The Inner Voice

This phrase has come up a few times recently in different contexts and it’s one I’m interested in: a language teacher, you’d be forgiven for presuming, would tend to concentrate on the ‘outer’ voice.

I do feel communicative approaches tend to enforce performance regardless of whether the student feels ready. For good reasons, probably. A lot of students probably never really feel ready to begin speaking in a group class environment.I’m reminded of my own language learning experience in Italy, while my British colleague started attempting to use Italian straight away mistakes be damned, I didn’t speak for months, until one day I told my Italian colleague – almost perfectly – that I was going to the market and what I thought I might buy and why. My approach mimicked the silent period of first language acquisition, a period that some EFL methodologies such as Total Physical Response (TPR) and the Natural Approach adopted. However, neither I nor my British colleague were taking Italian classes. In class I think I’d have behaved differently, and perhaps gained confidence earlier. After all, as I tell my students, there’s a lot to learn from mistakes.

While I would not encourage a silent period in class, I think there’s a lot to be said for (short) periods of silence, giving space for private practice.

Adrian Underhill often asks us to use our ‘inner voices’ to practice pronunciation before trying to speak out loud. In our L1 this kind of rehearsal is something we do not just for pronunciation but for speech in general (‘How would I answer that question in a job interview? How can I break this news to that person?). We must, to some extent, use an inner voice to pronounce words as we read (potentially encountering issues with unfamiliar words and learning to mispronounce them, like my problem with ‘ethereal’ previously described.

Giving some space for students to silently rehearse (or perhaps just privately rehearse) would seem to help engender a greater confidence in their speaking. Today Adrian asked us all to mute ourselves (on Zoom) and practice a piece of of poetry. Doing this enabled us to hear and make decisions on stresses and pauses without the influence of others’ interpretations. I found this powerful in its effect.

It takes confidence on the part of the teacher to allow silence – even for short periods – in class, I think. But, seemingly counter to expectation, it allows for a greater, more thoughtful, participation on the part of the learner.

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