Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Does brain development rely on verbal interaction?

Dat Bao

It is commonly known that our brain abilities, including reasoning, memory, imagination, and attention, are shaped by the social world. We absorb ways of thinking, behaving, and learning through exposure to life in the home, neighbourhoods, schools, communities, and broader contexts.

This knowledge is often cited under the umbrella of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, which proposes that learning is a highly collaborative process. Educators and parents alike are aware that social interaction is very important for child development.

Although the theory seems clear, it does not seem to tell us enough about how social interaction affects mental processes.

We might wonder if the more social interaction we perform, the more benefits our minds reap. How much interaction is desirable? What kind of contact best improves the quality of thoughts?

Some people believe that the essence of interaction is speech. If that is the case, would communication slow down when we speak less? If language represents the essential tool that boosts thinking power, can we claim that it is the number of utterances that heightens the development of the brain? What then are the values of interaction without the spoken word, such as quiet responses in the mind, the inner voice, imagery, non-verbal expressions, and wordless thoughts? Can such engagement shape social competence?

Many of these questions have not been adequately addressed in academic discourse. On the one hand, such inquiries have been left for more guesswork than empirical investigation. On the other hand, research on the role of the social environment on cognition has produced inconsistent and inclusive outcomes.

The book Silence in English Language Pedagogy: From Research to Practice delivers some responses to the above issues in the context of language education and beyond. It reveals that the increase of speech at any cost does not necessarily benefit thinking quality. Instead, the growth of intellectual power relies on both meaningful speech and productive silence. The work supports this argument by gathering empirical evidence yielded by the authors and other researchers.

From a pedagogical perspective, effective teachers are those who supervise students in pratising both speech and silence to bring out their optimal intellectual potential. Since there are already many books that discuss how verbal communication assists education while not many of them address how productive silence does so, this work is written with a more balanced view of the process of learning. For a flavour of this awareness, below is a direct quote from chapter 4:

Teachers are typically trained in verbal pedagogy. We learn to deliver lectures, explain concepts, give presentations, organise discussions, initiate topics, raise questions, articulate feedback, provide compliments, and respond to participation. All these skills are about the spoken word: saying things and receiving what is said. When students practise silent thinking, teachers are mystified. When students need more time, teachers are lost. When students struggle and do not answer a question, teachers are irritated. When students have a reason to resort to silence, teachers see that reason as an excuse. Typical teacher-education programmes coach us to credit everything to the audible word, without which teaching cannot proceed. In many cases, we are educated to misconstrue what learning looks like. (p. 71)

Drawing on research, the book unpacks many uncommon understandings about silence that might stay outside of teacher awareness. It highlights that silence cannot be understood by itself but needs to be tangibly contextualised to make sense. Furthermore, silence does not operate alone but is deeply connected to other capacities such as speech, learning objectives, communicative purposes, and cognitive and sociopsychological needs, to name a few. Presenting silence studies as an emerging field across many contexts and disciplines, this work by no means settles the case but attempts to open new debates in the field. It suggests that teacher development programs, besides focusing on verbal skills, need to help students optimise the quality of thought processes as a way of building social competence. All these would amount to bringing silence into classroom pedagogies that have been dominated by speech.

Silence in English Language Pedagogy by Dat Bao

About The Author

Dat Bao

Dat Bao is Senior Lecturer at Monash University, Australia. He is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Silence Studies in Education. Notable publications include Understanding Silence...

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