No time on their tongue : meanings of silence in multi-ethnic classrooms of older adults




Fenimore, Mary Ann

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Silence in the communicative process is often viewed as the background to speech patterns, or it is not viewed at all. Yet cultural and ethnic teachings concerning the importance of silence, as well as appropriate uses of silence in communication, aftect communicative processes in classroom contexts, and can thus affect teaching and learning processes as well. In this study, silence in intercultural communication is the main focus. This is a study about the meanings of silence in multi-ethnic classrooms of older adults, as well as a study of signs and signals for breaking silence which are used by participants in classroom contexts when they wish to speak. A search of the literature revealed minimal information concerning meanings of silences in classroom contexts and no information concerning meanings of silence, nor about signs and signals for breaking silence in multi-ethnic classrooms of older adults. Therefore, this qualitative research project was designed to answer some questions about these intercultural communicative issues, which are vital aspects of teaching and learning processes. The two main research questions were: 1) what are the meanings of silence in multi-ethnic classrooms of older adults? 2) what are the signs and signals for breaking silence in multi-ethnic classrooms of older adults? A multiple case study approach was used with seven adults (four women and three men) whose ages ranged from 65 to 82 years and who were from the countries of Nigeria, Cuba, Greece, China, India, England, and Canada. These case studies were supported by a triangulated methodological approach which used three qualitative research methodologies in order to enhance the depth of understanding concerning the research questions of the study. These three methodologies were: ethnographies of communication; ethnomethodology; and interactional analysis of discourse. Saville-Troike’s (1985) categories of silences were used as an initial conceptual framework for analyzing and organizing the data which were gathered from five different sources. This conceptual framework was then adjusted in order to accommodate the various sub-categories and themes which emerged from the data of this study. The five sources of data were: transcription of a video of the participants in their classroom; transcriptions of audio tapes of stimulated recall interviews with individual participants; researcher observations; first focus group discussion; and second focus group discussion (where participants made additions and corrections to tentative findings that were presented to them by the researcher). In order to avoid stereotyping or unwarranted generalizations concerning various ethnic or cultural groups, and in order to respect the communicative differences within cultural and ethnic groups, meanings of silence were not categorized according to culture, but rather, were categorized into communicative themes across cultures. As well, a metaphor of a “patchwork quilt” was used throughout this inquiry as a vehicle for the creative enhancement of insights, organization, connections, and descriptions of the research process. The findings of this study revealed a large variety of meanings of silence as well as a number of signs and signals for breaking silence. These were organized into the following categories: 1) institutionally-determined silences which included locations, rituals, hierarchical / structural, and silence taboos; 2) group-determined silences which included normative and symbolic silences; 3) individually-determined / negotiated silences which included, interactive, socio-contextual, psycholinguistic, sociocultural, psychological, sociophysical, noninteractive, contemplative and reflective silences; and 4) signs and signals for breaking silence which included verbal, nonverbal, and combined verbal and nonverbal signs and signals. Various recommendations, which were inspired by the participants’ contributions concerning silences, were made in order to promote possibilities of improved, and refined intercultural communication in classroom contexts. These communicative approaches, in turn, may enhance improved teaching and learning processes.



Silence, Communication, Social interaction