Empathy and English Teaching

Mariko Okuzaki, Hakodate National College of Technology

Communicative competence involves knowing not only the language code, but also what to say to whom, and how to say it appropriately in a given situation (Saville-Troike, 1996). Moreover, this ability to use and interpret linguistic forms appropriately calls for social and cultural knowledge and experience beyond the grammar of the language (Bialystok and Hakuta, 1994). How, then, can a Japanese EFL teacher cultivate students' intercultural communicative competence? The teacher herself is a non-native English speaker, the students are all Japanese, and the little English they encounter outside the classroom is often inappropriate.

Medgyes (1992) argues that the performance of non-native speakers is inherently limited: Non-native speakers can never achieve native speaker competence because they are, by their very nature, norm-dependent. However, as Savignon (1983, cited by Brown 1994, p. 227) points out, communicative competence is relative, not absolute, and it depends on the cooperation of all participants. Thus the norm itself is to some extent negotiable by and relative to the participants--native and non-native alike. One essential for successful intercultural communication, then, is the attitude of the participants, whose sense of appropriateness helps construct the norms.

I believe that learners with empathy can compensate for their lack of knowledge and experience and make better decisions about appropriateness in intercultural communication. Empathy involves relativism and flexibility, which knowledge alone cannot furnish. With an empathic attitude, Japanese learners of English can learn more rapidly to cope with norms different from theirs and gain insights about linguistic appropriateness in English-speaking cultures. Therefore, by fostering empathy in an EFL context, a Japanese teacher with only limited knowledge of English appropriateness can still help students develop competence in intercultural communication. Furthermore, by raising awareness of the importance of an empathic attitude, Japanese teachers of English can help improve students' everyday social interactions. Students can create harmony in a classroom where some had suffered because of their differences.

The Meaning of Empathy

Goldstein and Michaels (1985) describe empathy by combining several meanings noted by Macarov (1978, as cited by Goldstein and Michaels p. 7):

Empathic people can take the roles of other people, viewing the world as they see it, and experiencing their feelings. They are adept at reading and interpreting nonverbal communication. They sincerely try to understand helpfully, without passing judgment. Empathy differs from sympathy in that it does not include pity or approval and focuses on the feelings of others, not our own. ( aKtz 1963, as cited by McLeod 1997, p. 114)

Gerbert (1993) claims that in elementary schools, Japanese kokugo (national language) education emphasizes empathy and subjective feeling, more than American English education.

While American textbooks tend to encourage the child to step away from the story and to analyze the situation and the actions of the characters and to evaluate the effectiveness of their actions, kokugo textbooks often invite the child to imagine the feelings of another and to merge his or her identity with that of the character, even if that character should happen to be animal. (p. 161)

I believe, however, that the empathy in Japanese English education should differ from that noted by Gerbert. In kokugo education, the purpose of developing the student's empathic viewpoint is to create a common singular consciousness (p. 161). Japanese students are expected to understand others from a reference point based not on individual self-knowledge but on "Japaneseness," moral and behavioral standards universally accepted in Japanese society (p. 161). To help students understand appropriateness in English interactions and intercultural communication, teachers need to affirm individual differences and diversity, and differences must have positive value for students.

Teaching Intercultural Communication

Gudykunst and Kim (1995) explain that we cannot understand the communication of people from other cultures if we are highly ethnocentric.

Ethnocentrism leads us to see our own culture's way of doing things as "right" and all others "wrong." While the tendency to make judgments according to our own cultural standards is natural, it hinders our understanding of other cultures and the patterns of communication of their people. Becoming more culturally relativistic, on the other hand, can be conducive to understanding. (p. 431)

According to Porter and Samouvar (1991), intercultural understanding goes through several stages from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism. Ignorance or feelings of denial and rejection are natural at the first stage. To help students shift their viewpoint, the teacher needs to make them encounter value conflicts. The stronger the impact on the students' belief systems and their value judgments, the more they will question the stability of their values. Then, by reflecting on their belief systems and value judgments in comparison to the norms of the new culture, students will become aware of, admit, and then accept the differences. When students can tolerate differences and believe that no cultural group should be judged as being inherently superior or inferior to another (Damen 1987, as cited by McKay 1992, p. 53), the teacher has successfully created a classroom culture where students have acquired empathy through intercultural understanding via the learning of English.

Seventeen years ago, I cultivated my empathic viewpoint by eating peanut butter. One day, I saw one of my American friends eating an apple with peanut butter and at first I couldn't believe her sense of taste. I judged her behavior as different and wrong. Peanut butter was only for bread; I couldn't believe that there could be any other way of eating peanut butter. Later, I saw more foreign friends eating apples with peanut butter, and I tempered my judgment, and noticed it was not a matter of right or wrong, but a matter of a difference in combination. Although it took several weeks to try it myself, I started eating peanut butter with not only apples but also other things such as bananas and strawberry jam. One way that I teach my students international understanding is by showing them how you can eat apples with peanut butter. By encountering and relating experiences in which their own emotions change from denial to tolerance, Japanese English teachers can successfully teach empathy.

To wean students from their bias and to see the differences in English and English-speaking cultures, a teacher has to have an empathic perspective towards the target language and culture. How can a Japanese teacher develop that? To foster an ethnorelative viewpoint, Japanese teachers need to experience separation from their own culture, even if they never leave the country. McKay (1992) suggests ethnographic research as a means for teachers to become expatriates in their own classrooms. Just as foreign teachers can free themselves by research from imposing their own cultural biases on the culture where they teach, Japanese teachers of English should make efforts to separate from their own cultural biases and analyze English speaking culture from an ethnorelative viewpoint.

Moreover, Japanese English teachers should teach students that all languages are of equal value. Tsuda (1991) points out that Japanese education has put too much stress on British and American English. Overemphasizing Anglophone culture may mislead students to assume the superiority of English.

The Necessity of Empathy in Japanese Schools

Wa, which is often emphasized in Japanese society, could be translated as harmony. To maintain it, each member of Japanese society must be the same; Japanese harmony has little room for tolerance of differences (Nakajima,1997). If someone is different in some way, they will not be a full member of the society until they change to be the same as others. The logic of Japanese harmony eliminates differences.

According to Bowers (1987, as cited by Holliday 1994), a classroom is a microcosm which reflects the social world outside. School uniforms and strict rules which demand conformity are ways a school suppresses the differences among its students. Ijime, or group oppression by exclusion (my translation), is one example of how students interpret those messages and react to Japanese harmony. A Japanese classroom is full of the similarities supported by the Japanese concept of harmony. It consists of a Japanese teacher and Japanese students, whose mother language is Japanese. This learning environment reinforces the students' assumption that everyone should feel, believe, and behave as they do in Japan. It is time for us to stop deprecating differences and instead, to encourage students to understand them empathically, to generate a new harmony that will create a school environment where differences can be viewed more constructively. An empathic viewpoint can sensitize one to the full range and depth of someone else's affective stage or situation (Goldstein and Michaels 1985) and create new insights into classmates' personal differences. Trying to understand a different culture can lead students to rethink their own beliefs, to develop empathy, and then to integrate differences into their belief system for constructive relationships with classmates.

Actions in Japanese English Classes

When students learn English, they accept the premise that the language, the culture, and the society are very different from theirs. Therefore, English classes can challenge students' assumptions and help them see another way to view differences. Introducing cultural differences as pieces of information is not enough.

Livine and Adelman (1993) emphasize teaching the hidden aspects of the culture in language leaming, because the part of culture that is exposed is not always that which creates cross-cultural difficulties; the hidden aspects of culture have significant effects on behavior and on interactions with others. By highlighting the hidden aspects of the language functions and characteristics with an empathic attitude including the positive value of differences, a Japanese teacher can help students reflect on the appropriateness of their performance.

English language learning introduces students to different interaction patterns for communication with different ranges of appropriateness from Japanese norms. An English interaction is governed by its culturally oriented rules and it is quite hard for students to figure out the hidden formula. As a consequence, they fail the interaction. For example, Allwright (1980, cited by Brown 1994, p. 236), showed how students failed to use appropriate turn-taking signals, formulated by the English conversation rules, in their interactions with each other and with the teacher. Why do they fail? Because they try to apply their own cultural conversation rules developed through their native language acquisition for the English interaction (Okuzaki 1997).

But after the shock of initial failure, students can recognize English conversation rules, appropriateness, and the belief system supporting the rules. They expand their own range of appropriateness in interactions, then perhaps apply it to their behavior and interactions not only in English but also in Japanese. With an empathic attitude, students can try to interpret the challenge positively. As another example of conversational differences broadening the range of appropriateness, I encourage my students to ask questions, clarify, and express their own opinions both in English and in Japanese. I also encourage them to take increased self-esteem from their language performances. The class should provide the opportunity to display students' language use and the time to try the different interactions by themselves.

Teaching Life Goals Through Lessons

English has been regarded as the most important foreign language for Japan to keep pace with the modem world, largely because English provides access to the latest scientific, medical, and technological developments in developed countries (LoCastro, 1996). However, as long as the teaching of English is based primarily on a foundation of economic globalization, students will be seen simply as future human capital. Japanese teachers suffer from the uncertainty of having all of their students aim only at their future need for English in their everyday teaching. Stevick (1998) explains how everyday teaching affects students:

We consciously choose or not choose one or another set of "life goals" that we want to help our students work on. We can pursue those goals openly and intentionally or indirectly and covertly or not at all. But whether we are consciously working on such matters or just on language skills, the "life goals" that will be affected most in our students are not necessarily the ones we think we are putting across. They are the goals--the values--that our students find built into us and into how we teach them, our fellow human beings, day by day (p. 173).

Therefore, we should emphasize the role of teaching in promoting our students' humanistic development, and the cultivation of a more empathic viewpoint must be justified as one of the life-goals for Japanese students, especially in their English language classes.


I cannot say that English language learning directly fosters students' empathy development. I cannot say that a better language learner could already have developed empathy, either. I don't have measures to estimate students' empathic attitude and cannot prove that I have been able to develop empathy in my students during my English language classes. However, I can insist that I should teach English to help students develop themselves with dignity. I want to be in the classroom to better students' lives.

Last year, tragedies involving junior high school students shook Japan. As a result, the Minister of Education proclaimed the need for kokoro no kyoiku (Humane Education, my translation) as a state of emergency in education. Society demands that every teacher of every subject provide a more humanistic approach in everyday teaching. I would like to make English teaching play its role in helping students better their social interactions. English can teach students something beyond grammar.



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