Shakti Gattegno – The Silent Way: An Approach that Humanizes Teaching

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Shakti Gattegno

Shakti Gattegno


The article which follows is the text of the Plenary Address which Shakti Gattegno gave on January 25, 1992 at the Fourteenth Annual Applied Linguistics Winter Conference, sponsored by the New York State Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages – TESOL Applied Linguistics Special Interest Group and Hostos Community College.

I thank you Effie Cochran for your kind words.

Madam Chairperson, distinguished guests and colleagues, I feel honored to be among you today.

Let me start with sharing with you a comment that Mark Twain made about teaching. I think you will appreciate its relevance, as I do. With his pointed gentle humor, Mark Twain observed that if we were taught to speak our mother tongue the way we are taught to read and write it, most of us would develop stuttering in our speech.

All of us are born in an environment of which spoken language is an integral and an important part. From the start, we receive impacts of people’s voices which they use frequently in their dealings with one another. They even talk to us – their little ones – with no concern whatsoever whether or not we understand what they say. They don’t mind that we do not respond to them in their language. Perhaps they realize that their language is foreign to us. Still, people close to us express their love, affection, caring …, not only through their actions but also with their voices directed to us.

Luckily for us, they are not interested in teaching us to become users of their language in a hurry. They talk to us and say things they feel like saying, but without ‘modeling’ their language specifically for our benefit. Nor do they demand or expect that we repeat after them what they say. It seems they respect our autonomy as learners when we are still young. Instead of wanting to teach us, they are quite willing to wait for us to initiate our learning process, and, to teach ourselves their language. The collective wisdom assures them that, sooner or later, we will begin the process of learning which no one but we can do for ourselves.

And, indeed, sooner rather than later, all of us (with a few understandable exceptions) do just that. In all earnestness, we involve ourselves in learning the language of our environment, a language unknown to us. As the people around us hear us utter the sound patterns they can recognize, it becomes apparent to them that we are learning their language. In the course of learning, we grow in our sensitivity for the ‘melody’ of the language. At the same time, we feel our way to knowing how this language behaves. We internalize its melody and its behavior and make them part of our utterances. We understand what people say by paying attention to the situations in which the meanings dwell. Our vocabulary expands, at first slowly and then at a rapid speed. With an alert and attentive mind – for one couldn’t do it otherwise – we take note of the specific details and the nuances and, guided from within, we teach ourselves to function in the language with the accuracy and the precision that the different aspects of the language require. We use our vulnerability – which we know to be our strength – and let the totality of the language affect us. Thus, we capture the ‘spirit of the language’ and learn to make it part of our functioning. We learn the first language foreign to us so well that it serves us as a means of self-expression for the rest of our lives.

It is no wonder that linguists and language teachers – the practitioners in the field – recognize the importance of understanding how one acquires one’s first language. They acknowledge that this understanding can shed light on how to teach language. Serious researchers among them examine not only the external factors that influence language learning, but they also study, in depth, the nature of the inner human dynamics involved in the language learning process. On the basis of their findings, they develop ways of teaching that serve human learning rather than let it deteriorate into conditioning which is a different kind of activity, in that, whereas human learning is a self initiated and a self-propelled process through which human beings realize their potential and feel free to be more and more themselves, conditioning aims at having learners perform to the satisfaction of an external authority in control of the situation. Conditioning is what we make animals go through when we train them to perform according to our wishes, by means of reward and punishment and other such tactics.

With what follows, I invite you to consider with me my understanding of Caleb Gattegno‘s contribution to humanizing language teaching, based on his life-long study of human learning. The approach to teaching languages he proposed takes into account how human beings learn their first language. In doing so, it respects the autonomy of the learners and maintains the integrity of their learning process.

Over thirty-five years ago, Gattegno started to work on developing his approach to teaching languages. Those who watched it at work, were struck by the fact that the teacher would take very little of the time of the students, and would use it effectively for involving them in learning. In the early sixties, a language teacher who watched Gattegno teach, commented somewhat incredulously, ” … but you hardly uttered a word in the language you were teaching, and they learned!” “Mine is the silent way of teaching”, said Gattegno.

The Silent Way is Gattegno’s response to the question he asked himself, namely, “What is the nature of the process that human beings, guided from within, initiate, conduct and go through, in their willingness to transform an external reality unknown to them into their own existential reality and, in the course of it, knowingly transform themselves?”

Gattegno was concerned with the process because he recognized that anyone functioning in the language is with the know-how and not with one’s knowledge about the language. In the Silent Way, the focus is on the students’ learning process and not on the arbitrarily projected goals and unrealistically expected results often emphasized in language teaching. The focus on the process, however, does not mean that the outcome is ignored. On the contrary. This shift in focus works as sound pedagogical practice, for the results it yields are of lasting good quality, just as they are in any other field when the details of the process are being meticulously attended to at every step of the way.

The author of the Silent Way studied human learning by going to the source. He observed babies and young children who, of all human beings, are naturally and spontaneously involved in the most human of all activities, namely, the acts of discovering themselves, of knowing and realizing their potential. These keen observers are interested in exploring that which is unknown to them. They respond to the unknown and interact with it. As they do this, they come to know their own potential, and themselves, as learners. And, they learn to evolve into being what they potentially are. Contrary to the commonly held belief that human beings are afraid of the ‘unknown’, these young energetic human beings approach the ‘unknown’ without fear. The absence of fear in them can be attributed to their natural human state, one of being-at-peace-with-not-knowing and, at the same time, being-aware-of-themselves-as-capable-of-learning. They meet the unknown with self-confidence and respond to it to the best of their ability. By doing their best each moment, they do better all the time.

As learners of the language of their environment, their self-awareness consists of:

  • the discovery by them of their own voice which is the carrier of speech;
  • an intimate contact with their own vocal apparatus which they come to know to be the instrument for producing utterances;
  • the discovery by them that their hearing ability gives them access to their own voice as well as the voices of others and this, serves as a channel that brings them feedback;
  • an important insight that their vocal apparatus is a voluntary system and, therefore, a source of their autonomy since they can mobilize it to produce a variety of sounds at will, can make them loud or soft, of long or short duration, in rapid succession or interspersed with longer or shorter pauses, with more or less intensity, those that resemble or are different from the ones they hear;
  • the discovery that they can perceive the similarities and the differences between what they say and what they hear, and, on that basis, can build their own criteria for their utterances and, can alter their utterances to meet their criteria;
  • their contact with their ability to perceive meanings directly in the situations and, to create bonds between the meanings they perceive and the sound patterns they utter and/or hear.

Equipped with these and other such awarenesses of themselves, babies and young children interact with the language of their environment. They pay close attention to their own responses to the challenges, and learn from them to do better. When adults see children take giant steps as learners of their language, they give credit to themselves for what children can do. Adults believe, for instance, that children learn by imitating them, or, because they need to communicate with them and receive encouragement from them to learn.

But those who study this phenomenon not from an adult-centered but from a human perspective, see children’s learning rooted in the human awareness and conducted with the energy of its dynamics with which children are endowed by the virtue of being human. Gattegno understood this. According to him, and I quote, “awareness is the condition as well as the dynamics of human learning”. When this intimate relationship between human awareness and human learning becomes apparent, it is possible then to see that the fear is not of the ‘unknown’ out there that one faces. Fear arises, in young and old alike, any time one feels one has lost contact with one’s inner resources for meeting the unknown. We know from our personal experience that in the face of a challenge, no matter how big or small, we panic only if we find ourselves out of touch with our ability to respond to it.

In view of this, the purpose of teaching in the Silent Way is to bring learners in touch with themselves, their own potential for learning.

A Silent Way teacher fulfills this responsibility by asking students to do what they know they can, and, by stretching their ability to do more. The teacher presents to the students well thought out linguistic situations which challenge them to exercise their inner dynamics of learning. Teaching is guided by the fact that the students have learned to function in their first language and, therefore, are innerly well equipped to learn to do it in another language. The teacher knows that with their inner dynamics mobilized, students learn well and feel responsible for their learning. For instance, with the energy of their inner dynamics:

  • they process the input from their senses and transform it into their own perceptions in order to make sense of what comes their way; and therefore, the teacher involves the students in activities in which their senses are creatively active;
  • they actively look for and create mental connections among the various elements they perceive; and therefore, the teacher facilitates their learning by avoiding linear and fragmented teaching;
  • they can recognize what they have met before; and therefore, the teacher refrains from telling them the same things over and over again;
  • they take deliberate inner steps to reconstruct what they have internalized, and given enough time and practice, they can retain, recall, evoke and articulate it; and therefore, the teacher lets each student take his or her time to be innerly active and does not interfere with their learning by being anxious to teach;
  • they make mistakes while learning and develop their own criteria for correctness which they use for self-correcting; and therefore, the teacher treats their mistakes as a springboard for further learning and, instead of correcting the mistakes, offers hints and clues that help refine their criteria;
  • they can transfer their learning from one area to another related area; and therefore, the teacher does not teach them that which they can figure out and learn on their own;
  • their process of learning continues inside and outside the classroom, in their waking hours and in sleep; and therefore, the teacher does not insist on perfect and instant successes, and does not hesitate to pose new related challenges while the students are still working on the earlier ones.

It is a constant human challenge to teach in the lighting of the awareness of the human dynamics of learning. Learning to meet this challenge is an ongoing process. In the Silent Way of teaching, while the students learn the language, the teacher learns – at every step of the way – how to teach guided by the students’ potential for learning, and, by the actual learning of each individual student. Since both the students and the teacher are learning, they work together as equals. The presence of an active and factual sense of equality humanizes the teacher-learning situation, and cooperation among the participants grows. Instead of depending on the teacher, the students learn to count on their own resources and tap the rich source of learning from one another’s learning. The teacher introduces the challenge and steps back to observe how each student relates and responds to it. The teacher intervenes at the appropriate moments to offer a hint here and a clue there and withdraws into the background to let students sort matters out by and among themselves. The mistakes provide the occasion to sharpen the criteria for correctness, in teaching as well as learning.

So far we have considered how to teach guided by the students’ learning. It is equally important to be clear as to what to teach guided by what it is that the students need to learn.

‘What to teach’ is largely determined by one’s understanding of what the students need to learn. One teaches the language pertaining to social situations if the question is seen primarily as a social challenge. But if one understands the question to be a human challenge, as Gattegno did, then one ‘teaches’ the students to function in the language spontaneously and with sufficient fluency and accuracy so that they learn not to misrepresent their intent and not confuse or mislead others when using the language in any given situation. The responsibility of the teacher, in this case, is twofold:

  1. to present to the students the reality of the language and involve them in exercises designed to help them develop their own criteria for the correctness of the way they function in it, so that they learn to function in the language without distorting its reality;
  2. to give the students enough practice essential for the facility in functioning in the language fluently and spontaneously, that is, without interference from their mother tongue.

The main aspects of the reality of the language that need to be presented to the students are:

  • the ‘melody’ of the language: the pronunciation of its sounds and sound-patterns, with intonation, diction, grouping and pauses;
  • the ‘behavior’ of the language: the order in which the words appear in its various structures, the consistency and inconsistency with which changes occur corresponding to the changes in number, gender, tenses, moods, etc., its idiosyncrasies in spoken and written forms;
  • meanings: which reside in the situations and which the words and phrases represent;
  • vocabulary: words and phrases which serve as the substitutes for meaning and as the transmitters of the melody and the behavior of the language.

Language teachers know that the melody and the behavior of a language are its essential and distinguishing features. And yet, often teachers are satisfied with teaching mainly the vocabulary and the meanings needed for social exchanges.

In the Silent Way, teaching relates to the human need of the students, which is to work on their own functioning in the language they are learning. Gattegno developed the teaching techniques and materials that serve this need. Because one learns the melody and the behavior of a language by internalizing them through one’s sensitivity, teaching in the Silent Way is concerned with heightening students’ sensitivity for these aspects. As the students feel the resonance of these aspects, within, they take the initiative of exercising self-discipline. They take the required steps to make changes in themselves to ensure that when functioning in the language, they don’t violate that which they have come to feel to be true of the language.

To teach the meanings, which belong to the situations and are represented by the words and the phrases in the language, the teacher presents unambiguous situations and puts into circulation the words that go with them. Teaching stops at this point, and learning takes over. With their ability to perceive, intuit and to create connections, the students find meanings in the situations and give them to the words. They feel the joy of discovering the meanings and of exercising their ability to discover. Students create their own new situations to which they can transfer the vocabulary they have learned. If the situations lead to confusion, the teacher removes the ambiguities by altering the situations, thus making the meanings perceptible and learning enjoyable.

We have noted that teaching needs to take into account the students’ sensitivity and their intuitive and perceptive powers which contribute significantly to their learning of the important aspects of the language.

It seems that ‘vocabulary’ is the only aspect which, in a strict sense, one needs to acquire, that is, learn by obtaining the words and phrases and holding them in one’s memory to use them as and when needed. Some teachers teach vocabulary by giving words to memorize and hope that their students would, somehow, overcome the possibility of forgetting which goes with memorizing. Other teachers ease the burden of memorization by bringing in ‘motivation’. They teach the vocabulary students are interested in acquiring.

A Silent Way teacher introduces words in their written as well as spoken form. This, to make it easier for students to retain words. They meet them and learn them by working on what the words look like, sound like, and how to produce them in their own handwriting. Moreover, words are brought into circulation to transmit and represent the other aspects of the language. Sometimes words convey the melody of the language. Other times they display the behavior of the language or stand for the meanings. Most of the time words are presented and learned as the containers and the transmitters of all the three aspects of the language. Students internalize the vocabulary along with the other aspects and the role of memorization is minimized.

The Silent Way materials for different languages include a Set of Charts with words on them which Gattegno selected, the complexity of the behavior of each language in mind. He called his selection “the functional vocabulary”. It is functional because the phrases, sentences and idioms that can be generated with these words provide the learners with a solid basis for learning to function in the language with the precision and the accuracy the behavior of the language requires. I will briefly state the contents of the functional vocabulary for teaching English as a second language.

Caleb Gattegno - Silent Way US English Word Charts

Caleb Gattegno – Silent Way US English Word Charts 1977 © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

Since we live in time and space, and in the world of cause and effect, the words that represent temporal, spatial and causal relationships are part of the functional vocabulary. There are all the forms of the pronouns, and the words with which all the forms of questions and the imperatives can be formulated. The ESL functional vocabulary includes the articles, the prepositions, conjunctions and a few adjectives and adverbs. There are a number of verbs, mainly the ones that lead to action, but also the ones that describe feelings and moods. Auxiliary verbs are part of this vocabulary. Since nouns can be incorporated any time they are needed, only a few nouns are included. Then, there are the names of the days of the week, of months and the number names.

With this functional vocabulary of about 400 words displayed on the Charts, it is possible, as Gattegno put it, “to teach a lot of language with little vocabulary”. Students learn to function in all the aspects of the language even though teaching is carried on with a ‘restricted vocabulary’ at a time. In sixty to seventy hours of teaching, the beginner learners develop an intimacy with the totality of the language. This reflects in their constantly improving functioning in the language. The students at advanced and intermediate levels can benefit by concentrating on the areas in which they are beginners, while using the vocabulary they bring with themselves. With the functional vocabulary, students learn to function in the language by relating to the ‘linguistic situations’. This prepares them to become better learners and to absorb the ‘situational language’, that is, the language that belongs to specific situations, such as social, business and other special areas.

While learning to read and write and speak the language with due respect to its reality, at some point the students feel free to invite themselves to explore and understand the culture and the literature by which the language is nourished, and which it portrays.

To sum up my thoughts, I would say that since teaching is an activity human beings choose to conduct in relation to other human beings, it is but human to reflect on the purpose of one’s teaching and to remain open to understanding how one’s teaching affects those at the receiving end.

This is what we have attempted to do together, this morning. I hope we will continue this inner activity, in the form of a dialogue with ourselves. Thank you.

© Shakti Gattegno, January 25, 1992

The Science of Education in Questions – N° 13 , Une Education Pour Demain, France. February 1996.


From 1988 to 2008 Shakti Gattegno was President of Educational Solutions, an organization Dr. Caleb Gattegno established in New York City to represent and disseminate his work.

After her BA at the University of Delhi she taught at High Schools in New Delhi. She met Dr. Gattegno in the year 1954 as a student at the Institute of Education, London University where she gained an MA. She has taught languages using the Silent Way and conducts workshops for teachers. She worked on the creation of Silent Way charts for Hindi and other languages.

Her publications include The Place of Love in Education and articles in the newsletters published by Educational Solutions in the United States and in the journal The Science of Education in Questions in France. She gave the keynote speech at the Caleb Gattegno’s Science of Education: Ten Years After conference in 1998: Caleb Gattegno’s Philosophy of Education and a plenary at the 2000 IATEFL conference: Teaching – a Way of Relating.

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