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The Shyness Myth
by Christian Burrows
- 4

Overcoming "shyness"

As stated earlier, Japanese students could benefit greatly in the long run if a substantial portion of the lesson were given to teaching them ways of leaning for themselves. This would include strategies, activities and techniques students need to use to improve their progress in apprehending, internalizing and using English (Oxford, 1990:235). Students, especially those from 'collectivist societies' (Hofstede, 1986) such as Japan need to build self-confidence in their capability to work independently of the teacher (Sinclair and Ellis, 1985). Activities are also useful for developing pragmatic awareness and opportunities for communicative practice, especially role-playing (Kasper, 1983:20) which also helps promote the process of cross-cultural dialogue. As second language learning is a highly interactive process the quality of this interaction is thought to have a considerable influence on the learning process (Ellis, cited in Richard and Lockheart, 1994:138) with research showing that the conscious use of such strategies is related to language achievement and proficiency (Oxford, 1990; Rubin and Thompson 1982). This can help turn the learning experience into one of increased cultural and self-awareness by encouraging greater cooperation and teamwork.

In teaching an 'alien' language teachers need to be sensitive to the fragility of using techniques that promote cultural understanding (Stevik, 1976: 173). Therefore we should not expect learners to deny the frustration they feel. The reason that these methods play a more significant role in Japan is because the teacher's role is more of a factor in helping student's progress through their development stages of language learning (Brown, 1994:174). Becoming partners, however, imposes its own responsibilities, ones which have again not traditionally been accorded to the 'recipients' of teaching. Important among these responsibilities is that of consciousness about ones own learning process and strategies. To force one technique onto students as a means of becoming a 'better learner' will only lead to problems when it is surely realised that 'one fit does not suit all' (Jones, 1995). This focus on the learner changes quite radically the typical distribution of power and authority in the classroom. How learners go about making sense of language data therefore becomes of central importance and it is these psychological traits (attitude, personality) that appear to be related to successful language learning (Rubin and Thompson, 1982:6).


While it is acknowledged that there are many significant factors which affect the relationship in the classroom, if teachers are aware of them there are strategies which can be adopted which reduce their effect. These other factors are much more difficult to quantify than by directly asking the students. So the onus of responsibility must be on the teacher to recognize and to be aware of factors affecting the success of the class. Once the teacher is aware and understands the reasons (e.g. shyness), then they will be able to adjust their methodology to overcome perceived barriers.

Teachers should also be sensitive and perceptive to the unique situation and not expect learners to deny the anger and frustration they may feel. These are real feelings and they need to be openly expressed. To smother these feelings may delay and actually prevent progress. So it is important to recognize the influence of shyness rather than dismiss it as a problem. This 'mental handicap' (Doyon, 2000) may cause students to feel uncomfortable in unstructured situations resulting in taking a longer time to process what is expected; or a reluctance to fully participate in the lesson (e.g. answer questions, volunteer information etc.); or a general restriction and limiting of their answers due to uncertainty. Also worries about accuracy may make students feel reluctant to take a risk or venture an opinion. These traits are often observed especially in the Japanese language class that I join every week. I would observe that many of the foreigners appear shy when asked to answer to the whole class in a language they do not have full command of. I have not considered these people 'handicapped' merely unaccustomed to the situation and lacking the linguistic ability to express themselves freely.

Bialystok, E. (1990) Communication Strategies - A Psychological Analysis of Second Language use. Cambridge, MA : Basil Blackwell.
Brown, H.D. (1994) Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. (3rd edn.) New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Doyon, P. (2000) 'Shyness in the Japanese EFL class: Why it is a problem, what it is, what causes it, and what to do.' The Language Teacher (24/01).
Faerch, C. and Kasper, G. (1983) Strategies in Interlanguage Communication. London: Longman.
Hofstede, G. (1986) Cultural Differences in Teaching and Learning. International Journal of Intercultural Relations. 10/301-320.
Oxford, R. (1990) Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.
Rubin, J. and Wenden, A. (1987) Learners Strategies in Language Learning. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.


Christian Burrows has been teaching at various levels within the Japanese education system over the past 8 years. Since April he has been teaching at International Pacific University, Okayama. He graduated from the University of Sheffield (England) with a B.A. in Politics and the University of Birmingham (England) with an MA in TESOL. When he is not devising ways to make Japanese students speak in English during the class he continues the struggle of mastering the Japanese language.

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