Until she retired, Roslyn Young taught spoken English at the Centre de Linguistique Appliquée at the University of Franche-Comté in Besançon (France). She wrote her PhD on Caleb Gattegno's teaching approach applied to the teaching of foreign languages, reading and French grammar. She has ran seminars and teacher training workshops around the world, especially in Japan. She remains active in teacher training, teaching and materials development, and has written several books, on the Silent Way and on how people learn. A new book "Teaching English the Silent Way" will be published in 2016.
PML: What first attracted you to the Silent Way?
RY: In 1971, I attended a seminar with Caleb Gattegno. During the weekend, he taught Chinese for about an hour, and I was amazed and thrilled by what I saw and experienced during that lesson. There were about 35 people in the ‘class’, sitting on the front of their chairs, present to the work. I had never seen such a high level of interest and enthusiasm in a class. I decided on the spot that I wanted to be able to teach as well as that.
PML: Was this high level of interest from Gattegno himself or the method?
RY: At the time, I thought it came from Gattegno. As I learned to do something similar, I realised that it comes from the approach. It’s easy to see small children completely absorbed in what they do, less common to find the same thing in adults in language classes. When they are taught using this approach, adults can often be intensely absorbed in the task. Well used, the approach creates what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘Flow’. Silent Way teachers have other ways of expressing this state, and know how to develop it in students.
PML: What were your impressions of Gattegno as a person?
RY: I have always felt extraordinarily privileged to work with someone of Gattegno’s calibre. He spoke many languages very well, was an extraordinary teacher, a deep thinker, and yet he was humble.
PML: I understand that his knowledge was encyclopedic.
RY: He seemed to have read everything worth reading—Pascal, Descartes, Montaigne, Flaubert and so many others in the original. Then, years later, he still had it all in mind well enough to cite something which might usefully illustrate a point in a workshop. To do this in one culture was extraordinary, but then I discovered he could do it in several. I went to quite a few of his workshops in Bristol and was astounded to see that he could cite Bacon, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell and many others just as easily. And English was not among his first languages.
PML: What motivated him?
RY: He did not see his job in workshops he gave as telling participants what he thought, but as educating us to think. His vision of the universe and man-in-the-universe was and remains compelling.
PML: What is the basis of the Silent Way?
RY: The approach is based on a precise and detailed model of learning described by Gattegno, who invented it as part of his vision of man. This model describes all learning, from learning a language to water skiing to learning one’s multiplication tables or how to play chess.
PML: Can you describe this model?
RY: It involves ‘awarenesses’. An awareness is that tiny movement of the mind which takes place when I change from ‘being unaware’ to ‘being aware’. It’s the moment of ‘becoming aware’. Awarenesses are what humans use to remain in contact with both their inner and outer lives. We live our lives using awarenesses to guide us. Everyone recognises an ‘Aha’ moment. It is a moment when an important awareness takes place. However awarenesses come in all sizes, and I am more interested in the much smaller ones.
PML: Can you give us an example?
RY: I am doing the washing up. I run my fingers around the inner surface of the saucepan and become aware that there is a slight rough patch, and I become aware that I have to rub this spot again. A Silent Way class is full of such tiny ‘Aha’ moments when students become aware.
PML: How does this awareness of awarenesses help the teacher?
RY: It makes the teaching process much more precise. I watch the students as they work together in the classroom. From what I see and hear, I can pin-point certain awarenesses that they have had—or not had. I choose how I respond in function of the awarenesses I know they need here and now in order to say what they are trying to say. One of the results of working within this model is that I can be quite precise in my work with students.
PML: The Silent Way also renders the students responsible for their learning.
RY: Absolutely. The Silent Way allows me to give my students as much freedom as they can handle. One of the main techniques I use with non-beginners is the ‘class conversation’.
PML: Is this simply free conversation or are there implicit or explicit rules?
RY: The ground rule of a class conversation is that the students must speak the truth. I seed the first few conversations with a leading question which is likely to have as many answers as there are people in the class, for example, something as simple as: “What did you do last weekend?” Then I allow the students to take this where it might naturally lead in a similar conversation in their own language. They simply express their thoughts and feelings. Once they realise that these are genuine exchanges, that I am not going to interfere with the content, but only work on their expression, the class conversation becomes as interesting as the class can make it.
PML: What are you doing while they're having this conversation?
RY: I work on their English sentence by sentence. My role is to help them improve the quality of their English and also to extend their range. When a new word or structure is required because students cannot say something that they genuinely want to say, they are primed to notice the new facet of the language when I provide it. This is why Gattegno called errors ‘gifts to the class’. I use the Silent Way materials as ‘tools’ which allow me to correct rapidly and precisely, so that students can develop criteria for their English. I never ‘teach’ in the usual sense of the word.
PML: What happens when a conversation is interrupted by a long period of correction?
RY: I maintain the thread by making sure that several of the previous statements are said again to re-create the context before the new, now correct sentence, is added. Such periods can be surprisingly long without being detrimental to the conversation.
PML: So, in fact, it's always the learners themselves who provide the content of the conversation.
RY: And this means that students’ learning is always directly connected to self expression. There is a personal, affective impetus in everything they say.
PML: What benefit does the Silent Way give students on a technical level?
RY: One major benefit is that the Silent Way enables the students to have in front of them a synthesis of several aspects of the language they are learning. They can see, displayed on a wall or laid out on a table, a well-developed synthesis of its systems: pronunciation, spelling, functional vocabulary, verb tenses, etc. Having a synthesis before one’s eyes helps immeasurably in learning anything. When learning a language, students can better see how the language functions as a whole. I believe this was one of Gattegno’s great insights.
PML: Another was that memorisation isn't important. Am I right?
RY: Well, Gattegno proposed that we have two different kinds of memory. They differ in the expenditure of energy each requires. The one most people know about is memorisation, which involves spending lots of energy. Imagine how much mental energy it takes—not to speak of time—to memorise history dates, for example, or irregular verbs in English, the gender of nouns in French, or the times tables. Some of us spend hours memorising all sorts of things, and have done so since we first went to school. And years later, how much is still available? What is memorised is easily forgotten.
PML: So what is the other form of memory?
RY: It's our retention system, and it's much more efficient. We are natural retention systems. I go into a shop and walk around, noticing how the various products are arranged as I look for the thing I want to buy. The next time I go into this shop, I know where to find all sorts of things. I have retained mental images of the shop and its layout. As a result of this system, I have in me images of dozens of shops from various countries. I'll have similar images of the shop assistants, people I don’t know but see in the bus from time to time... It's the same for tactile images: the feel of honey on my fingers, sacking, the leaves of certain plants… I have auditory images of voices, of pieces of music... Creating and retaining of these images costs me nothing. These are a natural functioning of humans. So Gattegno proposed that we base our work as teachers on the retention system rather than on memorisation.
PML: How can the teacher exploit the student's retention system?
RY: It requires thought until one sees how it can be done, and the payoff for the students is excellent. The images are free of cost, long-lasting and reliable.
PML: How relevant do you think the Silent Way remains today?
RY: It is entirely relevant today. It is timeless. Since no books are used, only charts showing the function words of the language, and since the teacher has no agenda other than helping the students to improve their capacity to say whatever they want to say, there is nothing to tie it to a time or a place. It is whatever any particular class makes it for the duration of the course.
PML: Actually, I was thinking more of the revolution in new technologies, whether people might prefer to learn through tutorials on You Tube or other Medias…
RY: It depends what students come to class to learn. If they want to learn to speak the language, then they would be making a mistake. Clearly, speaking a language is a know-how—I ‘know how’ to speak French—, and to learn a know-how, you have to keep doing it until you know how! This is obvious for playing an instrument, for example, or for playing a sport: you can go to as many concerts or matches as you like, they will teach you some things about the discipline, but not how to pluck strings, serve or kick goals. Watching a video on You Tube is undoubtedly useful for some aspects of the discipline of learning a language, but it won’t produce the know-how-to-speak.
PML: The tools (Cuisenaire rods and colour-coded charts) aren’t conventionally authentic materials…
RY: I don’t think it’s important whether the materials used are authentic. What has to be authentic in a classroom is what people say. What could be more authentic than speaking one’s personal thoughts, expressing one’s sentiments and feelings? Have you heard of a French writer called Louise de Vilmorin? She once famously said to a journalist, “Talk to me about myself. That is all that interests me”. She was onto something, Louise! And I think it applies to our students too.
PML: So the Silent Way might be considered, first and foremost, a humanistic approach to language teaching?
RY: Gattegno used to say: "I’m not a language teacher, I’m a people teacher, and the people are learning the language". I learn my students while they learn the language.