“Why do some students in  my multilingual group seem to be reluctant to have discussions?”

Not all cultures go in for discussions. A teacher of English in Kuala Lumpur explains why discussions simply do not don’t with Malaysian students:

Discussion as an end in itself or as a method of practicing the language is rarely seen as either enjoyable or useful. Students are encouraged to believe that there are correct answers and solutions to all problems. The culture here also tends not to reward independence of thought, individualism or any departure from the socially accepted norms. Furthermore, it is debatable to what extent conversation is valued as part of their culture, especially conversation of a discursive nature. Generally most people here tend to take their lead from the person who has the most status in any given situation rather than work out their own thoughts on something and try to persuade others to agree.

Discussions in China

Another approach is to find out what your students do like talking about. For example, some typical conversations (apart from the obvious work and family-related talk) amongst Chinese females in their late 20s and 30s are: how to deal with the mother-in-law, how to behave in someone else’s house, and the generation gap between them and their parents (and grandparents) – the massive economic expansion in China has created not just a huge technological and financial gap, but also cultural gap. Maybe their parents never travelled because trains were slow and airports were few. Now the young Chinese can go everywhere and also benefit from a higher standard of education than their parents – but they have new pressures: the huge pace in the development of their society and the massive rise in living costs (e.g. buying a flat).

Class surveys

I surveyed over 100 Chinese high schoolers (from international schools in China) and discovered, unsurprisingly, that their interests were the same as most teenagers around the world: clothes, appearance, relationships, parents, movies, music … but many were into reading, and Chinese culture and philosophy.

I recommend that you survey your students to find out i) what things they are interested in ii) which of these they are happy to talk about. If students choose their own topics of discussion, they will feel more informed, more comfortable and thus more likely to speak.

Business English

This also has ramifications beyond general English. For example, if you teach business English, there are implications in the way international meetings should be conducted. You might like to mention to business students in the West that when dealing with partners in the East, they should possibly address their comments to the team leader, rather than expecting other team members to express their views (they may only be there as passive participants). And on social occasions it is probably best to steer  away from any contentious topics and to stick to discussing the food, the location, the weather and any work areas that you have in common – this is obviously true of any social encounters. Talking about what topics to avoid in conversations is actually a nice springboard for discussion in itself.

Adrian Wallwork