June 23rd, 2011

A First-Person Explanation of Why Some International Students Are Silent in the U.S. Classroom



Recently, in a class discussion, my professor let the students speak on the issue of silence. Many students in that class were either K-12 school or college teachers. They shared their experiences and perceptions of silent students — both native and non-native speakers of English. Some of my classmates were not familiar with the culture of silence in foreign countries. Personally, this class reminded me of my own experience of understanding the U.S. classroom experience a few years ago.

In this article, I have explored the nature of silence from my personal experience as an international student among American and non-American peers in the United States. I explain my experiences across five broad categories.

1. A Self-Reported or Analyzed Silence in Classroom. In my first semester, I was nervous in class discussions although my level of English was fairly good. I perspired a lot and lost my train of thoughts while speaking. My English sounded awkward and the class and the professor did not understand my accented English. I did not join class discussion out of fear that I would be unable to deal with the possible conflicts or misunderstandings. My self-esteem was low and I felt a sense of incompetence being in a graduate class.

In my experience, the communicative language is a barrier for many non-native English speaking students. Those who have a lower level of English proficiency faced problems in class participation which naturally forced them to be silent in the class. Previous research suggests that learners feared appearing foolish by making mistakes such as simple errors in grammar or pronunciation imperfections (Harumi, 2010; Tatar, 2008; Nakane, 2005).

2. Lack of Understanding of Academic Culture. Growing up in chalk and duster classrooms, I mostly depended on teachers’ lectures for course materials and preparation for the finals. The Nepalese classroom, especially in rural districts, did not have basic teaching aids such as computers, televisions or copiers. Class attendance or course assignments were not the norms in the university system. Coming from that background to the American classroom, I was as lost as a crow in the mist. I was not taught how to participate in the American classroom. In Nepal, students are expected to be quiet in the classroom. I was required to ask permission upon entering and I was not allowed to answer a question without standing. I grew up being loyal and respectful to elders, teachers, and relatives. I did not know that being silent was a problem in the American classrooms.

3. Indigenous Knowledge Sharing/ Fear of Cultural Mistake I felt awkward and shameful to share my ethnic background to the class. Cultural stereotype image such as a poor social and cultural background sometimes became a barrier for me to not to speak up of what I knew. One of my friends said, “After watching the movie, The Slumdog Millionaire (2008), I found India is a very dirty and poor country. Actually, I had expected it better.” I felt sad hearing that I was from a dirty country even though I am not from India. I was silent instead of sharing my experience. “I explored sad sides of the country in education, development and technology when I started knowing more about Nepal,” said my teacher who ran a comparative education project in Nepal. Such anecdotes also discouraged me from sharing my views in the classes. Research has shown that such social and cultural differences do not encourage foreign students to speak up in the class. For example, Chinese and Japanese students’ such ethnic and cultural knowledge contributed to silence in the classroom (Ping, 2010; Nakane, 2005).

4. Strong Beliefs on Traditional Learning Style. My teachers from the school and college were happy if their students were silent in the classroom. It was the classroom requirement to listen to the lectures of the teacher. It was an easy way for teachers to manage a class with many students (sometimes 60 or more), if their students were silent. The mode of instruction was also teacher-centered. Teachers gave lectures no matter what the grade levels and students were. Parents were also convinced that the more their children listened to the lectures, the better they would score on the finals. Therefore, in my context, I was forced /trained to be silent in the class.

Like my situation, international students cannot isolate their home cultures and learning styles in the U.S. Also, teacher-centered instruction is highly practiced in many Asian countries such as Bhutan, China, India, Japan, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sir Lanka. For Chinese students, the traditional learning style is connected to the Confucian concept of education (Liu, 2001). For students from India and Nepal, it is connected to the festival of learning, i.e. Saraswati Pooja. Because of such cultural backgrounds, Asian learners do not express themselves in American classrooms (Ping, 2010; Liu; 2001; Meyer, 2009).

5. Dynamics of Classroom RequirementsI did not know at first that speaking in the American classroom means earning a grade. From primary schools to graduate program in Nepal, none of the students’ class participation was graded. Students were not required to present in the university classroom. There were not any attendance sheets for undergraduate and graduate students at Tribhuvan University, the oldest university in the country. During the first semester, it was hard for me to believe that my classroom speaking activities were graded. I noticed native students speaking on various topics in the classroom. Mostly they brought the issues of their homes, family members and work places in the classroom. For me, it was unacceptable to talk about such personal things in the class. Neither the teachers, nor the students shared their personal matters as a part of classroom participation in Nepal.

In the U.S. classroom, class participation was assumed as an ethical obligation for both foreign and native students. It was a surprise for me to notice that speaking in the class means participating—correct or incorrect comments were expected!

Tomorrow, in part two of this article, the author offers some guidance to faculty teaching in a multicultural classroom.

Krishna Bista is an international graduate student from Nepal at Arkansas State University. His e-mail is Krishna.Bista@smail.astate.edu

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