Are L2 learning experiences helpful by any chance?
When students start college life, they will all experience academic and interpersonal challenges, big and small, but at least some of them have to face another type of challenge, which I will call a clash of values. I talked about this with a school counselor who used to work for our university, a women’s university located in the northern part of Japan. My question for her was what the number one reason students visit our school counseling room was. She said, without any moment of hesitation, family matters.
This tends to be a big problem especially for those students who are from rural areas in places such as Aomori and Akita. Many of them lived in an extended family with grandparents, parents, and siblings before they came to Sendai, a city area. In quite a few cases, their grandmother and mother are not on good terms. Students have to navigate the turbulent waters between them since they have no choice but to get involved in their conflict, confrontation, or quagmire as another female member of their family, a successor to their family values. The problem was whose side they should take: their grandmother’s or their mother’s. Now that they live by themselves in an apartment or in a dormitory and they learn at school about gender equality, freedom, and basic human rights, they have come to know there is another option: They can pursue their own happiness their own way. Through education, they explore who they are and build self-knowledge as well as academic knowledge. And because they are educated, they sometimes end up going through moral conflicts, and face an identity crisis. Students are torn between older family values and new ways of thinking they learn during their college days and feel ambivalence and tension. Some feel distressed and visit the counselor.
The issue is womanhood, motherhood, or rather daughter-in-lawhood, so to speak. Traditionally, women got married into the family of their spouse. There are a lot of “should”s and “shouldn’t”s in relation to traditional family expectations. Older values speak to students in the voice of their grandmother and their mother. Do they have to go back to their hometown after graduation and take on the older values? Can they choose what they want to do, pursue their aspirations, and take on a life that is distinct from their grandmother’s and mother’s lives?
“Of course, they can,” you may say. We live in the 21st century and Japan is a developed country. I felt the same way before I talked with the experienced counselor. However, she convinced me. Women have been coaxed into a series of female obligations and social roles for so many centuries in our society that older values are literally imprinted in their subconscious mind. Especially in rural areas, traditional values die hard. Maybe they are fossilized in those regions. Or we may be just pretending that old values are things of the past and that they do not exist anymore in our modern society, when in fact they do survive deep down in our mind.
Furthermore, the students want to be good daughters for their family. They want to make their family happy and they know they can do this if they accept their family’s values, although they are not truly theirs. Students are stuck with the roles they think they have to play in their family lives, knowing they are not the roles they want to play. It must be painful. No wonder they cannot concentrate on their studies or make the most of the time and chance to broaden their horizons. Are they able to believe they can grow out of their old family values and take steps toward what their heart really wants?
I wonder if there is anything I can do to be helpful. I’m not a counselor or psychotherapist, but I may be able to be a “supportive listener” (Jones, 2011). If troubled students were to come to me, although I know it is difficult for a layperson to comfort people in need of help in a meaningful way, I can listen to them and sincerely attend to what they share with me, trying to interpret their problems and respond to their inner emotional turmoil. Without being judgmental or trying to give advice. Just listening with understanding.
However, is that all I can do? I’m a language teacher. Can’t I do anything else? Should I do something more? In language classrooms, we deal with language functions such as interrupting appropriately, disagreeing politely, giving or asking for reasons, or using humor. These functions are related to interpersonal language skills. We can also tell students that what we say matters, but how we say it also matters. Students need to learn polite ways to make suggestions, pose counterarguments, and persuade others. Language is the way we relate to others. Shared understanding can be reached through dialogues. If we can help our students to become better communicators, with better language skills, they may find ways to open discussion with their family, talk through their problems, and negotiate with them.
You may say, “Wait! We are teaching a foreign language. Don’t they talk with their family in their native language?” Yes, they do, but remember: We are helping our students build multi-competence. The languages we speak constitute one system, and they influence each other and integrate in our mind (Cook, 1995).
Furthermore, we may be able to, or rather, we may have to go deeper. Learning another language is an adaptive process (Shaules, 2019). In our classrooms, students learn to think, behave, and relate to others in a new way. They learn to set aside their own perspectives and ways of doing things, and appreciate unfamiliar views and practices although they may not be totally comfortable with them. They become more understanding and tolerant of differences in value systems and customs.
Teachers may want to use TV dramas and movies that feature family matters to have students realize that sincere talks usually work when issues come up, and that people are capable of handling cultural differences. For example, Full House is a TV sitcom, a comedy show, where a widowed father takes care of three daughters with the help of his brother-in-law and an old friend. The episodes are about everyday family matters, although the family is rather unique, and every episode involves some interpersonal issues. Besides, the drama provides a good opportunity to learn chunks of language and routine expressions in conversations. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a film, a romantic comedy, where a Greek girl meets a non-Greek teacher. They fall in love and eventually get married, but they have to deal with cultural conflicts. People in distinct cultures get things done in different ways and the other way can seem odd and even beyond understanding. Both verbal and non-verbal behaviors differ and this can create misinterpretations. However, the loving relationship in a family is basically the same across cultures. The film raises intercultural awareness and promotes mutual understanding.
In language classrooms, students are acquiring skills to communicate in another language. The acquired skills and knowledge will be transferred to their native language. Although some learners may be feeling pressured to conform to normative expectations of the family embedded in the traditional local culture, those students who are empowered with language learning experiences may want to reconcile the dilemma they encounter in their family life and start sharing their views and communicating with their family, openly and honestly. Wishful thinking? Yes, maybe so, but this is, I believe, what we are trying to do in language classrooms every day.
Cook, V. J. (1995). Multi-competence and the learning of many languages. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 8(2), 93–98. https://doi.org/10.1080/07908319509525193
Jones, S. M. (2011). Supportive listening. International Journal of Listening, 25(1-2), 85–103. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10904018.2011.536475
Shaules, J. (2019). Language, culture, and the embodied mind. Springer.
Harumi Kimura (EdD.) is a professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University. She studied L2 listening anxiety in her doctoral study, and her academic interests include second language acquisition, learner development, learner psychology, multilingualism, and cooperative learning. She thinks that her mission is “to make learning another language less intimidating and a bit more rewarding plus fun.”