Say you don’t understand. Or do.

I was at an academic presentation this weekend.  I won’t say where just in case anyone is reading, but it was quite good, about testing.  It was full of academic and often technical language.

The reaction of the audience was most interesting.  Roughly half of the audience were foreign males. About half were Japanese females.  The usual mix in Japan.  The foreign males were nodding away, asking questions, learning forward and getting into things.  The Japanese females were mostly sleeping, sorry,  concentrating with their eyes closed.

My understanding of this was that they didn’t understand.  Hence they went to sleep.  But what I got back in reply was “No, this is the Japanese way.  We were concentrating and hence were too busy to give feedback.  This is Japanese manners”.

No it’s not.  It’s that they wanted to hear live English, but didn’t understand.  The lack of any head nodding, learning forward or making any verbal noises, as they would in Japanese, showed this.

“No, no, you are wrong” is the usual reply.  But look what happened next….

When the presenter changed from talking about high end academic tests to briefly commenting on tests for children.  As soon as he started mentioning words like “banana”, “nice”, “yellow” instantly the Japanese teachers started giving signs of recognition.  They were making very quiet “ah” sounds, leaning forward, nodding their heads etc. just like they would in Japanese.  It wasn’t because of the content, it was because they had found words they could understand.

Who controls you?

Over the years I’ve found one golden rule of doing business in Japan.  Do it in Japanese.  That way I can take control of the understanding.  If I don’t understand something, even something simple, I ask.  But whenever I have done things in English, even with very fluent sounding people from government, publishers or big business you can guarantee that something has been miscommunicated.  And the main reason is always that the Japanese person instead of asking for clarification, they just went on with the “yes, yes, I understand” even when they didn’t.

It’s not an anti-Japanese thing,  I only use this case because it’s the one I have the most experience with.  It’s a universal mistake that all students make.  And it comes from not learning one of the fundamentals of language learning.   That of asking when you don’t understand something.  There’s no “cultural barrier” about it, everyone finds it tough to admit they don’t know something.  But it is a vital skill that we all must have, and teach.

Drop it

So they next time your adult students or co-workers  fall asleep, sorry, concentrate with their eyes closed, drop the level to one they can understand.  And then do some feedback exercises to help them show you when they don’t.

For example in my workshops I say “OK?” far too much.  But the reason is that I want to know if they really have understood ( I can’t read everyone’s face at the back of a big room!)  I do this by training everyone to respond in a big loud voice to every “OK?” I give.  The trick is that sometimes I’ll finish a paragraph in French and then ask them, they still respond “OK!” the first few times!  So that’s when you can train them that the truly great learners, for example all the great speakers I met in Sweden, and the road to knowledge, starts with the words “I don’t know”

Richard Graham

Hello, I'm Richard Graham. And when I was a kid I found school to be sooooo boring... So I transformed my way of teaching. I listened to what the kids were really wanting to say and taught it in ways they really wanted to learn. The results were magical. So I'm sharing it all with you now...

3 Responses to “Say you don’t understand. Or do.”

  1. Natalie

    Richard thank you for writing about such an urgent problem. Let me tell you a story that I had.
    I used to come home from my University twice a week quite upset, those days we had  Methodics. The problem was that I didn’t understand a word there, the lecturer was just dictating something from the book, lots of terms, names etc, I kept asking myself “how can I use it in teaching kids” but I couldn’t find the answer. All the students were bored stiff and couldn’t wait for leaving. It kept going like this till one day my husband told me “If you don’t understand anything just ask”. I said “Then I will ask to explain every word!”, “Then do!”, he said.
    I did began asking questions. At first the audience and the lecturer looked at me as though I didn’t have a nose on my face or something like that, because nobody ever dared to ask a question. Don;t ask me why, it just was like this.
    But since then the lecturer started preparing for the class better, she began to explain things and I felt that could learn something from those classes.
    Needless to say that I felt like a Super Hero!
    So, Richard, you’re very right saying that asking questions is a “vital skill that we all must have, and teach.”

  2. Gumby

    Richard and Natalie,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences. This was a very timely post for me. It underscores the importance of making sure the content matches the level of the listeners. Yesterday I had a very chatty class (my first lesson with them) For this particular school, I always have the students mark how much of the class they understood. Not surprisingly the percentage understood was low. Back to asking questions to check understanding.

  3. Jesse Hall

    I know exactly what you mean. Even with the little kids I teach that are 8 and 9 years old, they don’t want to ask questions. I get them to repeat a lot of phrases I teach them in class, but sometimes I purposefully make obvious mistakes to see if they notice. If students understand, then they won’t be as confident repeating what I said, or just won’t repeat it at all. If they repeat it with as much enthusiasm as before, then I know there is a lack of understanding.

    Not sure if it would work with adults. After all, if they call you out right away, they might not believe you did it on purpose 😉

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