Using Masks to Unmask "Shyness" in Speaking a Foreign Language

David R. Mayer, Nanzan University


  • Key Words: self-awareness, culture
  • Learner English Level:intermediate
  • Learner Maturity Level:Sr. High and older
  • Preparation Time:minimal
  • Activity Time:one 90 minute class

Shy character

In Shyness, Philip Zimbardo tells how his younger brother George overcame his extreme shyness. Young Philip surmised that George might feel more comfortable if he thought others could not recognize him. His mother made a mask out of a grocery bag and sent George to school wearing the mask. Feeling unknown, George gradually got used to school. When he repeated the course the next year, George had gained enough confidence to appear in the class play without the mask.

Shyness workshop

George's story and other parts of Shyness became the basis for discussions among third- and fourth-year English majors. The students learned the nature of shyness, completed a questionnaire, and wrote a composition either about shyness or about their difficulties in speaking English. Later, for first-year students, I distilled the workshop content into one exercise: wearing a mask.

Using masks in class

For homework, students make a mask that will cover their face. In class, students put on the masks and move about the room talking with several partners. After ten minutes they return to their places and write a reflection on how they felt wearing the mask and how this exercise is connected with the speaking of English. Next, groups of four share experiences. Finally, the teacher explains the differences between cultural modesty, real shyness, and natural hesitation. Most of the students come to realize that they can speak English if they feel they are unknown and are not being judged.

Risk taking

After the exercise, the next step is for students to be willing to overcome their hesitation and begin taking language risks, that is, to recognize when they hesitate to use English and then decide on strategies for speaking in those situations, one by one, until they have confidence in each. For instance, if they always wait for their partner to begin the warm-up conversation, they should resolve to start the conversations on Mondays. Their self-assigned homework is to have a topic to begin Monday's warm-up. The students set simple speaking goals for themselves, decide the steps to get there in an ascending series of risks, and then do them until they become natural.

Shy by nature

Should some students feel that they are shy, that they have difficulty speaking Japanese in public, they can be told that it is fine to be reserved or quiet, that it is good some people are willing to listen to those who talk, that it is peaceful when not everyone is demanding something, and that taking time to think before speaking is beneficial. In other words, their shyness is quite acceptable unless it hinders them from doing something good that they want to do.

Shyness vs. cultural modesty and natural hesitation

Most students are not shy, they are culturally modest or have a natural hesitation to put their weak points forward. Japanese students come from a cultural background that prizes indirectness and modest, self-effacing statements. The culture favors those who are quiet, wait their turns, and do not stick out, especially in a formal or public situation. Hence to refrain from speaking of oneself or one�s desires directly in front of others is not a matter of shyness but of cultural modesty. Likewise, no one likes to do something they feel they are weak in, especially in front of others. This is a natural hesitation that people overcome in their efforts to perfect their skills.

Results: Still embarrassed

Each year there were some who felt it was childish or otherwise embarrassing to wear the mask. They were still keenly aware of themselves (their Japanese faces) behind the mask. One wrote: "Everyone thinks that they don�t feel shy when they put on masks. But I felt more ashamed. I can't change. I must cover mask over my body, or I enter into a big box." The mask did not help these students hide their faces.

Miss facial communication

Others did not like the mask because they could not see the facial expressions of their partners, nor could they hear them very well. They could not communicate: "When we talked to others, we didn�t know whether they laugh or were angry. We didn�t have eye contact. So, we communicated less than usual." With the masks on, they could not use their faces to express themselves: "I think the face activities help me when I can't tell something by words." These students had the problem that the masks covered not only their Japanese faces but also their English communication faces. Neither they nor their partners could use their faces to help express their feelings.

Felt relaxed

The majority felt it was fun, and they were surprised to realize how relaxed they were in speaking English. It was a new experience, and the classroom was more lively with many interesting, colorful faces. They concentrated more on communicating, letting the words flow out, because they were no longer worried about making an impression on others. Their Japanese faces were not being judged.

"I often hesitate to speak English because I am afraid of making mistakes and I forget the words I should speak. But when I wore my mask I could speak English more than before. To hide myself made me more aggressive."

"Since I didn't recognize their new faces (masks), and they didn't recognize me either, I didn't feel ashamed of speaking English. Wearing the masks makes us confident." The masks hid their embarrassed Japanese faces, allowing the students to use their English faces freely. Hiding the Japanese face liberated the English face.


Through the exercise of wearing a mask, the students become more aware of their ways of expressing themselves in public. As a group they experience the dilemma of letting the mask free their English-speaking faces at the expense of hiding their expressive Japanese faces. Becoming aware of their affective barriers to English speaking is the first step toward taking the risks involved in overcoming them.


Zimbardo, P. G. (1977). Shyness: What it is, what to do about it. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Zimbardo, P.G. & Radl, S. H. (1981). The Shy child: A parent's guide to preventing and overcoming shyness from infancy to adulthood. New York: McGraw-Hill.