Recently on my MA course we have been looking at the issue of reticence in the classroom, and whether this is caused by the communicative environment that the teachers create in their interactions with their students.

Previously, I didn’t think it mattered what the nationality of the students were, I thought that the environment and perhaps the student-teacher relationship would be the key issues. However, I am not widely traveled, certainly not outside of Europe so I have no worldly experiences to draw upon, unlike some of the others on the course. For this reason the issue of culture and speaking reticence was very interesting for me, although only from a curiosity standpoint, as I also have no intention of ever teaching outside of Europe either, so may never encounter such cultural challenges as the article described.

My original point of view was of the teacher taking a role to advise, assist and guide the student to perform and learn well. The key to, for me, was in building an academically motivating, caring, and safe interactive atmosphere for learning.

What was of most interest to me was some issues noted by others on the course, from their experience teaching in Eastern cultures, which had a greater impact than mine in Italy on the actions of the learners and their unwillingness to speak. These were issues such as:

Saving ‘face’
Placing collective benefits before individual interests
Cultural values (modesty over ‘showing off’)
Respect for elders.

I teach mostly on a 1 to 1 basis. This is great for combating all of these issues. There is no need to save ‘face’ as no-one but the student and the teacher will see the efforts made during practice, or witness any failures. Collective benefits do not apply as if the individual does not ask, there is no-one else there to ask for them, so this means they usually do ask. Cultural values are often put aside, if there are any, as I tell my students that once they have entered the classroom they have crossed the border into an English speaking country. Finally, respect for elders, whilst understandable, I am often either around the same age or sometimes younger than my students, so this is not an issue. Obviously the kids in my lessons do have natural politeness and respect for me but that is more as a teacher than as an ‘elder’. Plus my learners are there because they want to learn, not because they have to, and this can be a key motivator to speaking in my opinion. The reticence is not there in the first place!

So how do I overcome speaking reticence? I have some who are more reticent than others obviously, but overall they come to me to speak so we speak. The real issues I have to overcome are confidence and fear of making errors which are mostly dealt with through practice, reinforcement, positive feedback, and interaction. What I have noted from the English that some of the Italians do in schools is that it’s all grammar, reading and writing and little to no speaking. So maybe the culture ‘problem’ for my teaching context is not the culture of the nationality but the culture of the teaching objectives and style in schools towards the importance of speaking practice!

Rachel Boyce

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