How Should Educators Interpret and Respond to Silence in the English Language Classroom?

This month we published East Asian Perspectives on Silence in English Language Education edited by Jim King and Seiko Harumi. In this post the editors explain where the idea for the book came from and its aim to address the stereotypes of learner silence in East Asian English language classrooms.

Those of us who teach languages all encounter the phenomenon of silence in our classrooms. But how do we interpret and react to these moments of silence? On the one hand, silence can help learning because it allows space for concentration and thinking, whilst on the other, it can be seen as an enemy of the process of second language acquisition, which is so reliant on interaction and meaningful communication for progress. The idea for this book has its origins in our scholarly journeys in East Asia where we were both engaged as educators and researchers. These sometimes challenging experiences led us to develop a fascination with the role silence plays in second language education.

Emerging from an awareness of the need for an up-to-date book which does justice to the significant role silence plays in L2 learning, our publication draws on ideas from a variety of academic fields (e.g. applied linguistics, psychology, international education, pragmatics, anthropology, and so on) in order to build a comprehensive picture of classroom silence in East Asian contexts. This openness to a diversity of ideas is shared by each contributor to the collection, all of whom are experienced in working with students and teachers from such countries as China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.

Compared with investigations focusing on classroom talk, research on silence is relatively rare. Studies done in the past tended to look at the socio-cultural background of East Asian language learners in order to understand their reticence, encouraging stereotyped images of these students as being merely shy, passive and quiet. Such an ethnocentric interpretation of learner behaviour can in fact obfuscate pictures of classroom practice and render them inaccurate.

As one colleague explained: ‘I illustrate the problem as a teacher and regard learner silence as a wall, but also sympathise with students’ frustration with teachers who, rather than understanding their responses, interpret them as a lack of initiative or a refusal to participate’. This teacher’s dilemma encapsulates attempts to express the role and function of specific silences in L2 learning.

East Asian Perspectives on Silence in English Language Education rejects simplistic stereotypes and generalisations which profess to explain why so many learners from East Asia seem either reluctant or unable to speak English by providing an account of current research into the complex and ambiguous issue of silence in language education. It also offers a fresh perspective on ways to facilitate classroom interaction while also embracing silence when it is appropriate to do so.

 

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also like other books in our Psychology of Language Learning and Teaching series.

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