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.
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”