Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Conversational Framing and Discussions in Japan

I have just read a chapter in Framing in Discourse edited by Deborah Tannen. The Chapter is called "Cultural Differences in Framing" and the author is Suwako Watanabe.

Watanabe compared the behavior in a group discussion of a group of Japanese students studying in the USA to that of a group of US university students. I thought that the results of her study have implications for holding discussions in the Japanese EFL classroom so I have decided to write about Watanabe's study.

First, let me explain to you what a frame is. Well, before I tell you what a frame is, let me warn you that there does not seem to be a simple one sentence definition. Both Watanabe and Tannen devote a couple of pages to reviewing related psychological and linguistic theories before defining what a frame is. Skipping all the theoretical background, I frame is defined as "sets of expectations about people, objects, settings and ways to interact." In other words are past experiences in interacting with people will have a significant impact on how we approach a communicative situation. For example, Tannen (1993) conducted a study where she had Greek EFL students and US university students watch and then describe a 6 minute silent movie. The US students interpreted this as being some kind of test and tried very hard to summarize everything that had occurred in the movie. The Greek students, on the other hand, focused more on relaying the message of the movie by trying to interpret the feelings of the characters and the reasons for their actions. Thus, it appears that both groups approached the same communicative situation in different ways.

In Watanabe's study, 4 groups of 4 US students each and 3 groups of 4 Japanese students each were given 20 (or 30?) minutes to discuss the following questions:
  1. Why did you decide to learn Japanese? (or) Why did you decide to study abroad?
  2. For Americans, it is said that Japanese is harder to learn than other European foreign languages, do you agree or disagree?
  3. Discuss misunderstandings that are likely to occur between Japanese and Americans and give examples.
Watanabe found the following differences in the way both groups approached the discussion:

Beginning the Discussion
: The Japanese groups spent time at the beginning deciding who would speak first, second, third etc. and the procedures of the discussion. In one group, the order of the discussion was decided by age with the oldest person speaking last. Watanabe writes that members of a Japanese group are conscious of the hierarchy of the members and this hierarchical order governs the behavior of its members.
In the US group, on the other hand, once the researcher, Watanabe, left the room they immediately began the discussion by saying "OK" and talking. There was absolutely no discussion on the order of which people would speak.

Ending the Discussion:
In the Japanese groups there was a consensus that the discussion should be ended. In one group, the oldest member was the one who closed the discussion. In the US group, the discussion ended when the participants ran out of things to say.

Giving Reasons for Question 1: Members of the Japanese groups tended to give detailed, chronological stories on why they decided to study abroad. Members if the US groups tended to give brief reasons about what they decided to study abroad.

Argumentative Strategies for Question 2: Members of the Japanese groups spoke once each about their opinion on question 2. Their opinions tended to be long and cover multiple perspectives: discussing the easy and difficult points of learning Japanese. There was no disagreeing among the participants. Members of the US group tended to either be on one side (Japanese is easy) or the other (Japanese is difficult). Usually, they would give a single reason and then add another later on. Thus, participants spoke multiple times, in addition there were many disagreements.

Watanabe concludes that while the Japanese participants in this study were very conscience of establishing the hierarchy of the group members and maintaining group harmony the US participants tended to see themselves as 4 individuals gathered only for the purpose of the discussion.

My experience as an American is that when I participate in discussions with people I do not know well, I do not worry so much about the other participants. Rather, I say what I want to and then listen to what other people have to say sometimes agreeing or disagreeing. In the classroom or workshops I have conducted, however, students/participants tend to exhibit behavior closer to the Japanese participants of Watanabe's study. I think that there is a danger of US teachers in Japan misinterpreting their students' hesitancy during a discussion. For example, they might believe that their students are too shy to hold a discussion or that Japanese students just don't like to talk. I think for group discussion to work in a US-teacher fronted classroom, it is important for the teacher to understand that the participant's expectations as to how a discussion should be held might differ from their own.

Let me give an example, last month at my university we held a public debate. There were about 40 people who attended, all of whom were local elementary, junior and senior high school teachers. The topic of the debate was

"English should be taught to all elementary school teachers"

One group of 5 brave students from the English department argued for and another even braver group of 5 students argued against the above statement. The audience were divided into groups before the debate began. After the "for" and "against" team made their opening statements I asked each group to take 10 minutes and prepare questions to ask the "for" and "against" team (During this time the "for" and "against" team prepared to cross-examine each other. Most groups were not able to think of questions as a group or discuss the opening statements. Beforehand, I had assumed that when I would ask the groups to think of questions to ask the debating teams that they would dive into the task as they were all teachers. However, this was probably my cultural bias. In my own experience when participating in group discussions I focus more on the task than the other group members. However, in the Japanese context, knowing the other group members and one's place within the group seems to be important. Thus, next time I coordinate a similar event, I will 1) provide time for self-introductions, 2) make sure that each group has a moderator (one of the people helping me to coordinate the event) who will be able to help the group break the ice and determine who speaks in what order etc.

Above is a picture of the debate teams and their proud advisers.

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