and vocabulary.

In the event, the speaker offered a few useful insights as to why this might be the case. The reasons he gave were influenced by culture, psychology and teaching methods predominant in Japan at that time.

One of the most important cultural influences he identified was the desire on the part of Japanese students not to lose face in front of their peers by making mistakes. On the one hand, this cultural constraint inhibited learners from making contributions in the classroom. However, it also means that when Japanese students do make a contribution, they must be pretty sure that it is going to be correct. To my knowledge, such a fear of ‘losing face’ is not as prevalent in Brazilian culture. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true. Brazil seems to be a country which lauds risk takers.

A psychological factor which may also influence fluency and accuracy are attitudes towards silence. According to the speaker, Japanese students may be more at ease with silence in class due to cultural practices that emphasize the importance of being indirect, deferring to authority and not wanting to stand out in a crowd, for example. Which are obviously not attributes you would associate with the average Brazilian. Whatever the case, being comfortable with silence may impinge on the need to blurt out the first thing that comes into your head, and it could also mean that because Japanese students listen more attentively, they are able to process language for accuracy more effectively.

The speaker went on to describe how traditional teaching styles in Japanese English language institutions left students “disengaged,” and often they are only required to at most give a one-word answer. Although this may still be the case in the normal Brazilian education system, it is not so in private language schools where more communicative approaches have led the way.

So, although we have to beware of over-generalizing, it might be prudent to take cultural, psychological and educational factors into account when embarking on the design of a course, whether it be to a multi-lingual or mono-lingual groups in either English language instruction or teacher training courses such as CELTA.

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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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