Not Hemingway’s, but Japan’s Own Iceberg Theory

February 23rd, 2014
Edwin Bartunek
Developer and Educator

Edwin Bartunek

Hemingway might have coined the term but, today I’m writing about the complexity in dealing with an omission of character or speech that I will call The Japanese Iceberg Theory. What am rambling about? It mainly concerns teaching students that don’t give you back a lot of personality or conversation. I’m talking about Japan, so this entry will help you if you teach English in Japan. If you plan to work in Japan, teaching English you’ll benefit too.

I mention this because students are often mislabeled as being low-level speakers in English when really they are just holding back not to be rude or can’t understand the situation. There are several reasons that this can happen in the classroom. The one way and most common is when the teacher, such as myself, does something in class that the given student doesn’t like, it produces a halt in the conversation between teacher and student. The best way to remedy this problem would be to very knowledgeable about culturally acceptable behavior. This can be accomplished by reading books on the subject or asking trusted Japanese friends. I would suggest books, though.

Another reason with this mislabeling conundrum is the issue of the student’s personality. Sometimes people are really closed up but given the right topic they will start talking up a storm. You can easily assess a student true English level when you talk about the right topics. Teachers in an EFL environment need to choose the topics we use in class carefully.

Finally we teachers should consider the idea of background knowledge. When you don’t know something in a conversation, it is very probable that you won’t say much, right? It’s definitely true for Japanese students. I always tried to find out what my students knew or didn’t know. I know their levels more clearly because of it.

The main idea of the Japanese Iceberg Theory is that the Japanese student is a big mystery. Teachers decide what is talked about for the most part because the students, most often, lack the conversational experience to change the topic or conversation naturally or smoothly. Teachers must assume the best of the student first, and not to guess what is underneath the surface. A measurable level of English is always at the top of the iceberg which is where a conversation takes place. My biggest take away from my experience dealing with this theory was that asking the right questions opened doors for not only me but also the students. I continue to hone my conversational strategies for my students everyday. It’s the only way I can truly help them. Please comment with questions or comments below.

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