October 2018
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Willem de Goei, Accra, Ghana

Silence in a Japanese Context

Research shows that Japanese learners have a disposition toward silent behaviour (Cutrone, 2009). This tendency may be explained by the fact that in Japanese education, the teacher is traditionally considered a transmitter of knowledge who should not be questioned. Furthermore, in Japan, silence serves a communicative purpose as a way to show respect and agreement. Although considered a virtue in a Japanese context, Western teachers in Japan often seek to avoid silence in a communicative EFL classroom because they think it impedes the process of language learning; communication—perceived by most Western teachers as the active oral production of a second language (L2)—is often favoured and encouraged, and moments of silence are generally considered awkward and are frowned upon.

Although silent behaviour may be caused by numerous factors, Cutrone (2009) points out that Japanese EFL learners’ reluctance to speak is largely due to the language anxiety caused by

learners’ social and cultural codes for speaking…Japanese learners are likely to experience language anxiety in oral EFL classes because they are simply not prepared to deal with the social components of western-style teaching practices, where a great emphasis is put on individualism, challenging the teacher, and original opinions. (p. 58)

This implies that certain classroom virtues are not shared by Western teachers and Japanese learners. As a result, Western teachers may need to redefine the concept of communication in a Japanese EFL classroom, taking into consideration the various sources and functions of silence as well as acknowledging the fact that both communication and silence may be perceived and interpreted differently across cultures. A heightened awareness among teachers of the interplay between both sociocultural and psychological variables may provide a more complete understanding of Japanese EFL students’ inclination toward silence.

Willingness to Communicate

An exploration of willingness to communicate (WTC), defined as “a readiness to enter into discourse at a particular time with a specific person or persons, using L2,” allows researchers to incorporate psychological, communicative, and linguistic approaches in examining L2 acquisition (MacIntyre, Dornyei, Clement, & Noels, 1998, p. 545). Fostering a WTC (i.e., engaging in oral production of L2) among Japanese EFL students is one of the main concerns of Western teachers in Japan because these teachers are expected to “activate” students’ passive knowledge of English by facilitating an environment in which students feel comfortable developing their English through trial and error. Therefore, the argument that “the ultimate goal of the learning process should be to engender in language students the willingness to seek out communication opportunities and the willingness to actually communicate in them” (MacIntyre et al., 1998, p. 547) resonates with the classroom reality Westerns teachers in Japan and many other Asian countries find themselves in.

The model of WTC presented by MacIntyre et al. (1998) shows how 12 social and psychological variables are interrelated and may affect students’ choice to engage in L2 communication. Here, the investigation will be limited to one of these 12 variables: state communicative self-confidence, which refers to “a momentary feeling of confidence” and encompasses both “perceived competence” as well as “a lack of anxiety” (MacIntyre et al., 1998, p. 549). State communicative self-confidence is one of two situated antecedents that most immediately determine WTC (MacIntyre et al., 1998); thus, this is a key variable that may help explain why Japanese EFL students do not engage in communication and remain silent. As established before, levels of anxiety may render students silent, and anxiety caused by cultural differences may be decreased by teachers’ awareness of various perceptions and interpretations of silence across cultures. Closer examination of language learning anxiety and its potential sources may help us better understand and address students’ silence.

Foreign Language Learning Anxiety and Its Sources

Defined as “a distinct complex of self-perceptions, beliefs, and behaviours related to classroom language learning arising from the uniqueness of the language learning process” (Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope, 1986, p. 128), foreign language anxiety is linked to three similar performance anxieties: communication apprehension, fear of negative evaluation, and test anxiety. Because the focus of the present article is on silence in communicative oral EFL classroom settings, communication apprehension, defined as “an individual’s level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with another person or persons” (McCroskey, 1977, p. 78), will be further discussed, and fear of negative evaluation will be touched upon briefly.

Young (1991) mentions three psychological phenomena as important sources of foreign language anxiety, including speech anxiety, embarrassment, and communication apprehension. Communication apprehension is subsumed by social anxiety arising from people being evaluated by others in imagined or real social settings. Social anxiety directly links to the performance anxiety resulting from fear of negative evaluation, as discussed by Horwitz, Horwitz, and Cope (1986). Another psychological phenomenon is “club membership,” referring to individuals’ affective filters going up when they do not consider themselves to be members of a certain group (Young, 1991). Last, existential anxiety is a psychological phenomenon concerned with a learner’s self-identity: When students learn a new language, they may feel that they lose their own identity (Young, 1991).

Thus, social anxiety (subsuming both communication apprehension and fear of negative evaluation), club membership, and existential anxiety “may be the seeds for students’ language anxiety as expressed in fear over speaking in front of others” (Young, 1991, p. 428). This fear is likely to negatively affect students’ WTC, resulting in silence.

Implications and Suggestions

If they are insufficiently aware of cultural differences and student expectations, Western teachers may perceive of Japanese EFL students’ silence as disinterest or shyness. Although at times this may certainly be the case, and many instances of Japanese EFL students’ silence may be attributed to sociocultural aspects (e.g., silence to show respect and agreement as well as a reluctance to challenge the teacher), these sociocultural aspects do not operate separately from psychological aspects; rather, many of the sources of anxiety previously described are a mix of sociocultural and psychological influences. An awareness of these influences is vital if teachers are to address students’ silence in EFL classrooms.

It is important for teachers to realise that the development of communication apprehension is like a vicious cycle: Students apprehensive of communication often avoid situations that allow them to enhance their ability to communicate (Daly, 1991). When, after much avoidance, students are put into situations where teachers—unaware of the psychology of silence—push them to produce language, the pressure for students may become intolerable. The resulting negative evaluation from themselves, peers, or teachers may reaffirm expectations of poor performance and result in even greater anxiety. This may lead to an increased avoidance of participation in communication. Teachers can encourage students to be less apprehensive by creating a learning environment supportive of students suffering from communication apprehension. For instance, teachers may have to extend their tolerance toward moments of silence as well as allowing students to take their time expressing ideas.

For the affective filter to go down, a sense of group membership within the classroom needs to be created (Young, 1991). Collaborative learning activities may help students to open up and share ideas. By facilitating opportunities for students to engage in nonevaluated communicative activities, teachers may be able to build a sense of group membership.

Teachers need to be aware of how existential anxiety impacts students’ self-perception, rendering them silent in class (Young, 1991). Teachers can share with students their own experiences of how foreign language learning may have impacted their own identities. Designing lessons around the topic of identity forming, teachers may help students realise that it is not uncommon to question one’s identity when learning a foreign language.


Japanese and perhaps other Asian EFL students’ proclivity to silence is a complex phenomenon influenced by sociocultural and psychological variables, which if not acknowledged may lead to serious misunderstandings between Western teachers and students. Western teachers need to realize that both communication and silence may be perceived and interpreted differently by Japanese learners. Japanese EFL students should know that their Western teachers are aware of the fact that in Japan, silence plays an active role in communication. Finally, teachers need to be aware that pushing students to produce language may further increase levels of foreign language anxiety.


Cutrone, P. (2009). Overcoming Japanese EFL learners’ fear of speaking. Language Studies Working Papers, 1, 55–63.

Daly, J. A. (1991). Understanding communication apprehension: An introduction for language educators. In E. K. Horwitz & D. J. Young (Eds.), Language anxiety: From theory and research to classroom implications (pp. 3–13). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Horwitz, E., Horwitz, M., & Cope, J. (1986). Foreign language classroom anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 70(2), 125–132.

MacIntyre, P., Dornyei, Z., Clement, R., & Noels, K. (1998). Conceptualizing willingness to communicate in a L2: A situational model of L2 confidence and affliction. The Modern Language Journal, 82(4), 545–562.

McCroskey, J. C. (1977). Oral communication apprehension: a summary of recent theory and research. Human Communication Research, 4(1), 78–96

Young, D. (1991). Creating a low-anxiety classroom environment: What does language anxiety research suggest? The Modern Language Journal, 75(4), 426–439.

Willem de Goei, MA, is an English as a foreign language instructor and teacher trainer currently based in Accra, Ghana. His main research interests include foreign language acquisition, teacher education, intercultural communication, and the integration of information and communications technology in language instruction. For the past 10+ years he has taught English at various higher education institutions in Thailand, Japan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Ghana.

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