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The Shyness Myth
by Christian Burrows
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Student autonomy

Student autonomy and other learning styles and strategies are mental steps that students use to learn a new language (Wenden, 1991:18). Unfortunately they are not possessed by everyone and appear to be age-related skills which students acquire as they get older. It therefore seems unrealistic for younger learners (including university students) to possess such skills. Successful students, it has been pointed out, are those who learn to adopt active strategies for themselves, rather than relying on the teacher (Tyacke and Mendelsohn in Wenden, 1991:12). This 'psychological proportion' (Allwright, 1981) is part of helping students take responsibility for their learning. However the cultural aspect of autonomous strategies are concepts which Japanese students have little experience of as their teaching methods, as mentioned, are mainly teacher dependent (Jones, 1995:229) where teachers are viewed as the respected 'bearers of knowledge' (Stapleton 1996:14). Therefore this way of learning must be explicitly taught to Japanese university students, otherwise due to different learning styles it will be unknown by all. This process of attitude change in adults is intended to teach learners to recognise the 'right' attitude (Petty and Capioppo, 1986 in Wenden).

This concept of student autonomy is a broad field which incorporates numerous definitions, including 'autonomy' (Rubin and Thompson, 1982); 'independence' (Nunan, 1988:3; Cooker and Torpey, 2004); and 'responsibility' (Wenden, 1991:53). Research has led to some general agreement on the key factors of what characteristics a 'good learner' should possess. They include that the learner:

1. Is actively involved in the language learning process

2. Attempts to decipher how the language works

3. Adapts even in situations they don't like

4. Knows that language is used to communicate

5. Adopts strategies to assist with their language learning

(Naiman et al, 1978; Rubin, 1989; O`Malley, 1978; Rubin and Thompson, 1982; Saville-Troike, 1984).

In other words if students made more effort to decipher what is involved in learning a language, and attempted to overcome any shortfalls, this would have a beneficial influence on their learning. It would therefore seem appropriate to promote the qualities, which make a 'good student' as:

…one reason for the widespread acceptance and growth of autonomous...activities, it tends to be regarded as promoting autonomy, which we all know to be a highly valued goal.
(Technology, autonomy: A word of caution)

Due to the difference in cognitive profiles the culturally insensitive approach would be to expect learners from other cultures to be able to adopt these 'foreign' strategies immediately. Why would Japanese students, who have experienced years of passive learning, suddenly realise that they have to take more responsibility? This lack of awareness of alternative learning techniques obviously limits a learner's ability in situations requiring the use of these learning strategies (Dansereau in Wenden, 1991:4) thus appearing shy.

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