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Review of  Silence in the Second Language Classroom

Reviewer: Tanya Roy
Book Title: Silence in the Second Language Classroom
Book Author: Jim King
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 26.4896

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This is a book written for all language teachers as I am sure all will come up against baffling moments of silence in the classroom. Such silence varies greatly from classroom to classroom and from learners to learners. Not always is it detrimental but it can become so. How should a teacher understand this and deal with it? Silence is a phenomenon that varies widely culturally and King’s book helps us look into a society with norms that may differ greatly from ours and are therefore more difficult for us as teachers to understand.

The book is divided into eight chapters from Introduction to Conclusion. In the Introduction itself, the author Jim King tells us “this book explores the silent behaviour of learners studying English within the Japanese university second language (L2) classrooms.” (p.2)

The Introduction is divided into three parts. In the first, the section titled “L2 Pedagogical Beliefs and Assumptions”, the author notes that silence in itself is not a negative phenomenon, but it is not to be denied that classroom interaction helps in language acquisition and that silence beyond a certain point is detrimental.

King looks at this issue specifically in the Japanese L2 learning context. He was in Japan as trainer of Japanese teachers of English (JTE). His courses acknowledge the importance of adopting a methodology appropriate to the context in an eclectic combination of methods and activities. King cites the opinions of Ehrman, Dörnyei, Jacobs, Da Silva, Iddings and Oxford (p.4) in works spanning over 10 years from the 1990s to the 2000s that language learning can only take place where there is overt verbalization in the students’ own language or in the L2. As a long term resident of Japan and a learner of Japanese, King learnt how silence was viewed by the Japanese, particularly in more formal settings. This influenced his attitude and judgement of the silence of Japanese language learners.

The second part of the introduction looks at the theoretical approach of the book. In order to examine the issue of silence, King adopts an eclectic approach and the Dynamic Systems Theory (DST). While seemingly complex, DST enables us to consider a learner’s oral behaviour as a result of a number of factors.

The third part of the introduction examines the structure of the entire book.

Two major interpretive works (Basso and Saville-Troike) draw on fields like sociology, linguistics, psychology (Ephratt 2008) and ethnography. Basso complements Saville-Troike in an ethnographic framework. The other interpretive approaches looked at are Jaworsky's 'fuzzy categories' and Kurzon's model of intentionality. The psychoanalytic and psychological aspects are looked into through the works of Granger and Crown and Feldstein. After that King looks at silence in the classroom while exploring the studies of Gilmor and that of Jaworsky and Sachdev.

At the end of the chapter, after having looked at different studies and frameworks King concludes that “no single paradigm has been able to provide definitive answers to our questions about people's silent behaviour.” (pp.30). King goes on to sum up the major points that have emerged from the overview. Clearly silence has to be studied specific to the culture in which it is, as well as the relative value of speech and silence in it.

In a long and detailed third chapter King gives us an interdisciplinary overview of silence in Japan. Silence is not just negative absence of speech. King says “ Japanese society, silence may be positively regarded and welcomed, whereas overt verbalisation is often viewed with suspicion and is seen as having the potential to cause great loss of face.” (pp. 32). King looks at both macro and micro-silences and then goes on to Japan's philosophical roots as a post-Confucian society. This has influenced interpersonal communication as well as status differences and the concept of “uchi/soto” (inside/outside)

This is followed by the “nihonjinron” approach: the Japanese way, and its themes. A part of this chapter is dedicated to sociocultural clues to attitudes towards silence, after which King goes on to look at socialisation and silence, a section in which he examines child-rearing practices in Japan that “play a crucial first role in socialising discourse norms” (pp.44). He goes on to look into “amae” and silent dependency, as well as empathy training and “sasshi,” taking us from sociocultural clues to a socio-psychological examination of silence including a silence-inducing hyper-sensitivity to others and fear of others in the classroom.
Psychology leads to psychoanalysis, pragmatics and linguistics. In all of these, the attitude towards an ever present “other” remains overridingly important in determining politeness or turn-taking strategies.

The next three chapters look at the three phases of the research project. Each phase looks at a different kind of data and each one is elicited in a different way. First we have structured observations of 924 students in 30 classrooms across 9 universities in Japan. The Classroom Oral Participation Scheme (COPS) strategy is used to gather data in this part of the research. Then come semi structured interviews (using The Silence and Oral Participation Guide-SOPIG) with preparation to avoid further reticence, and finally stimulated recall studies. The results of the three kinds of data are discussed in the final chapter at .

The concluding chapter sums up the results of the studies, interviews and case studies described in the last chapters of the book. The fact that different methods have been used is due to the influence of the over-arching DSTframework. After that the author looks into possibilities for future DST oriented research into language learner silence.

The first part of the chapter, before summarizing the results of three sources of data, puts forward the idea of how Japanese children are “socialised into patterns of communication which rely heavily on non-vocal, implicit understanding and which eschew direct verbalisation” (p. 151) . In the structured observation, the scheme used was the Classroom Oral Participation Scheme (COPS) which used a minute by minute real time strategy involving 924 students from 30 classes taken from 9 universities. Student initiated talk is dramatically low when compared to teacher initiated talk as is student speech when compared to instructor talk. According to King “...silence has now formed a semi-permanent attractor state within Japan's university language classrooms...this indicates that a single-cause, linear unlikely...”. (p.154)

Next we come to the results of the semi-structured interviews considered necessary to complement COPS quantitative data with an individual level analysis. The aim was to look at silence and lack of verbalization as the personal experiences of the learners. To get more data than would have been forthcoming in interviews without any preparation, a translation of the guide to SOPIG was given to the interviewees beforehand. Other pre-interview measures were taken to ensure trust and confidence in the interviewees.

Language learner silence can develop for multiple reasons and may express multiple feelings. One strange fact that emerged from the interviews is that many Japanese learners experienced unease during the moments or periods of silence in the language classroom. Another feeling that showed up was that of passive resistance to the instructor or the teaching method or practice. Silence could also be a strategy employed by the learner when speaking was not required for assessment purposes.

This phase of the project thus helped in tracing silence back to attractors within the system. Attractors may be both external and internal as seen in the Dynamic Systems Theory. Factors also interact with each other leading to change within a learner's classroom talk system.

The final phase of the research project was dedicated to stimulated recall study results. The recall was stimulated by completed COPS sheets as well as audio recordings from the (silent) classroom in the observational phase of the project i.e. silence at the micro level. A number of reasons made it difficult to get students to speak during such recall sessions so timing (almost immediately after the session) and language (L1) were used to mitigate matters. One of the results suggests that identity construction may be fruitful and could help to trace a number of causes of silence in the language learner.

The two sections on limitations, suggestions for further research and the practical implications of this study are very interesting and important in summing up all that has been talked of so far with a critical eye.

Limitations of phase one: COPS was successful in measuring macro-silences. It would be useful to use a technique like conversation analysis that would permit us to measure micro-silences as well. Also the limited resources available meant that there was only one observer throughout, and this limited the number of students per class that could be monitored. With more resources and a greater number of observers, more students could be individually monitored. Of course this would also lead to complications and steps would have to be taken to ensure inter observer reliability.

Using COPS one could also study silence in the non foreign language classroom. Its presence there would mean that silence is not only a result of L2 limitations.

Also it is essential to use the same tool in other cultures so as to be able to compare them.

Limitations of the second phase: to further our understanding of L2 classroom silence it would be important to get an insight into the instructor's point of view.

The third phase is highly dependent on the students' capacity for recall including their verbal skills and perceptiveness. This study has tried to address these problems, but a question remains in the mind of the author regarding this point.

The use of the DST framework was appropriate to the interdisciplinary nature of this study. It is “particularly so in relation to, firstly, the notion of a stable attractor state of silence existing across diverse L2 tertiary contexts; secondly, the idea that students' silent behaviour is influenced by multiple, concurrent attractors; and thirdly, the concept that these attractors are likely to be related to learner internal factors and external environment agents acting in concert”. (p.164) One drawback here is the cross-sectional design not permitting a longitudinal perspective that has been pointed out by different scholars as fruitful in the the DST framework.

Pedagogical suggestions: these are at times tentative but concern the following points:
- a movement away from teacher centric towards learner centric classroom practices
- reorganization of the present excessive TTT (Teacher Talking Time) and not enough time for the learners to speak in L2
- gradation of teacher talk so as to give comprehensible input
- increase of wait time on the part of the teacher as that may give more student responses
- choice of appropriate and stimulating teaching materials
- non-public space for student interaction
- reduction of error correction and emphasis on accuracy so as not to demotivate students and let them gain fluency
- attention to group dynamics within the classroom and intervention when necessary to
- avoid formations that will lead to no participation in some students.

To end the book King says that we cannot expect something the instructors do not do: speak in L2. It is necessary to move toward a more communicative approach. Finally, some of the levels of learner disengagement uncovered in this study show that Japan's university level education policy needs to address some serious concerns.


The use of the DST framework in linguistics continues the line of study first looked into by Diane Larsen-Freeman . It would be worth taking the study to longitudinal examination to see if parallels work there as well in the movement of a system from attractors to inertia, the intervention of factors to move out of that state of inertia and on to a higher level of equilibrium.

I think that could be a worthwhile next step for a study of this kind in which one also needs to define the boundaries of silence. Coming to more pedagogical questions--what is considered silence in a language classroom? Can interaction be expected in any given condition and how to go about changing those conditions in a culture that promotes those very conditions? And of course, what is not seen in the instructor's behaviour cannot be expected in the students. So how to change language learning if that requires verbal interaction in a society that values highly non-verbal interaction?


Larsen-Freeman, D., 1997, Chaos,/complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 18(2):141-65

Gleick, J.,1987, Chaos. Making a new science. London. Vintage Books.

Nelson, M. E.,and Kern, R., 2012, Language teaching and learning in the postlinguistic condition?, in Principles and practices for teaching english as an international language, Routledge, New York, N. Y., pp.47-66.

Kumaravadivelu B.,, 2003, Beyond Methods: Macrostrategies for Language Teaching , Yale University Press, New Haven and London
Tanya Roy is an Associate Prof. in Italian at the Department of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of Delhi. She has been teaching Italian in India since 1994. She has coordinated and taught a Teacher Training Course run in her department for French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. She is interested in making linguistic research and classroom teaching meet in what in Italian is called Didattica Acquisizionale. She thinks that linguistic research starts from data collected in the classroom and then goes back to the classroom for verification. This makes the role of the classroom teacher a central one.
She finds the link between Chaos and SLA/FLA intriguing.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781137301475
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