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The “Silent Experience”: A New Approach to Prosody

L’expérience silencieuse : une approche novatrice de la prosodie
Christopher Mitchell, Marieke De Koning et Rebecca Guy


La communication orale est une activité physique. Lors de l’acquisition d’une seconde langue, un travail sur le corps en lien avec la production langagière et une plus grande conscience du corps sont important pour augmenter la confiance. Cela est vrai pour l’apprenant mais aussi pour l’enseignant qui sert de modèle langagier. Notre approche, transmise dans le cadre de formations de formateur et par vidéos, vise à développer la conscience du rôle du corps et le travail de la voix par des activités vocales et en mouvement. L’Expérience Silencieuse, qui comprend le travail sur la posture, le souffle et les organes d’articulation sans production de son permet de se concentrer sur les sensations et d’être conscient de ce qui se passe dans le corps. Il s’agit d’un silence actif, qui sert à reconnecter le corps et l’esprit en situation langagière. Ce travail est suivi de jeux avec les sons, par exemple avec langage “sans sens”, afin toujours de privilégier la forme et les sens au lieu du sens. Nous amenons les enseignants à développer pour eux-mêmes la confiance dans le lien entre corps et langage et à poursuivre dans cette démarche avec leurs apprenants.

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1In a classroom situation, both the physical presence and the quality of voice of the teacher can influence their pedagogical impact. The movement and perceived energy of the teacher’s body are observed and judged by the learner, alongside the posture, facial expression and focus. The pitch, volume, speed, timbre, accent and energy of the teacher’s voice can all affect the learner experience. What the learner sees and hears, before the formal act of teaching even takes place, will inevitably play an important role in their approach to the learning of a language. Thus it is that a teacher’s body and voice may come to serve as a language model for the learner.

2However, the teacher, like the learner, lives in an age where technological development has led to an increased disconnection between the mind and the body, in language terms. This disconnection had its origins in Europe as far back as the Early Middle Ages when language started to appear more and more in a written form in manuscripts. However, this disengagement of the body from the mind became, in a short period of time, a much more important and widespread phenomenon, with the arrival of the printing press in the fifteenth century: language became for an increasing percentage of the population something that was seen, rather than heard and felt, as had been the case when it relied predominantly on oral transmission. It is a state that has been further amplified in recent decades by the computer, tablet and smartphone, and the body has had to accommodate the physical demands of these inventions. In so doing the corporeity of the individual has to a greater or lesser degree been lost, reflected in a reduced level of energy and focus in the speaker.

  • 1 Innovalangues is an IDEFI-ANR project aimed at innovation in the teaching and learning of languages (...)

3The task of improving the mind/body connection in the field of oral production has a high priority in the work of THEMPPO (THématique Prosody et Production Orale), one of the working groups within the Innovalangues-IDEFI project at université Grenoble-Alpes1. The sphere in which a mind/body disconnect is most acutely felt is in the learning of prosody, which poses special problems for French learners of English: “French and English, despite sharing much of their vocabulary, are extremely different both phonetically and phonologically. This is particularly evident in the domain of prosody” (Frost and Picavet 235). The fact that the prosody, that is to say the musicality, of the English language, receives so little attention in the teaching of the language does little to remedy this situation. This is surprising given the importance of prosody, not only in oral comprehension (Frost and Guy) but also, in our experience, in enabling the learner to feel comfortable with the language; the concern that they are not creating the right music when speaking can be a serious impediment to oral production for the learner. Given the very physicality of prosody, the reconnection between mind and body is seen by us as a prerequisite for the teaching of prosody and oral production in the language class.

1. The feeling of what happens

4Damasio talks about how:

(…) we use our minds not to discover facts but to hide them. We use part of the mind as a screen to prevent another part of it from sensing what goes on elsewhere… One of the things the screen hides most effectively is the body, our own body, by which I mean the ins of it, its interiors. (Damasio 28)

5Our work, on both a corporal and vocal level, is directed towards recognising the existence of this “screen”. Beyond the “screen” the individual has access to a state of self-awareness, and it is this state which allows the learner to become conscious of what is happening in their body, before, during, and after speaking, and to be more at ease with what is happening: “Words, thoughts, are movement, movement within ourselves” (Berry 00:03:32-00:03:42). Vaissière (6) draws attention to Ivan Fonagy’s interest in the changing nature of the human being and how this variation is reflected in prosody:

  • 2 Author translation for: “L’être humain est changeant par nature dans son état d’esprit, ses émotion (...)

The human being is changeable by nature in his/her state of mind, emotions and different roles (in the family and the workplace). The sounds and prosody of speech reflect these variations. Verbal style is both a way of being and a way of doing things2. (Vaissière 6)

6The more sensitive the learner is to the movement of sound within the body, the more sensitive they will be to prosody. Guimbretière (27) notes in her observations on the voice of the teacher that the act of becoming aware of oneself, enables the teacher to accept who they are. The important benefit of this is that once the teacher has gone through the process themselves, they will be able to help others to do the same. The development of self-awareness is, we believe, a vital stage in the learning of oral production in all languages, at all levels. It is also a means of countering the negative effect of self-consciousness, an awareness of the self as seen through the eyes of the other. The distinction between self-consciousness and self-awareness is not found in the French language where both states are translated by the same conscience de soi.

2. Two axes for a new approach

7The pedagogical structure developed by our team, in the framework of ongoing professional development programmes for teachers, aims to improve the confidence and the prosody of the learner. These issues are approached via two complementary interlinked axes. In the first of these, which we call the “Silent Experience”, we lead the participants in activities on posture, breathing and the articulators. These are followed by exercises involving voiceless reading aloud and voiceless speaking aloud. The second axis, the Engaged Body, takes the “Silent Experience” beyond the body of the learner into what we like to call the speaking arena where the focus is on the relationship between body and space, social interaction with the listener, the proxemics of discourse and its interaction with prosody.

  • 3 A foreign language teaching method based on the teacher being silent most of the time, first expoun (...)
  • 4 Part of Krashen’s Second Language Acquisition theory, first introduced in Principles and Practice i (...)

8It is the first of these two axes, the “Silent Experience”, which is the focus of this report. We consider this to be a precursor to oral production. It is not to be confused with the Silent Way of Gattegno3 or the Silent Period of Krashen4. Although, like the Silent Period, it precedes oral production, it does so in an active manner, in different forms, at different stages of oral production, as shall be explained below. It is a necessary prerequisite to recognition of the role of the body in the act of speaking. Linklater (328) speaks of the need to restore the direct “neurophysiological pathways for the voice to travel through the body, arousing physical, sensory, sensual, and emotional response.” The “Silent Experience” plays an important role in restoring this emotional response, which is lacking in the language classroom.

9Lacheret-Dujour (186) argues “for the grammatical status of vocal expressivity” saying that:

…while certain universal features may exist beyond the typological differences between languages, the prosodic encoding of emotion is the result of a learning process in children’s linguistic development, just like syntax or the lexicon, and therefore is a grammatical component. (Lacheret-Dujour 186)

10It is the prosodic encoding of emotion which is lacking in the second language learning experience, where the learner is not following the same path as the child acquiring their mother tongue. The “Silent Experience”, followed by activities involving playing with sound and the use of nonsense language - where the focus is on form rather than content - constitutes an attempt to recapture that experience of the acquisition of prosody in the child.

3. The “Silent Experience”

11A word that is used early on in our “Silent Experience” workshops is “kakorrhaphiophobia”. This is not only an excellent word for experiencing the mechanics of articulation in the mouth, but discussion of its meaning, the fear of failure, allows us to highlight the existence of one of the major obstacles to the learner achieving a flowing and assured oral production, with an appropriate prosody. The fear of failure is often the reason why the language learner is reluctant to commit themselves in oral expression and why confidence needs to be bolstered. This process begins with the “Silent Experience”.

12The “Silent Experience” has three physical components: posture, breathing and the “articulators”.

131) Posture - It is not only the relationship with language that has been affected by recent technology; the body itself is undergoing changes. Posture in particular is being affected, with the head bent, near focus scrolling of tablets and smartphones leading to what has been popularly termed “text neck” (Hansraj 278). Exercises on posture focus on an upright standing position. In our workshops we ask teachers how much time they spend with their learners standing, and inevitably the response is ‘very little’. One of the biggest criticisms that can be made of language learning down the ages is that it has been such a passive, sedentary activity. Our team likes to envisage a future ideal classroom space for language learning: a circular area, with standing work stations around the perimeter and a clear space in the middle for body and voice work, including oral production exercises. A “good posture” is the starting point in our work, first of all because it provides the speaker with inner strength, by giving physical support. Being aware of the way we are standing, on both feet, being aware of our weight dropping down so as to allow gravity to play its role in finding a natural alignment, will reinforce our physical presence and in return raise self-confidence. The second reason is a more “mechanical” one: in any body position which does not fulfill the requirements of good posture, breathing is affected. This is demonstrated in an exercise where, from an ideal posture position, body weight is transferred onto one foot so that the learner can immediately experience how breathing is impacted.

142) Breathing - The importance of breathing whenever we are to use our voice is obvious. Awareness of what constitutes good breathing when speaking will help to alleviate the negative influence of body tension. In the “Silent Experience”, breathing exercises are initially performed without sound, enabling the learner to become aware of their breathing and to focus on the role of the diaphragm. Although breathing is a reflex action, a more conscious awareness of it will enable the learner to use it more effectively, particularly in moments of stress such as public speaking. It is at such moments that the reflex action which is present twenty-four hours a day can find itself challenged by stress. If you can feel your breathing, and get pleasure in the sounds of the words, you can build your confidence." (Cicely Berry, quoted in Barnett 21-22)

  • 5 Backspeak: building words, phrases, sentences up from the end (the back) using phonemes or syllable (...)

153) The articulators - In the “Silent Experience”, the organs of articulation are exercised without sound. This enables the learner to concentrate on the positioning of these articulators and to feel where they are in the making of different consonant sounds. In the same way that the child discovers that their body can make sounds (the smacking of the lips leading to the production of bi-labial sounds being a good example) the language learner can, in exercises that are initially without sound, explore the articulatory mechanisms of the target language before sound is added. Exercises are then brought together in work on voiceless reading aloud and voiceless speaking aloud. The learner has been observed, in both our workshops and in individual voice work, to be more ready to play with the sounds of language having done this voiceless work. Other important features of our work with sound, such as backspeak and non-melodic singing5, can all be initially explored silently. In the vocalized voice work that follows on from voiceless work, an improvement in articulation can be expected. Encouraging the learner to experience speaking as a dégustation of words, in which the goal of luscious mouthfeel is sought, has been observed in our work to slow the rate of speaking and to introduce appropriate pausing. These changes should then lead to greater prosodic variation.

4. The “Silent Experience” and classroom pedagogy

16It is never intended that the work on the “Silent Experience”, as with all body and voice work, should occupy a whole language lesson. One of the features of our workshops is to demonstrate to teachers how to insert our work in small doses into a language class, thereby changing its pedagogical relief. One good example of this is to seize upon the action of a learner yawning in class to demand the rest of the class to yawn also, explaining that it is an exercise to stimulate energy and to open up the vocal tract. We recognise that the activities which we propose, whether they be yawning, backspeaking, non-melodic singing or any other of the activities not typically found in a language class, may be perceived by the learners as not relevant to language learning because they appear not to relate directly to meaning. The perception amongst so many learners is that the only way to improve their language skills is to do yet more grammar exercises, vocabulary learning, and classroom presentations, in which the yardstick for measuring their oral skills focuses on grammar and syntactical competence. Teachers who recognise that work without sound may indeed have its place in the language classroom need to be prepared to spend some time explaining to their learners the relevance of all body and voice exercises.


17The work of the neurologist Damasio is the basis for a lot of the work of Linklater. As a voice coach working mainly in the world of theatre, she is principally concerned with the voice of the actor, but in her introduction to Freeing the Natural Voice (7) she writes:

I will address all readers as actors; perhaps those who are “interested lay people” might consider that you are in fact performers in the daily acts and scenes of your lives; as you train yourselves to pay attention to your habits of communication you will find the same pleasurable state of self-awareness that actors develop as an essential part of their craft. (Linklater 7)

  • 6 Author translation for: “Tout comme le comédien, l’enseignant utilise son corps et sa voix comme ou (...)
  • 7 Author translation for: “Le corps et la voix sont les premiers outils professionnels de l’enseignan (...)

18Language teachers are, of course, closer to the actor than many “lay people”, the more interesting language class environments being akin to a performance space. Cadet and Tellier (7) have pointed out the link between the actor and the teacher: “As with the actor, the teacher uses their body and their voice as tools of the trade, both for imparting information and also for stimulating interest”6. But whilst the actor has instruction in body and voice techniques, such training is noticeably lacking for teachers: “The body and the voice are the main professional tools for the teacher and yet, paradoxically, the hours given over to training on this theme are still very often considered as an accessory”7. (Jourdan)

  • 8 Author translation for: “Travailler plutôt le corps, la voix, le son. Tout d’un coup ça prend du se (...)
  • 9 Author translation for: Ce que ces ateliers m’ont apporté, c’est un moment... pas de savoir faire, (...)

19Our work is an original approach to helping the teacher discover their body and their voice, and our experience has shown that teachers who learn this approach in our workshops find the experience pleasurable. Furthermore, they then want to try it in the classroom: “Focusing on body, voice, and sound. It now makes sense and I finally want to work that way with my students. Whereas before I would do anything I could to avoid it” (Bélanger)8. The response that we get very often from teachers in our workshops is that the original nature of the exercises that they are asked to do leads them to a serious reappraisal of the place of their body and voice in the classroom. “What these workshops have brought me is a moment… not of how to do things, but almost of how to be” (Avenier)9.

20Linklater describes perfect communication as “a balanced quartet between intellect, emotion, body and voice” (9). Perfect communication is of course something that is rarely achieved in mother tongue oral production, let alone in a second language. Furthermore, the emphasis on intellect in second language learning, that is to say grammar, syntax and vocabulary acquisition, at the expense of emotion, body and voice, is, we believe, a handicap to the acquisition of good prosody, and thus to good communication. Our “Silent Experience” approach could be a starting point for remedying that handicap.

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Barnett, Laura. “Cicely Berry, Voice Coach to the Stars.” The Guardian, 24 July 2011,

Bélanger, Sophie. Ca bouge: corps et voix dans les ateliers THEMPPO. Interview in video,

Berry, Cicely. “Series Intro: Working Shakespeare DVD Series.” Youtube, uploaded by TheWorkingArts, 15th April 2009,

Cadet, Lucille, and Marion Tellier. “Avant-Propos.” Le corps et la voix de l’enseignant : théorie et pratique, directed by Marion Tellier and Lucile Cadet, Maison des langues, 2014, pp. 7-11.

Damasio, Antonio, R. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Harvest Books, 2000.

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Frost, Dan, and Francis Picavet. “Putting Prosody First - Some Practical Solutions to a Perennial Problem: The Innovalangues Project.” Research in Language, vol. 12, no. 2, 2014, pp. 23-243. DOI: 10.2478/rela-2014-0002.

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Guimbretière, Elisabeth. “Partie 1 - Introduction: la voix de l’enseignant.” Le corps et la voix de l’enseignant : théorie et pratique, directed by Marion Tellier and Lucile Cadet, Maison des langues, 2014, pp. 15-28.

Hansraj, Kenneth K. “Assessment of Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by Posture and Position of the Head.” Surgical Technology International, vol. 25, 2014, pp. 277-279.

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Lacheret-Dujour, Anne. “Structure et application au traitement automatique. Expressivité vocale et prosodique, le cas du français.” Journées d’études franco-russes. Textes et Langages : tendances, sources, perspectives, Lomonossov University Press, 2013, pp. 186-197.

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1 Innovalangues is an IDEFI-ANR project aimed at innovation in the teaching and learning of languages, principally for students in French public higher education institutions.

2 Author translation for: “L’être humain est changeant par nature dans son état d’esprit, ses émotions et ses différents rôles (que ce soit dans son cadre familial et dans son lieu de travail). Les sons et la prosodie de parole reflètent cette variabilité. Le style verbal est à la fois une façon d’être et une façon d’agir.” (Vaissière 6)

3 A foreign language teaching method based on the teacher being silent most of the time, first expounded in Gattegno.

4 Part of Krashen’s Second Language Acquisition theory, first introduced in Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition (1982).

5 Backspeak: building words, phrases, sentences up from the end (the back) using phonemes or syllables where the focus is on sound and not on meaning. Non-melodic singing: singing a phrase without being melodious, in a “free-jazz” style, as distinct from speaking intonation.

6 Author translation for: “Tout comme le comédien, l’enseignant utilise son corps et sa voix comme outils de travail, à la fois en tant que stratégie de transmission et en tant qu’outil d’animation.” (Cadet and Tellier 7)

7 Author translation for: “Le corps et la voix sont les premiers outils professionnels de l’enseignant et paradoxalement, les heures accordées à la formation sur ce thème sont encore souvent considérées comme accessoires.(Jourdan)

8 Author translation for: “Travailler plutôt le corps, la voix, le son. Tout d’un coup ça prend du sens et j’ai enfin envie de travailler ça avec mes étudiants - alors qu’avant je faisais tout pour ne pas le faire.” (Bélanger)

9 Author translation for: Ce que ces ateliers m’ont apporté, c’est un moment... pas de savoir faire, mais presque de savoir être”. (Avenier)

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Référence électronique

Christopher Mitchell, Marieke De Koning et Rebecca Guy, « The “Silent Experience”: A New Approach to Prosody », Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité [En ligne], Vol. 37 N°2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2018, consulté le 17 février 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/apliut.6367

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Christopher Mitchell

Christopher Mitchell trained as a voice coach and drama teacher at the Royal Centre School of Speech and Drama in London before running the New Focus theatre-in-education company in the Midlands UK, specialising in language work with immigrants. In France his work includes individual voice work in the Grenoble Institute of Techology as well as in the private sector. Until recently he ran theatre courses at the Université Grenoble-Alpes and Grenoble INP. He is the director of the Grand Arbre theatre company directing plays and running workshops in French. He has been a member of the THEMPPO team since the beginning of the Innovalangues research project.

Marieke De Koning

Marieke De Koning studied Langues Etrangères Appliquées (Applied Language Studies in English, German) at Paris–Sorbonne and modern dance at the Theaterschool in Amsterdam. She graduated from the French Ministry of Culture as a modern dance teacher. After a dance career, she now teaches English with a special interest in the link between body in movement, oral expression and pedagogy in second language teaching. She has been a member of the THEMPPO team since 2016.

Rebecca Guy

Rebecca Guy studied music at the University of Manchester and the Royal Northern College of Music, before gaining a PhD in musicology and semiotics from the University of Salford, and a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Practice and Research. She currently teaches English as a Foreign Language at Grenoble Institute of Techology and the Université Grenoble-Alpes, whilst pursuing research interests in prosody and pedagogy. She has been a member of the THEMPPO team since the beginning of the Innovalangues research project.

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