May 24th 2013

“ I may be silent but I’m thinking. I may not talk But don’t mistake me for a wall”

Tsubjo Shigeji

The “silent phase” is well documented, and has an almost hallowed status in some quarters. Many teachers have read or heard about this stage that beginners to English go through.

I had a very aggrieved teacher say to me, “Why is he trying to talk? He should still be in the silent phase.”

It’s a funny old fish, the silent phase.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it will be slightly different with every child.

Some children just want to talk, so they try talking persistently in first language, despite the fact we don’t understand,  (if that seems strange, bear in mind that it is mirroring our behaviour exactly). When they realise that we don’t get it they stop talking or they try to copy words.

Some children, who have a fascination with language, start trying to use words and labels very fast.

Some children don’t talk, but watch carefully and try to imitate others.

Some children are wary and fearful and almost “shut down”.

Child number four is the one we need to watch carefully and treat gently. She needs things made very clear with visual models, she needs some access to first language – a recording, a video, a book, a person of any age and status in the school.

She needs some friends who don’t mind the silence.

It’s a tall order. We are programmed for two-way interaction. When people don’t respond to us we naturally give up, you see it in babies and toddlers on the bus.

So with a silent child keep talking, keep interacting, keep smiling.

Then one day, after a few months of careful, gentle nurturing this happens:

A group of year three children ran across the playground gleefully

“Miss, miss, miss – Maria’s talking!”

When you thought nothing was happening, when you thought that all your effort was in vain, Maria was listening, she was trying to make sense of it all. That watchful, wary, haunted look was the mask she wore whilst intense linguistic activity was underway. Maria has taken a few tentative steps, which are, in fact, her giant leap. And her peers recognise it.