Understanding Asian Students


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Understanding Asian Students

  1. 1. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms* Jun Liu University of Arizona Second language acquisition (SLA) researchers have not adequately explored English as a Second Language (ESL) students’ use of English in academic settings other than the language classroom. Social contexts of language learning, such as students’ content course classrooms, affect not only the amount and the type of input learners receive, but also the extent to which learners are able to engage in meaningful real-life communication in the target language. An increasing educational concern in American academic settings is some ESL students’ minimization of the importance of verbal communication in their content courses. To challenge the linguistic explana- tion of the inability of ESL students to adapt to active oral participation modes in their content courses, this study, by focusing on Asian graduate students in different majors in a US university, examined multiple pertinent factors affecting their oral participation modes via both classroom observa- tions and interviews. Sociocultural, linguistic, cognitive, affective, and peda- gogical/environmental factors were found to influence these students’ oral communication in their content courses, with socio-cultural factors exerting the largest influence on students’ classroom reticence. Directions for further research are recommended. Introduction In the past few decades, the quality, scope, and sheer size of the higher educa- tion enterprise in the United States have attracted students and scholars from all parts of the world in unprecedented numbers. In the 1994–1995 academic year, when the study reported in this paper was conducted, for instance, there were 452,635 international students enrolled at 2,758 accredited US institutions. Among all the foreign students, about two-fifths (42%) were enrolled in Journal of Asian Pacific Communication 10:1 (2000), 155–189. issn 0957–6851 © 2000 John Benjamins Publishing Company
  2. 2. 156 Jun Liu graduate programs, and more than half (57.8%) were from Asia (Desruisseaux 1995). In compliance with the continuing increase of international students in the United States, there has been considerable research addressing the various needs of international students. Studies on US university campuses have explored international students’ perceived needs (e.g., Manese, Sedlacek, & Leong 1988), academic needs (e.g., Leong & Sedlacek 1986), adjustment (e.g., Mallinckrodt & Leong 1992), acculturation (e.g., Schumann 1978; Hansen 1998), emotional well-being (e.g., Ying & Liese 1990, 1991; Parr, Bradley, & Bingi 1992), stress precipitators (e.g., Oropeza, Fitzgibbon, & Baron 1991), coping with stress (e.g., Leong, Mallinckrodt, & Kralj 1990), help-seeking sources (e.g., Leong & Sedlacek 1986), counseling style preferences (e.g., Exum & Lau 1988; Merta, Ponterroto, & Brown 1992; Yau, Sue, & Hayden 1992), and perception of counselor credibility (e.g., Sodowsky 1991). Although these studies cover a broad spectrum of the diverse needs of international students, some of the results are problematic for the following reasons. First, many studies tend to study international students as one cultural group rather than as specific nationalities with distinct characteristics, so the results are not easy to interpret as overgeneralizing and stereotyping might easily occur. Second, as most of the studies are done via questionnaires, differences between/among groups are reported only as group means, thus minimizing individual differenc- es. Third, the existing studies have not investigated the attitudinal and value orientations of international students, which are believed to be of crucial importance in facilitating communication. Last, but not least, there is a scarcity of literature on the particular problems and needs of a specific population. Asian students in US higher education, for instance, is an area that needs special attention as the Asian student population exceeds half of the international student population in US higher education (Desruisseaux 1995). While Asian students contribute to the diversity and the cultural and intellectual aspects of the American campus environment, they also present challenges for administrators, faculty, and students alike (Council of Graduate Schools in US, 1991). International students in general, and Asian students in particular, experience many difficulties in adjusting to an American lifestyle in the process of completing their degrees. Their adjustment seems extremely hard because of the difficulty of being away from home (e.g., Leong 1984; Stafford, Marion, & Salter 1980). They meet the challenge of learning to function in a totally different environment with limited English proficiency (e.g., Abadzi 1980; Agarwal & Winkle 1985; Miller & Winston 1990) and experience transi- tional difficulties and culture shock (e.g., Ting-Toomey 1999). The difficulties
  3. 3. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 157 most Asian students as well as other international students have in US universi- ties can be grouped into several categories: (1) academic problems in terms of a lack of English language proficiency, completing various academic tasks, and familiarizing themselves with American academic norms and expectations; (2) social problems in terms of social integration, problems in daily life tasks, homesickness, and role conflicts; and (3) financial problems in terms of insufficient financial resources (cf. Lee, Abd-Ella, & Burke 1981; Adelegan & Park 1985; Meloni 1986; Boyer & Sedlacek 1986; Heikinheimo & Shute 1986; Reinick 1986; Pederson 1991). Within the academic domain, a problem of growing concern is the inability of Asian students in English as a Second Language (ESL) settings to adequately adjust to active oral classroom participation in terms of speaking up in academ- ic content courses. An attendant problem is the feeling of frustration that often causes these students anxiety and concern. One obvious fact is that for most Asian students, English was learned primarily as an academic subject. Even though these students have a fairly good command of English, as evidenced in passing the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) requirement to enter American universities, there is still a gap between what they know (usage) and what they do (use) in highly demanding academic content courses in which English is the medium of instruction. In the past few decades, a significant amount of research has been conducted to explore and explain the possible relationships between the second language learner’s linguistic knowledge and his/her language performance. Researchers (e.g., Canale & Swain 1980; Savig- non 1983; Brown 1987; Ellis 1985, 1994; Saville-Troike 1989; Larsen-Freeman & Long 1991) seem to agree that the complex process of second language acquisition cannot be solely explained by cognitive factors. Ellis (1994) dis- cussed five key issues related to second language acquisition: learner language, external factors, internal factors, individual learner differences, and classroom second language acquisition. Among these five issues, both external factors (e.g., social factors, settings, and input and interaction and SLA) and internal factors (e.g., language transfer, linguistic universals, cognitive processes, and individual learner differences) seem to be of crucial importance to explain the differential success among ESL learners. Central to second language acquisition research is language learners’ interaction patterns in classrooms. Chaudron (1988) identified four major areas that depict the nature of interaction and its possible effects on target language learning in second language classrooms: (1) selectivity of teachers’ speech to L2 learners in mixed NS and NNS classes, (2) the variability in teachers’ choice of language in addressing learners, (3) the
  4. 4. 158 Jun Liu pattern of questioning behavior, and (4) characteristics of feedback to learners following errors of L2 production or subject matter content. In an ethnographic study of teacher-student interaction in a language classroom, Enright (1984) found that the two teachers he studied differed in their attitudes towards classroom interaction. While one teacher preferred his students not to speak unless they were spoken to, the other teacher gave his students opportunities to say whatever they wanted to say in class. As a result, student interaction patterns varied significantly. The classroom research has shown that teachers may be less likely to address L2 learners when they are mixed with native speakers (Chau- dron 1988). The results of many other studies (e.g., Philips 1972; Cazen et al. 1980; Duff 1986) suggest that the different teacher-student interaction patterns are the results of the mismatch between teachers’ and students’ cultural beliefs. Sato (1982) studied the issue of teacher selection of students by ethnicity in two university-level ESL classes. She found that the teachers had a tendency to select the non-Asian students (60%) more than the Asian students (48%), which suggests that the teachers perceived that non-Asian students were more ready to participate in class. As Chaudron (1988) pointed out, “lack of attention or negative functional treatment will at least not promote, and may inhibit, students’ progress” (p. 121). In their edited volume, Voices from the language classroom, Bailey and Nunan (1996) devoted a section to classroom dynamics and interaction. Some substantive issues were revealed as pertinent to class- room interaction. For example, to explore the problems many teachers face in dealing with ESL students’ reticence in classroom, Tsui (1996) examined 38 teachers’ perceptions of the factors that contribute to student reticence in secondary schools in Hong Kong, and she identified five factors contributing to the lack of students’ participatIon: (1) the students’ low English proficiency; (2) their fear of making mistakes and being ridiculed by classmates; (3) the teachers’ intolerance of silence, which leads to a very short wait time for students to think about a question or to come up with an answer; (4) unequal speaking opportu- nities afforded to each student by the teacher; and (5) overly difficult teacher language input. The results of her study suggest that it is the interaction of these factors rather than any single factor that contributes to student reticence. In order to help Asian students as well as other international students cope with American academic settings such as content classrooms, various ESL programs and centers in American universities have been established to offer courses to help ESL learners overcome various sorts of language barriers and to be competent in demonstrating their knowledge and abilities in their content areas. However, once out of ESL programs, these students are no longer treated
  5. 5. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 159 as language learners. They are expected to do the same as everyone else in their content courses. Active oral classroom participation, for instance, is highly encouraged in US universities, but the fact that many Asian students tend to be quiet in their content classrooms is often assumed to be caused by their linguistic incompetence, the improvement of which is often considered as a task for ESL instructors by content professors. Although there are some speculations about Asian students’ reticence in their content classrooms, there is no research to explain why many Asian students tend to be quiet in their content courses in American universities. There is no literature to date on whether Asian students’ silence in classrooms is due to their being unable to participate, or their being unwilling to participate, or a combination of both. Likewise, there is no study that looks closely at Asian students’ perceptions towards oral classroom partici- pation as compared to their own participation modes in their content courses. Consequently, we do not know whether silence, as demonstrated by many Asian students in their content classes, necessarily affects these students’ academic achievement as these silent students are usually very serious in completing their written tasks (Liu & Kuo 1996). Nor do we know how these silent Asian students perceive their oral classroom participation in relation to their American counterparts who are active in classroom participation. It is my firm belief that the ultimate purpose of English language teachers is to help learners improve their communicative competence (Swain & Canale 1980) so that these students will feel comfortable and confident beyond their language classrooms. The study reported in this paper addresses ESL learners outside their ESL classrooms. By focusing on a group of Asian students’ perceptions towards and modes in oral classroom participation in their content courses, this study looks at second language learners (Asian students) in a broader social context (content classes) where they are not treated and judged solely as language learners, but rather as intellectual individuals. By means of various interview schedules and observations, this study attempts to increase the understanding of the oral classroom participation perceptions of Asian students pursuing advanced studies in the United States. The significance of this study is, therefore, to help raise the consciousness of both ESL instructors and content professors, as well as American students, in understanding Asian students’ perceptions towards, and modes in, oral classroom participation so as to create a supportive means to help them build up confidence and competence in reaching their academic goals. This, in turn, attempts to promote harmonious classroom environments, and strengthen intercultural communication.
  6. 6. 160 Jun Liu Method This study was conducted on the main campus of a major US Midwestern university in the 1994–1995 academic year. Both the diversity of the interna- tional graduate students as well as the total number of Asian graduate students at this university were on the top ten list among all the universities in the United States at the time of the study. I chose Asian graduate students as the focus of the study for several reasons. First, the very topic under study, oral classroom participation, is closely related to the Asian population. Asian students’ silence in American classrooms has become a concern for many college and university professors in US higher education, and yet studies about Asian students outside ESL classrooms in American universities are scarce. Second, my Asian background as an ESL learner, ESL teacher, and a American university professor provide me with cultural knowledge to address this issue from an emic as well as an etic perspective. As an in-group member of an Asian culture, I felt comfortable in building rapport with the Asian students in the study, and my initial attempts in developing instruments and gaining field experiences in classroom observation and interviews enabled me to treat every step of the study with competence and confidence.1 Third, narrowing down the participants to a specific group (Asian graduate students) allows me to get more in-depth data and more focused analysis to maintain trustworthiness (Lincoln and Guba 1985) of the study. The overall purpose of this study is two-fold: One is to describe, analyze, and interpret Asian students’ perceptions of classroom participation in terms of speaking up in their content courses. The other is to suggest ways to help these students adapt more adequately and effectively to the culture of American higher education, and to help raise the consciousness of both college and university ESL instructors, content professors, and American peers in helping these Asian students with their intercultural communicative competence and comfort level in class. The objectives are: (1) to describe the oral classroom participation modes of the participants in the study via classroom observations; (2) to analyze these students’ perceptions towards their participation in their academic content courses via different interview schedules; (3) to interpret their perceptions towards, and modes in, their content courses through factor analysis, and (4) to discuss some salient patterns unique to the understanding of Asian students in American universities. To describe the central themes or principal outcomes that cut across a great deal of participant variation, I used “maximum variation sampling” (Patton
  7. 7. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 161 1990) for this study, which allowed me to select my participants from different program areas and from different cultural backgrounds. I invited all the Asian students (n = 30) enrolled in my graduate ESL Composition classes to partici- pate in the study on voluntary basis in two consecutive quarters. My focus was not to look at these students oral classroom participation modes in the compo- sition classes though having them in my classes allowed me to know each individual better, which facilitated data analysis. I conducted an informal interview with each participant, informing each of the nature of the study and the commitment I expected. After the initial interview, I narrowed down the scope of the study to twenty participants. Among the ten participants who did not offer to be involved in the study, five were too busy to make the time commitment, two were not interested in the topic, and the remaining three were non-traditional Asian students. The twenty participants who stayed in the study were from the top six Asian groups according to the international students’ population rate at the university then. They were Chinese (Taiwanese, Mainland Chinese, and Hong Kong Chinese), Korean, Japanese, and Indonesian, and they were from both natural science programs (e.g., Exercise Physiology, Geodetic Science, Pharmacy, Chemical Science, Mechanical Engineering, or Biophysics), and social science programs (e.g., Educational Policy and Leadership, Music, Social Work, Counseling Education, Agricultural Education or Early and Middle Childhood Education). These participants were almost evenly divided in gender (55% male participants and 45% female participants), and the intended degree of their study (40% Ph.D. students and 60% MA students). At the time of this study, they were all first or second-year full time Asian graduate students who had had adequate experience in taking various courses in their program areas, which served as a crucial basis for the study in understanding their perceptions towards, and modes in, oral classroom participation in their content courses. Table 1 is the demographic information of the participants. In order to facilitate the understanding of these participants, I assigned a pseudonym and a code to each participant to denote the major, the gender, the nationality, and the order among those participants who came from the same country. For instance, the pseudonym “Mr. Physiologist” means a male student whose major is in Physiol- ogy. The code “MPHDC1” refers to a male Ph.D. student who is from China and is listed as the first student among four Chinese students in this study. The data of the study comes from two major sources: Interviews2 and classroom observations.3 As data collection and data analysis were interwoven, the observation fieldnotes and interview transcriptions became the formative products of the data collection and the dependent source for data analysis. The
  8. 8. 162 Jun Liu Table 1. Pseudonyms and codes of the participants Intended In-group Gender Degree Nationality Major Order Pseudonym Code M Ph.D. China Ex. Physiology 1 Mr. Ex. Physiologist MPHDC1 M MA Geodetic Science 2 Mr. Geo Scholar MMAC2 F Ph.D. Pharmacy 3 Ms. Pharmacist FPHDC3 M Ph.D. Family Resource 4 Mr. Ecologist MPHDC4 Management F MA Hong Kong Ed. Administration 1 Ms. Ed. Administra- FMAHK1 tor M MA Taiwan Chemical 1 Mr. Chemical MMAT1 Engineering Engineer F MA Music 2 Ms. Musician FMAT2 M MA Korea Mechanical 1 Mr. Mechanical MMAK1 Engineering Engineer F Ph.D. Consumer 2 Ms. Consumer FPHDK2 Science Scientist M Ph.D. Geography 3 Mr. Geologist MPHDK3 F MA Textile and 4 Ms. Fashion FMAK4 Clothing Designer F Ph.D. Human Nutrition 5 Ms. Nutritionist FPHDK5 M Ph.D. Geodetic Science 6 Mr. Geodetic MPHDK6 Scientist M Ph.D. Japan Biophysics 1 Mr. Biophysicist MPHDJ1 F MA Social Work 2 Ms. Social Worker FMAJ2 F MA Counseling Ed. 3 Counselor FMAJ3 M MA Indonesia Ag. Ed. 1 Mr. Ag. Specialist MMAI1 F MA Early Childhood Ed. 2 Ms. English Teacher FMAI2 M MA Early Childhood Ed. 3 Mr. Political Science MMAI3 Teacher M MA Early and Middle 4 Mr. Social Studies MMAI4 Childhood Ed. Teacher theoretical framework of the data analysis in this study was influenced by Wolcott (1994) and Miles and Huberman (1994). From Wolcott, I tried to incorporate the logic in differentiating data description, data analysis and data interpretation. From Miles and Huberman, I tried to follow the three concur- rent flows of activity: data reduction, data display, and conclusion drawing/ verification. I believe that these flows are essential and sequential for better data analysis. To facilitate data analysis, the participants in the study are classified into four clusters according to their participation modes based on class observa- tions and interviews (see Table 2).
  9. 9. Table 2. Cluster of the participation modes of the participants Clusters of the partici- No. of students pation modes in the cluster Participants Quotes from the participants from interviews 1. Very active 3 Mr. Geologist (MPHDK3) “I participate very actively in class.” Mr. Geodetic Scientist (MPHDK6) “Actually I am one of those who participate actively in class.” Ms. English Teacher (FMAI2) “I participated actively in my classes, especially when there are many other nonnative English speakers.” 2. Somewhat active 5 Mr. Geo Scholar (MMAC2) “I ask questions selectively. I ask questions when I think they can engage further discus- sion.” Mr. Ecologist (MPHDC4) “In some of the classes I am very active, but some not.” Mr. Mechanical Engineer (MMAK1) “I am very active participating in some courses from my own major, but so so in other ones.” Mr. Biophysicist (MPHDJ1) “I think I participate, depending on many factors.” Mr. Political Science Teacher (MMAI3) “I asked questions and sometimes I gave my opinions, sometimes I answered questions from professors. But it depended on courses.” 3. Not active 5 Mr. Ex. Physiologist (MPHDC1) “I seldom participated in classroom discussion.” Mr. Chemical Engineer (MMAT1) “I do not talk a lot in class, but sometimes I ask questions.” Ms. Consumer Scientist (FPHDK2) “The 1st quarter I did not ask any questions, but the second quarter I feel better. If I have question, I’d like to ask.” Ms. Nutritionist (FPHDK5) “If I were more active, maybe the time to adjust would be quicker and shorter.” Ms. Counselor (FMAJ3) “I think if the teacher asks us opinions, I will not volunteer to speak up immediately.” 4. Extremely inactive 7 Ms. Pharmacist (FPHDC3) “I think I am very inactive one. I seldom talk in class, and usually I just keep silent. I don’t want to speak too much in class.” Ms. Ed Administrator (FMAHK1) “I usually talk in small group, but never in big classes before.” Ms. Musician (FMAT2) “I am afraid that I do not participate in courses in my area a lot.” Ms. Fashion Designer (FMAK4) “Because I am a shy person and I have no confidence in speaking English and my English is still poor, so yeah, I hesitate to speak and I am not a participating person.” Ms. Social Worker (FMAJ2) “I never talk in class.” Mr. Ag. Specialist (MMAI1) “I am not participating very much in my major class.” Mr. Social Studies Teacher (MMAI4) “I don’t speak up in class or talk a lot in class.” Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 163
  10. 10. 164 Jun Liu Findings This study identified 110 factors among the twenty participants across four major clusters of oral classroom participation modes. These 110 identified factors are classified into five major categories: 1. cognitive, 2. pedagogical, 3. affective, 4. socio-cultural, and 5. linguistic. The factors within each category can be subdivided into three groups: Facilitative factors that contribute to positive perceptions towards oral classroom participation, debilitative factors that are responsible for negative perceptions towards oral classroom participa- tion, and neutral factors that can go either way depending on particular circumstances. Cognitive factors refer to the cognitive processing of information and knowledge, and the cognitive learning styles and strategies the participants were accustomed to. Cognitive factors that contribute to positive perceptions towards oral classroom participation include, for example, professional engagement due to prior teaching experiences (Factors 12 & 107) and inquisi- tiveness due to in-depth discussion of the topic (Factor 25). On the other hand, factors such as being textbook-dependent, and only asking questions related to texts (Factors 23, & 53), lack of background knowledge or schemata and work experience (Factors 83, 91, & 98), and tactfully using avoidance strategies (Factor 36), all had negative impact on some participants’ perceptions towards oral classroom participation. However, the neutral factors in this category, such as the interest level in, and knowledge about, the subject matter under discus- sion (Factor 20), and the readiness to ask questions (Factor 43), are dependent on individual participants as constrained by multiple factors. Pedagogical factors refer to the educational experiences of the participants in terms of teaching styles of their former professors in their home countries as well as the professors they had in the US, the class size and composition, as well as the educational environment. Facilitative factors in this domain include encouragement of US professors for participation (Factor 21), participation as a requirement (Factor 41), and a relaxed classroom atmosphere when more non-native English speaking peers are in class (Factor 27). Conversely, negative factors can be attributed to the dominance of native English speaking peers (Factors 26 & 84) and stress due to heavy course loads (Factor 51). Other educational factors which are considered to be neutral in forming participants’ perceptions and determining their participation modes are lesson type (Factor 74) and class size (30). Affective factors refer to participants’ personality traits, motivation and
  11. 11. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 165 attitude, anxiety, and risk-taking. Some participants’ positive perceptions towards oral classroom participation can be associated with their extroverted personality (Factor 25), risk-taking (Factor 34), feeling making mistakes is unavoidable (Factor 54), and concern about the professor’s impression on students based on participation modes (Factor 71). On the other hand, affective factors came into play when participation was perceived negatively. For instance, some participants considered themselves introverted (Factor 17), having a lack of confidence in speaking (Factors 47 & 92), shy in nature and passive in communication (Factors 68 & 76), over-relying on native speakers of English (Factor 87), or feeling overwhelmed by native English speakers in class (Factor 26), thus causing inhibition and/or intimidation (Factor 84). Students’ comfort level, which is a neutral affective factor, such as feeling comfortable participating only when the majority of the students were Asian (Factor 27), largely depended on how individual students felt about the composition of students in a class. Socio-cultural factors refer to the participants’ cultural beliefs, values, and moral judgments that are heavily influenced by their cultural backgrounds and former education in their home countries. Socio-cultural factors had a strong influence on the perceptions the participants held towards oral classroom participation. For instance, some participants in this study had a strong sense of responsibility and obligation to participate in classrooms (Factor 42), and they made efforts to participation due to peer pressure (Factor 24). The prior experiences in the target culture and in American colleges (e.g., Mr. Biophysi- cist, or Mr. Geologist) and graduate school (e.g., Mr. Mechanical Engineer) also shaped their positive perceptions towards participation. On the other hand, factors such as being a good student means taking notes and listening to the teacher carefully without asking questions as a sign of respect for teachers (Factor 72), lack of participation experiences in their own countries (Factor 18), discouragement of oral participation in the native culture (Factors 88 and 89), over-reliance on the L1 community (Factor 44), viewing class time too valuable to ask questions (Factor 52), receiving their education from women’s colleges (Factor 55), the role of women in countries such as in Korea (Factor 64), and to save face by avoiding mistakes (Factors 49 & 78), inhibited the participants’ positive perceptions towards oral classroom participation. No neutral factors in this study were found within the socio-cultural domain although the nature of the identified factors could change over time. Linguistic factors refer to the participants’ linguistic abilities and communi- cative competence. The results of the study show that linguistic abilities of each
  12. 12. 166 Jun Liu individual student alone do not match their participation modes. However, some participants clearly associated their active participation modes and their positive perceptions towards participation with their good English speaking skills (Factor 31) while others felt their poor English skills disadvantaged them (Factors 58, 61, 62, and 77). The frustrations and inhibitions affected by the linguistic deficiencies of many participants influenced their perceptions and participation modes to a great extent. Nevertheless, linguistic factors alone cannot determine the cause of the negative perceptions of the participants. To understand the relationship between the participants in the four clusters according to their participation modes (Cluster I: Active; Cluster II: Somewhat active; Cluster III: Inactive; and Cluster IV: Extremely inactive) and the five categories (1. cognitive, 2. pedagogical, 3. affective, 4. socio-cultural, and 5. linguistic) delineated from 110 factors listed above, the following table (Table 3) shows the mean percentage of each category distributed within each cluster: Table 3. Frequency percentage of factors in 5 categories across 4 clusters Category 1 Category 2 Category 3 Category 4 Category 5 Cognitive Pedagogical Affective Socio-cultural Linguistic Total % Cluster I 05.26 09.52 24.00 06.45 00.00 010.00 Cluster II 47.37 42.86 20.00 22.58 28.57 030.91 Cluster III 21.05 23.81 12.00 38.71 21.43 024.55 Cluster IV 26.32 23.81 44.00 32.26 50.00 034.55 Total % 17.27 19.09 22.73 28.18 12.73 100.00 Table 3 shows that among all the factors in five major categories, socio-cultural factors (28.18%) are the most salient in general, followed by affective factors (22.73%), pedagogical factors (19.09%), cognitive factors (17.27%), and linguistic factors (12.73) according to the frequency percentage of the total factors. It reveals that the three students who were active in classroom participa- tion in Cluster I were most affected by affective factors (24%), but not affected at all by linguistic factors. The five students who were somewhat active in classroom participation in Cluster II were most affected by cognitive factors (47%) as well as pedagogical factors (42%), and least affected by affective factors (24%). The five students who were inactive in classroom participation were most affected by socio-cultural factors (38.71%). The seven students who were extremely inactive in classroom participation were most affected by linguistic (50%) as well as affective factors (44%). Among all the twenty students across the 4 clusters in this study, the seven students who were
  13. 13. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 167 extremely inactive in classroom participation in Cluster IV had the highest frequency percentage of all factors (34.55%), followed by the five students in Cluster II (30.91%), and the five students in Cluster III (24.55%), with the lowest frequency percentage of all factors (10%) for the three students in Cluster I. While these descriptive statistics can help understand the distribution of categorical factors within the students in each of the four clusters, and under- stand the overall distribution of factors across all the students in the four clusters, they do not provide us with the detailed information with which to explain the differences in the above table. In the following table (Table 4), all the factors in each category are divided into three kinds according to their functions, namely, facililtative (factors that affect students’ positive perceptions towards oral classroom participation), debilitative (factors that affect their negative perceptions), and neutral (factors that could lead to either positive or negative perceptions of students towards oral classroom participation and their participation modes). The frequency percentage of each function against each category will then be revealed. Table 4. Frequency percentage of factors in 5 categories at 3 functional levels Functional Category 1 Category 2 Category 3 Category 4 Category 5 levels Cognitive Pedagogical Affective Socio-cultural Linguistic Total % Debilitative 52.63 38.10 60.00 80.65 92.86 64.55 factors (3) Neutral fac- 15.79 23.81 00.00 00.00 00.00 07.27 tors (2) Facilitative 31.58 38.10 40.00 19.35 07.14 28.18 factors (1) As Table 4 indicates, among all factors, about two-thirds (64.55%) are debilita- tive, and a bit more than one fourth (28.18%) are facilitative, with less than one-tenth being neutral, suggesting that all factors identified in this study have an overall negative effect on oral classroom participation. When debilitative factors are put into perspective, linguistic (92.86%) as well as socio-cultural factors (80.65%) dominate, suggesting that students’ linguistic abilities and communicative competence are very important in determining their participa- tion modes, and being aware of one’s poor speaking ability, for instance, will trigger affective concerns such as face saving, and using avoidance strategies. Moreover, a large number of socio-cultural factors, such as keeping quiet in
  14. 14. 168 Jun Liu class as a sign to show respect for teachers, trying to resolve questions through attentive listening and thorough lesson preparation, or maintaining harmony by holding off one’s different opinions, are all very crucial in shaping students’ perceptions towards oral classroom participation, which help produce more listeners than speakers in class. But among all the facilitative factors, affective (40%) as well as pedagogical factors (38.10%) are the most crucial, suggesting that affective factors such as students’ high motivation, positive attitudes, willingness to speak up in class, good risk-taking strategies, and extroverted personalities all play important roles in helping students form positive percep- tions towards oral classroom participation. These positive perceptions will likely affect the students’ oral classroom participation modes from being inactive to more active. Likewise, pedagogical factors, such as a lively and relaxed class atmosphere, lesson type, encouraging professors, small class size, supportive environment, and giving credit to oral participation, all contribute to active participation modes of the students. Interestingly, only a small number of factors in cognitive (15.79%) as well as pedagogical (23.81%) categories are identified as neutral. This suggests that students’ perceptions and their subse- quent participation modes will be either partially or totally dependent upon both internal value judgments, e.g., the worth of the participation against knowledge enhancement, as well as the external situation, e.g., the class size, the lesson type, or the teaching style. Chart 1 below demonstrates the frequency distribution of the 3 functional levels of the factors across the 5 categories. As can be seen from the Chart 1, the distribution among the three function- al levels within each category is different. For instance, in Category 2, Pedagogi- cal factors, both facilitative and debilitative, are evenly distributed, and are close in number to its neutral function, suggesting that pedagogical factors are permeable for change. It also implies that college professors and native English speaking students can make an impact on Asian students’ oral classroom participation modes from being inactive to more active. In Category 5, for Linguistic factors, the distribution between facilitative and debilitative functions is dramatically apart, suggesting that those who have difficulties in speaking English will not easily overcome their perceived linguistic deficiencies. It takes time and effort for them to feel comfortable about their communicative compe- tence to speak up in their content classes. This implies that Asian students, especially those who are concerned about their speaking abilities, should make efforts in risk-taking, confidence-building, and in seeking opportunities such as oral classroom participation to improve their communicative competence. It also suggests that college and university professors should provide such opportu-
  15. 15. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 169 100 90 80 70 60 50 40 30 20 10 0 Pedagogical Category 1 Category 3 Category 5 Sociocultural Category 2 Linguistic Category 4 Cognitive Affective Debilitative factors (3) Neutral factors (2) Facilitative factors (1) Chart 1. The distribution of 3 functions of factors in 5 categories nities and encouragement, and that native English speaking peers should understand, and support their Asian peers’ efforts. As seen, the debilitative and facilitative functions of socio-cultural factors are also widely scattered, with a negative impact, overall, on Asian students’ participation modes. This suggests a distance, rather than a conflict, between Asian educational beliefs and philoso- phies and those of the American culture. Such a distance shall be acknowledged, and reflected in intercultural communication settings such as American class- rooms in which culture-sensitive knowledge and mindful reflexivity are essential for successful classroom interaction. For Asian students, the crucial point is their willingness to communicate and willingness to acculturate themselves to the American academia in terms of adjusting to the oral discourse communities in American classrooms as a symbol of their cultural transforma- tion. Although Chart 1 demonstrates the frequency percentage of factors in 5 categories at 3 functional levels, we do not know the variation of the frequency percentage of factors in 5 categories among the twenty participants across 4 distinctive clusters. Therefore, the following 4 charts have been created in order to provide a clear picture of how the factors at 3 functional levels are distributed
  16. 16. 170 Jun Liu in 4 clusters, and how the participation modes of the students in each cluster might be affected by these factors. 6 5 4 Facilitative 3 Debilitative 2 Neutral 1 0 Cog. Affec. Ling. Chart 2. Distribution of factors across 5 categories in Cluster I Chart 2 shows that there are altogether 11 factors that affected the active oral classroom participation modes of the three students in Cluster I. These factors are all facilitative and more than half of the factors are in the affective category, suggesting that factors such as high motivation, high self-esteem, low anxiety, or high risk-taking all enhanced students’ active participation. Pedagogical as well as socio-cultural factors together with cognitive factors help, too, though to a less extent. However, no linguistic factor was mentioned by the three students in this cluster, suggesting that these students who have a fairly good command of English speaking proficiency were not affected by their linguistic abilities when they chose to participate in class discussion or interact with their classmates or instructors. It also suggests that linguistic abilities is an implicit facilitative factor for students who are communicatively competent. Chart 3 shows that there are altogether 34 factors that affected the perceptions as well as the active oral classroom participation modes of the five students in Cluster II. These factors are both facilitative and debilitative across 5 categories, though with an uneven distribution. The relatively few neutral factors that were identified are related to both cognitive and pedagogical categories only. Among all the facilitative factors, cognitive and pedagogical factors outnumbered affective and socio-cultural factors and there was only one instance of a linguistic factor. Among debilitative factors, socio-cultural factors appear to
  17. 17. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 171 5 4 3 Facilitative Debilitative 2 Neutral 1 0 Cog. Peda. Affec. Socio. Ling. Chart 3. Distribution of factors across 5 categories in Cluster II exert the greatest influence, followed by linguistic and affective factors, with cognitive and pedagogical factors being least frequently mentioned. 12 10 8 6 4 2 0 Cog. Peda. Affect. Socio. Ling. Facilitative Debilitative Neutral Chart 4. Distribution of factors across 5 categories in Cluster III Chart 4 reveals that there are altogether 27 factors that affected the percep- tions as well as the active oral classroom participation modes of the five students in Cluster III. Facilitative factors are distributed at an unusually low rate across 3 categories (pedagogical, affective, and socio-cultural). Debilitative factors run across all 5 categories with socio-cultural factors being the most
  18. 18. 172 Jun Liu frequent, suggesting that socio-cultural factors are mainly responsible for the perceptions and the inactive participation modes of the five students in this category. The only 2 neutral factors identified are pedagogical in nature. 12 10 8 Facilitative 6 Debilitative 4 Neutral 2 0 Cog. Peda. Affect. Socio. Ling. Chart 5. Distribution of factors across 5 categories in Cluster IV As shown in Chart 5, the seven participants in Cluster IV were influenced by 38 factors that are all debilitative in nature. Obviously, affective and cogni- tive as well as linguistic factors are relevant, suggesting that the interaction among these factors is crucial to students’ perception formation and their classroom reticence. These students who are extremely inactive in oral class- room participation not only have weak listening and speaking abilities in English, but also are constrained by their socio-cultural values and prior experiences in believing how students should behave in class. Their inhibition in classroom participation and high level of anxiety caused by linguistic concerns should be examined integratively. In summary, there are approximately 110 factors over 5 categories (cogni- tive, pedagogical, affective, socio-cultural, and linguistic) among twenty students in 4 clusters (active, somewhat active, inactive, and extremely inactive) according to their participation modes. These factors are observed at three function levels: facilitative, debilitative, and neutral. In the cognitive domain, the main facilitative factors include the impact of students’ prior teaching and work experience, their interest in and knowledge about the subject matter, their strong belief in the benefits of oral classroom participation, their sufficient lesson preparation, and their curiosity about the content and the professor’s
  19. 19. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 173 explanations. On the other hand, the lack of knowledge of the subject matter, over-dependence on textbooks, considering listening and understanding as the priority in classrooms, and being overly concerned about the quality of the questions to be raised are all main debilitative factors. The neutral factors are mainly related to the quality of questions and the knowledge enhancement of the class discussion based on individual students’ judgments. Although cogni- tive factors are outnumbered by socio-cultural, affective and pedagogical factors overall, more than half (52.63%) of the cognitive factors are debilitative in nature, suggesting that Asian students’ perceptions towards oral classroom participation as well as their actual participation modes in class are likely to be influenced by cognitive factors, which are overall debilitative. In the pedagogical domain, facilitative and debilitative factors are evenly distributed (32.10% for each). The main facilitative factors include the use of class discussion as the lesson type, opportunities and encouragement provided by the professor, peer support, and oral class participation built into grading. On the other hand, if lectures are used as the lesson type, if students are underprepared for class, if students over-rely on the native speakers of English to ask questions in class, or if they do not receive any support from their native English-speaking peers, then these conditions will turn into debilitative factors in shaping students’ perceptions towards oral classroom participation, and inhibiting students’ active oral classroom participation. However, factors such as the class size, the lesson type, and the chemistry as well as dynamics of the class are all neutral leading to either positive or negative perceptions and participation modes of students in class. For instance, many students in the study expressed their concern about oral classroom participation in big classes, especially those students in natural science majors. The classes are usually attended by many students, i.e., from 20 to 200 students. The students in these classes care more about other students’ time and interest levels, and they only chose to participate in relatively small classes or in small groups. In the affective domain, the main facilitative factors include high levels of motivation, willingness to speak up in class, self-confidence, strong self- determination, lack of concern about making mistakes in speaking, extroverted and outgoing personality traits, and trying to impress professors by participat- ing. Conversely, a lack of confidence in speaking and concern about not being understood, introverted personality traits, anxiety in speaking English in class, intimidation due to a lack of experience, being slow to react to questions, stress due to heavy course-loads, and insecurity due to few non-native speakers in class, are the main debilitative factors. The competitiveness among peers is one
  20. 20. 174 Jun Liu of the main neutral affective factors. For instance, some students are more comfortable in participating in classes where the majority of the students are native English speakers. These students are eager to demonstrate their content knowledge about the subject matter under discussion (e.g., Mr. Geo. Scholar, and Mr. Geologist) with native English speakers. Such competitiveness thus becomes a facilitative factor for oral classroom participation. Conversely, other students are intimidated in participating in class as soon as they realize that all or the majority of their classmates are native English speakers. Therefore, competitiveness becomes debilitative because of the linguistic inferiority felt by these students (e.g., Mr. Ag. Specialist, Ms. Ed. Administrator, or Ms. Social Worker). On the other hand, some students feel more competitive if the majority of the classmates are non-native English speakers. In the case of Ms. English Teacher, for instance, she felt extremely motivated to speak up in front of other English as a second language speakers. Her competitiveness, which is more of a linguistic than a cognitive factor in this particular classroom environ- ment, serves as a facilitative factor for her participation. Among all the affective factors identified in the study, about two-fifths are debilitative to the students’ perceptions towards oral classroom participation and their actual classroom participation. In the socio-cultural domain, the main facilitative factors include social obligation and responsibility in lesson preparation, prior exposure to the target culture and prior learning experiences in the US, willingness to accommodate and acculturate to fit into the norm of American classrooms, and peer support from both American students and international students. However, the majority of the socio-cultural factors are debilitative. Among them, the most salient one is avoiding speaking up in class in order to be polite and to save face, a concept deeply rooted in Asian culture. Other debilitative factors include concerns about other students’ interest and time, lack of participation experi- ence as it was not emphasized in Asian culture, believing in attentive listening and note-taking, being obedient to the teacher as authoritative figure by keeping quiet, believing that valuable class time should not be taken by ques- tions, a belief that questions and problems shall be resolved through self-study and lesson preparation, lack of cultural schemata of how to engage in class discussion, believing that the lack of oral classroom participation can be compensated by a good grade, and over-relying on L1 study groups. In the linguistic domain, the main facilitative factors are: Good English speaking skills, regarding speaking up in class as an opportunity to practice English, and being able to communicate with body language. The main factors that are
  21. 21. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 175 debilitating to oral classroom participation are: Limited language proficiency and poor listening comprehension due to the speed and accent of the instructor (especially among those students who are inactive or extremely inactive in oral classroom participation); difficulty in expressing ideas spontaneously; poor pronunciation and a strong accent, and poor grammar; over-reliance on using the L1; intimidation caused by the flawless English of native speakers in class; spending excessive amount of time before speaking up; and having learned English in non-interactive ways (e.g., via books, tapes, or television). Discussion Although the factors identified can help understand and explain the students’ participation modes in their content courses, the interplay among these factors across five categories (cognitive, pedagogical, affective, socio-cultural, and linguistic) as well as the interchange of factors at three functional levels (facili- tative, debilitative and neutral) within each category are very complex. However, there are some recurring patterns and themes that can help us understand the complexity of the nature of Asian students’ oral classroom participation modes. First, among all the factors that affect the participants’ perceptions towards oral classroom participation and their differential participation modes, socio- cultural and affective factors are the most salient in shaping the negative perceptions of the students towards oral classroom participation. This finding belies the assumption that students’ linguistic abilities usually determine their inactive oral participation modes. It also challenges the assumption that Asian students’ reticence means that the students are passive or less able as these students are too often regarded and treated as ESL learners. Such assumptions towards Asian students based on their silence in class might have a negative impact on these students’ self-esteem, and risk-taking. The participants in the study, though from different countries in Asia, share similar socio-cultural concepts, attitudes, and beliefs, which was cross-validated through interviews and observations. These shared concepts, attitudes, and beliefs are reflected in the deeply-rooted Asian concept of face-saving, the often-praised sense of collectivism as well as the often-criticized sense of individualism by following trends and avoiding confrontation with the teacher or other students in class, the sensitivity to interpersonal harmony, the over-reliance on peers who share a similar cultural background, the blind obedience to the teacher by listening attentively and concealing and tolerating disagreement, the sense of guilt in
  22. 22. 176 Jun Liu expressing aggression towards authority figures, and self-discipline in solving problems through reading the textbook. In traditional Asian culture, a great emphasis is often placed on obedience, proper conduct, moral training, and the acceptance of social obligations (Bond 1986). Naturally, independence and assertiveness, which tend to encourage active oral classroom participation, are not emphasized. Therefore, the ways Asian students behave in class are generally affected by their socio-cultural backgrounds although the degree to which each participant in the study was influenced by Asian culture, concepts, and beliefs is different. Various degrees of Asian cultural influence on the individual accounts for their differential oral classroom participation modes. Moreover, the obligation and responsibility emphasized by Asian culture could make the students work twice as hard at lesson preparation to find out the answers to the questions in the textbook before they ask them in class, or could make them spend much time solving problems accumulated in the previous class by reviewing their notes and textbooks. The participants in the study also expressed achievement motivation. As long as they can get a good grade, as long as they can learn, they will be satisfied. In their opinion, obtaining high grades is equal to high achievement in class. Therefore, if oral classroom participation is counted towards the overall grade, even the least active students would try hard to speak up in class. Howev- er, as some of the students were shy in nature, they prepared one or two ques- tions before class or even wrote down what they intended to say before class. Unfortunately, they either ended up saying what they had prepared at the wrong moment, or they would not find the opportunity to fit their prepared oral output into the lesson because their oral participation is more canned than spontane- ous. Subsequently, they do not enjoy participation as it becomes an obligation. It is also worth noticing that the socio-cultural training many Asian students receive in their earlier education contributes largely to their character formation. As mentioned in the works of Abbott (1970), Vernon (1982), and Ting-Toomey (1999), in Asia, dependency, conformity, modesty, self-suppres- sion, and self-contentment are taught from early on. Dominant moral and religious thoughts or doctrines, such as Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, penetrate socio-cultural beliefs. In a way, most Asians are known as socio- oriented people who believe in collectivism that emphasizes the importance of the interdependent self, collective self-esteem, and particularistic-based interaction. When all these socio-cultural beliefs and concepts are taken into consideration, we will not be surprised to notice that the inactive role many Asian graduate students in this study had towards oral classroom participation
  23. 23. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 177 were deeply affected by their early education in their own Asian cultures. The affective factors which followed immediately after the socio-cultural factors in terms of the frequency counts, therefore, could also be explained under the broad spectrum of socio-cultural factors. They are interrelated. Personality traits, for example, were found to be related to the oral classroom participation modes. The extroverted students were more active in classroom participation than the introverted students. Perhaps there is a link between Asian culture and the trained introverted characteristics of Asian students in class to be quiet as a sign of proper classroom behavior and respect for teachers (Liu & Kuo 1996). We should, therefore, have more empathy in understanding and explaining the classroom behavior many Asian students in this study showed: the lack of motivation to participate in class, low-risk taking, inhibition, anxiety in speaking, intimidation by native speakers of English in class, and sense of inferiority in the English language. While socio-cultural and affective factors are chiefly responsible for the silent behavior of Asian students in class, their are intertwined with other factors, such as linguistic, cognitive, and pedagogical factors. The lack of English speaking abilities of many students in this study was disguised or protected in shelter of their socio-cultural belief of keeping quiet in class as a sign to show respect for teachers. Meanwhile, keeping silent in class because of the concern for making mistakes in speaking up in their content courses can help face- saving through the non-risk-taking strategy of avoidance. If the motivation behind the behavior of keeping quiet in class is a mixture of being polite (socio- cultural) and face-saving (affective), then the causes of such behavior are multiple. Apart from the lack of communicative competence in speaking English, cognitive factors such as the lack of prior work experience, the lack of schemata of the subject matter under discussion, and insufficient lesson preparation, have a detrimental effect on the Asian students’ reticence in class as well. Likewise, pedagogical factors, such as lecture-only classes, big class size, and caring primarily about grades in class, made many Asian students feel at home as they went through their earlier education in their home countries in a similar fashion. These students naturally felt comfortable (affective) as there were not many differences in the way the courses were conducted except for the language used as the medium of instruction, and they certainly would assume that their behavior was appropriate. Naturally, they transferred their learning styles and strategies, which had been successful in the classrooms in their home countries, into American classrooms (socio-cultural). Second, the findings of the study suggest that Asian students have the
  24. 24. 178 Jun Liu potential to speak up in their content courses, and Asian students’ oral class- room participation modes can change over time. Such changes can be bi- directional, incidental, or durable due to the interactions among multiple factors. The impetus for such change can come from within (e.g., motivation and attitude, self-confidence, or improvement of speaking abilities over time) and/or from outside (e.g., dynamics of class, effects of teachers and their teaching style, or other students’ participation modes and their attitude towards Asian students). Interestingly, the students’ perceptions towards oral classroom participation and their actual oral classroom participation modes are not well matched. That is, those who seldom participate in classroom discussion or seldom ask questions in class are not necessarily those whose perceptions towards oral classroom participation are negative. Likewise, those who partici- pated actively in their content courses did not always have all positive percep- tions towards oral classroom participation. However, what is evident in the data analysis, and consistent among the students in the study, is the belief all the students felt, expressed, or acted throughout this study, regardless of their oral classroom participation modes, that oral classroom participation helped confirm their thoughts and clear the doubts in their minds whether through their own participation or through their classmates’ participation. This positive attitude implies that Asian students, regardless of cognitive, pedagogical, affective, socio-cultural, and linguistic factors, have the potential to speak up in their content courses, a finding consistent with earlier research (Liu & Kuo 1996) on the same topic. However, one’s potential to speak up in class is constrained by multiple factors. For instance, many students in the study who were extremely inactive in oral classroom participation (e.g., Mr. Ag. Specialist, Ms. Musician, or Mr. Social Studies Teacher) considered oral classroom participation in their content courses as a positive means to improve their communicative competence, but their poor English speaking abilities held them back from participating as they were concerned about losing face if their professors and classmates could not understand them. This raised their affective filter and inhibited them from further participation. Meanwhile, the linguistic barrier concealed in their silence forced them to seek alternative means (e.g., attentive listening, careful note-taking and checking, thorough lesson preparation, or review in order to retain achievement motivation through obtaining good grades) to maintain their classroom identity. Conversely, many students who were active or somewhat active in oral classroom participation in their content course (Mr. Geodetic Scientist, Ms.
  25. 25. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 179 English Teacher, or Mr. Political Science Teacher) were well aware of their weaknesses in speaking English, and they perceived oral classroom participation as a source of motivation for them to improve their English speaking abilities, which not only resulted in their active or somewhat active participation in their content classrooms, but also in ESL classrooms and beyond. These students were good risk-takers, and they relied on strategies such as thorough lesson preparation and writing their questions down on paper in advance to sustain their efforts. However, one’s negative experience in making mistakes in class through oral classroom participation could prevent one from practicing further. Moreover, inhibition in oral participation could also change positive percep- tions towards oral classroom participation into negative ones. If the changing perceptions towards oral classroom participation from either direction is unavoidable, then to maintain the positive perceptions despite one’s actual linguistic abilities needs motivation and willingness to practice in class. There- fore, identifying and examining the multiple factors in different categories and studying the interconnections within and among categories will help illuminate suggestions to help transform Asian students’ potential to speak up in their content classrooms into their actual participation. Third, the findings of the study imply that gender and personality are relevant to Asian students’ oral classroom participation modes. Among twenty participants in the study, nine (45%) were female and eleven (55%) were male. Among the eight active or somewhat active participants, only one student was female (12.5%). However, of the twelve inactive or extremely inactive partici- pants, eight (66.7%) were female students. This suggests that gender plays a role in students’ oral classroom participation. Nine female students in the study were more inhibited in oral classroom participation than male students regardless of their linguistic abilities and interest in and mastery of the content knowledge. The majority of the female participants in the study expressed their socio-cultural belief of how a woman should behave in class in their own culture. For example, both Ms. Consumer Scientist and Ms. Nutritionist who graduated from women’s colleges believe that females in Asian cultures should be quiet, polite, sensitive, and responsible. Therefore, part of the reason for these Asian women students to be silent in class can be associated with their cultural backgrounds and beliefs. One Japanese female student, Ms. Counselor, spoke English very well, but she chose to be silent in class as she was accus- tomed to being so in her own country. Interestingly, almost all the female students in this study revealed that they were introverted in their content classes although some of them were extroverted after class, especially when they were
  26. 26. 180 Jun Liu with their co-nationals. While the participants in this study were not chosen based on the even distribution of gender, the fact that eight out of nine female students in the study were inactive in classroom participation makes us wonder what caused such unbalanced classroom participation modes between male and female students. I brought up this issue in many interviews with these female students and they revealed that in the majority of the courses they took in their majors in US, Asian students were the minority, and Asian female students were usually the minority among the Asian students in class. These female Asian students had the tendency to focus on listening and understanding in class, and they were more concerned about face-saving, and harmony than their male counterparts, which can be directly associated with their socio-cultural and prior educational backgrounds and the traditional Asian societal concept of the role of women which is characterized as being passive, obedient, submissive, and quiet. Although this traditional view of Asian women has been challenged and altered, its negative impact still affects Asian female students’ behavior especially when they are in an unfamiliar environment such as American classrooms in which they are the minority. Most of the female participants in this study were very cautious in oral participation, trying to be quiet in class, or trying not to be aggressive if they spoke up in class, in order to maintain politeness and harmony. This finding of gender differences is consistent with the study by Fassinger (1995), who found that student gender is a significant component in classroom participation, and consistent with Carson and Nelson’s study (1996) which found that Chinese students’ primary goal for the group was characterized as social — to maintain harmony — and that this goal affected the nature and types of interaction they allowed themselves in group discussions. The study also implies that one’s personality is context-dependent, a finding consistent with Peirce (1995), who challenged the notion of distinguish- ing personality traits from introverted to extroverted without considering the context, which is associated with one’s cultural belief systems. Given American classrooms as a social context, this study suggests that an introverted personality is more closely related to inactive participation modes of Asian students. Within the content classroom settings, three out of three (100%) active participants were all extroverted. Three out of five (60%) somewhat active participants were introverted, but they were all determined, persistent, and inquisitive. Four out of five (80%) inactive participants were introverted, and five out of seven (71%) extremely inactive participants were introverted. It can be inferred that in American academic discourse community such as content classes, some Asian
  27. 27. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 181 students within extroverted personality traits are more likely to be active in oral participation, whereas those with an introverted personality are likely to be inactive in oral participation. However, one must remember that one’s personality traits is highly context-dependent and situation-specific, and there are always other factors that should be taken into consideration when we determine the effect of personality traits on oral classroom participation modes of the students. Fourth, this study reveals that one’s participation modes are affected by one’s content knowledge and prior experience, but not necessarily by one’s length of stay in the target culture. Content knowledge was mentioned by at least three participants as an important factor affecting their active oral contri- bution to class. Lack of knowledge of the subject matter was also mentioned by five participants as a debilitating factor inhibiting their oral classroom participa- tion. The participants who did not have much knowledge in the subject matter but were highly interested in their majors were cautious in oral classroom participation, whereas the participants who had neither interest nor knowledge in their majors were non-participants in class because they felt they had nothing to contribute. The active participants were those who had sufficient knowledge and a high level of interest in their major. Therefore, interest in as well as knowledge of the subject matter one pursues appears to be of crucial importance in affecting one’s active oral classroom participation modes. Closely related to the interest level and knowledge base in one’s major is the prior major-related experience one has. The findings suggest that the majority of the participants in the study who had prior teaching or work experience were more active in oral classroom participation than those who had not. Of the five participants who had no prior experience, three (60%) were inactive or extremely inactive in oral classroom participation. Of the seven participants who had prior teaching experience ranging from two to seven years, for example, five (71%) were either active or somewhat active in oral classroom participation. Therefore, one’s prior experience did appear to have an impact on one’s participation mode, and one’s prior experience in a major-related job appears to be a plus in one’s oral classroom contributions. The findings of this study also suggest that length of stay, alone, does not determine one’s oral participation mode. The length of stay does not have absolute significance without considering the context in which one stays and the motivation with which one acculturates to the English-speaking communi- ty. For instance, length of stay seemed to help some participants’ cultural adaptation and active or somewhat active roles in oral classroom participation. For example, Mr. Biophysicist spent almost five years attending a college in
  28. 28. 182 Jun Liu Alabama; Mr. Geologist had lived for five years in the US, first as a transfer student in a university in Denver, then later as a master’s student at Ohio State; and Mr. Mechanical Engineer spent more than two years getting his MA in a university in West Virginia. However, it did not help others like Ms. Fashion Designer and Ms. Pharmacist, who spent seven and three and half years, respectively, at home taking care of their children, speaking their own languag- es, and being quite detached from the American community. Therefore, if one stays within one’s own L1 community in the target culture, length of stay does not help much. However, if one spends or is willing to spend much time in the target culture and target community, then length of stay becomes a facilitative factor helping not only language improvement, but also the understanding of the cultural concepts under which the language operates. This is consistent with an earlier study by Oyama (1975), who found that length of stay alone had little effect on immigrants’ acquisition of a non-native phonological system. Fifth, the impact of American peers on Asian students’ participation modes should be taken into consideration. This study suggests that Asian students are usually very good at reading and solving problems, but due to their different cultural upbringing and linguistic deficiencies, they tend to have mixed feelings towards the general active oral classroom participation modes of their American peers. As perceived by many participants in the study, American peers were usually very active in oral classroom participation. Many participants in the study found that the active participation of American peers was stimulating and encouraging, and they felt motivated to participate themselves. Although some Asian students were not active in oral classroom participation, they greatly benefited from the active participation of their American peers and other students. In fact, these students could get answers to their questions without speaking up in class. However, some Asian students felt intimidated by the active oral classroom participation modes of their American peers, which resulted in their giving up speaking in class. In terms of support from American peers, many participants in the study felt grateful and appreciative when they sometimes were in trouble in expressing themselves in class, and their American peers helped them express their ideas. However, different reactions of the participants in this study towards the active participation mode of American peers in class have several implications. Although American peers’ active oral classroom participation modes could become a threat for some Asian students, they can serve as role models for Asian students to follow. As many Asian students have the potential to speak up, they may feel it beneficial for American peers to help them with phrases or words while they are struggling to partici-
  29. 29. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 183 pate. Obviously, there is a need for greater cross-cultural sensitivity from Asian students, their American peers, as well as from instructors. Finally, this study shows that teaching style, lesson type, and class size are crucial to Asian students’ participation regardless of their major of study. Eight participants (40%) majored in the social sciences while twelve participants (60%) majored in the natural sciences. Only two out of eight (25%) participants in the social sciences were active or somewhat active in oral classroom partici- pation, whereas six out of twelve (50%) participants in natural science were active or somewhat active in oral classroom participation. This finding implies that those who are in social science majors do not necessarily have advantages in oral classroom participation, suggesting that the major of study alone is not crucial in determining the oral participation modes of the participants without considering the lesson type, the class size, as well as the teaching style. The findings of this study further suggest that the content area instructors’ teaching styles are crucial to the oral classroom participation modes of the participants regardless of their major of study. Moreover, the lesson type and the class size are important factors affecting students’ participation modes, and that seminars and discussion lessons usually facilitate oral classroom participation regardless of the major of study. Large class size inhibits oral classroom participation for Asian students as they are concerned about others’ time and the quality of their contributions or questions. The individual instructor’s teaching style is also an important factor affecting students’ oral classroom participation modes. Lively, humorous, and effective teaching styles are likely to encourage students to participate regardless of the lesson type, and are also likely to alleviate the Asian concept of the inappropriateness of participating in a big class, or in a lecture. Instead of worrying about what students could contribute, instructors’ concern should be about how they can motivate their students to participate actively in class. In this regard, context-specific tasks designed by instructors to facilitate classroom participation can be helpful under the condition that students in class are motivated to do the tasks. Conclusion This study demonstrates the following three recurring themes: (1) Not all Asian students are reticent in classrooms although there is a tendency for Asian students to be quieter in their content classrooms than their American counter- parts on various occasions; (2) Asian students’ oral classroom participation
  30. 30. 184 Jun Liu modes are related to, but not determined by, their perceptions towards oral classroom participatIon; (3) Among various factors that influence Asian students’ perceptions towards oral classroom participation as well as their participation modes, socio-cultural and affective factors are the most salient explanatory predictors. As such, further research is needed to better understand the complexities of Asian students’ oral classroom participation modes in their content courses in order to help these students adapt to American classroom culture. One of the promising research directions is to study Asian students in American universities in a broader social context of language learning and language use, and to look at multiple discourse communities in which Asian students construct multiple social identities from a contextualist perspective (e.g., Fairclough 1992; McKay & Wong 1996). Studies are needed to identify the discourse communities in which Asian students in American universities are socially situated; to examine interconnections of multiple discourses Asian students are exposed to; and how Asian students develop their second language skills, negotiate their social relations and construct their social identities across these discourse communities; and to understand how Asian students in American universities invest in the target language and culture, how they conceptualize cultural adaptation, and why and how they acquire or fail to acquire cultural transformation competence and how this is related to their classroom participation modes in content courses. Author’s Address: Jun Liu Modern Languages Building #67 P. O. Box 210067 University of Arizona Tucson, Arizona 85721-0067 Tel. (520) 621 1836 Fax. (520) 621 7397 Notes * I would like to thank the twenty students who participated in this study, as well as Keiko Samimy, Diane Belcher, Jette Hansen, two anonymous reviewers, and the editors of JAPC for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
  31. 31. Understanding Asian students’ oral participation modes in American classrooms 185 1. My initial research addressing international graduate students’ classroom participation (Liu & Kuo 1996) was conducted in Winter Quarter, 1992. A survey of 51 international graduate students enrolled at different levels of both the Spoken English Program and the Composition Program at a Midwestern university was conducted by using a six-part questionnaire (i.e., risk-taking, sociability, discomfort about speaking up, motivation for keeping silent, strategies for keeping silent and cultural alienation). The results of the study indicated that the international graduate students surveyed had the potential to speak up in their academic content courses but were overcautious in risk-taking and socializing, partly because of their sense of inferiority in speaking the language in the presence of native speakers, and partly because of their anxiety about communicating in English. Also revealed was the fact that the language proficiency of the students did affect their oral participation in academic content courses. Students at lower levels, in both the Spoken English and Composi- tion Programs, seemed to be highly motivated to improve their English through exposure to U. S. culture, yet they were more reserved in speaking than the students at higher language proficiency levels. This reluctance to speak up may have been due to their uneasiness and uncertainty about both the English language and U. S. culture. This survey suggested the need for further study of the problem. 2. In the process of designing and conducting the three different interview schedules, from wide-open to semi-structured to structured formats, I tried to give each participant adequate time to think and to reflect, to give them opportunities to ask questions, and to provide information necessary to help them feel at ease in the interview. For example, in the wide- open interview, I tried not to give any pre-designed questions to the interviewee and allowed the interviewee to express freely what was in his/her mind under the broad category “perceptions of participation.” In the semi-structured interview, I asked a few major questions (e.g., “How do you like participating in your mainstream classes here in the United States?,” “What’s your perception of classroom participation?”) to the interviewees one at a time and I also probed issues with subsequent questions as they naturally emerged in the interview process. In the structured interview schedule, I confirmed their input about the investigated topic, and also gave each of them a chance to clarify any discrepancies between the input from the structured interview and that from the previous wide-open as well as semi-structured interviews. Immediately after each interview, I listened to the tape and transcribed it taking into consideration some nonverbal communication behaviors I observed in the interview (e.g., anxiety, smiles, struggles with words, or silence). After each transcription, I recalled the entire interview process and kept fieldnotes (Wolf 1992) to reflect my concerns over and experience with both the interview and methodology. I also showed parts of the interview transcriptions to the participants for confirmation. The interview transcriptions were then sorted and classified by the trends and patterns that became evident as determined and guided by my research questions. 3. I observed all the participants in this study in at least one of their content courses. Throughout my observations, I jotted down notes and made detailed fieldnotes immediately after each observation to keep track of the development of the study, to visualize how my research plan had been affected by the data collected, and to remain conscious of how I had been influenced by the data. I asked the participant being observed in class as well as the class instructor some questions right after the observation. I also made an effort to obtain the
  32. 32. 186 Jun Liu teaching materials and course syllabus of the class being observed to facilitate data analysis. My descriptive fieldnotes about observations contained the portraits of all the students in the class under observation in general, and the observed Asian students in particular, description of the physical setting of the classroom, interactions between the teacher and the students and among students in class in general, and the interaction between the observed student and others in particular, and an account of the student’s participation mode and various conditions under which the participation took place. My reflective fieldnotes contained reflections about the analysis, themes and patterns that emerged, connections between pieces of data, reflections on methods and the strategies I had employed in observation. Because the students I observed came from different countries and different socio-cultural backgrounds, I tried to associate their classroom participation modes with their cultural values, beliefs, and social identities by addressing these issues in interviews. While reflecting on my own mind- set, I tried to go to observe a class without predetermined assumptions about what was to expect. I also tried not to be biased by some of these preconceptions in describing what I had observed. To meet this end, I tried to reveal my bias, if there was any, in my journal, and tried to reflect on my description in terms of objectiveness, authenticity, and clarity of the language. References Abadzi, H. (1980) The use of multivariate statistical procedures in international student admissions. Journal of College Student Personnel, 21, 195–120. Abbott, K. A. (1970) Harmony and individualism. Taipei: Oriental Cultural Service. Adelegan, F. O., & Parks, D. J. (1985) Problems of transition for African students in an American university. Journal of College Student Personnel, 26, 504–508. Agarwal, V. B., & Winkler, D. R. (1985) Migration of foreign students to the United States. Journal of Higher Education, 56, 509–522. Bailey, K. M. & Nunan, D. (1996) Voices from the language classroom. New York: Cambridge University Press. Bond, M. H. (Ed.). (1986) The psychology of the Chinese people. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Boyer, S. P., & Sedlacek, W. E. (1986) Noncognitive predictors of counseling center use by international students. Journal of Counseling and Development, 67, 404–407. Brown, H. D. (1987) Principles of language learning and teaching. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. Canale, M., & Swain. M. (1980) Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics, 1, 1–47. Carson, J. G. & Nelson, G. L. (1996) Chinese students’ perceptions of ESL peer response group interaction. Journal of Second Language Writing, 5(1), 1–19. Cazden, C. B., Carraso, R. L., Maldonado, A. A., and Erickson, F. (1980) The contribution of ethnographic research to bilingual education. In J. E. Alatis, ed. Current issues in bilingual education, 64–80. Washington, D. C.: Georgetown University Press. Chaudron, C. (1988) Second language classrooms: Research on teaching and learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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