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Review of  The Silent Child

Reviewer: Guido Josef Oebel
Book Title: The Silent Child
Book Author: Laurent Danon-Boileau
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Issue Number: 13.1173

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Danon-Boileau, Laurent (2001) The Silent Child: Bringing Language to
Children Who Cannot Speak. Oxford University Press, ix+188pp, hardback
ISBN 0-19-823786-3, $25.00.

Guido Oebel, Saga (Japan) National University

Laurent Danon-Boileau is Professor of General Linguistics and
Language Acquisition at the Sorbonne. He is one of France's
most respected child psychoanalysts working and practicing at
the Centre Alfred-Binet in Paris. He has published widely in the
area of linguistics and psychoanalysis and is also a novelist.

The author's present book is the English translation of his
French version originally published as 'L'Enfant Qui Ne Disait
Rien' in 1995. According to the translator Kevin Windle, the
translated version does not correspond in every detail to the
French original published by Calmann-Levy due to small
revisions to the text made by Danon-Boileau while the work was
in progress.

Somehow reminiscent of Oliver Sacks's 'The Man Who Mistook His
Wife for a Hat', this intriguing book introduces the reader to
patients of surpassing strangeness, who suffer from severe
psychological difficulties blocking their ability to speak or read.
For almost two decades Danon-Boileau has been working with
so-called silent children. When these children are put in his
analytical care they are generally between three and seven
years old. After three years of special training with the author
they usually manage to overcome their inhibitions and speak
more or less fluently. The aim of Danon-Boileau's book is to find
out why his treatment leads to this success. For instance, the
reader experiences the author's sessions with Kim who is able to
name objects correctly, but when trying to express herself lapses
into a private, unintelligible language of her own. She uses
words to name animals whereas she seems to prefer using her
hands to express her wishes or her memories. Then the reader
makes Benjamin's acquaintance, a boy who is unable to clearly
distinguish between his imaginary world and the real world,
whose mind is so taken up with the imaginary that he has
neither the time nor the mental space for learning in the
traditional sense. Besides other silent children there is the
bilingual Rachid who does not use language to communicate but
- despite her age of just four years -- can read numbers
consisting of several digits and count objects up to twelve.

The author explores the cases of six children (Fabien, Kim,
Rachid, Benjamin, Pierre, Rama) through accounts based on
notes taken on the day of their sessions, thus enabling him to
emphasize the individual features of each single child's speech.
Essentially, Danon-Boileau tries to tell stories, thus recurring
his narrative talent, about the dynamic exchange between the
three complementary groups generating the obstacles to the
acquisition of language: the cognitive group concerning the
automatic processes developed by the brain to perceive the
world to organize appropriate modes of behaviour in the area of
vision and movement. The aphasic group referring to the
totality of automatic processes that enable us to proceed from
thought to the sounds of speech. Lastly, the symbolic group as
the most easily accessible to the psychoanalyst taking account of
everything in language concerning the relation between
speakers and their own wishes as well as their awareness of the
thoughts of others. According to Danon-Boileau, each one of
these groups is coherent and partially independent, however,
none of them will alone afford a comprehensive understanding
of the phenomena of language, as they all exert a combined
effect upon each other. He attempts to examine the development
of language by constantly emphasizing the dynamic exchange
between these complementary groups. By doing so,
Danon-Boileau calls on the three theoretical fields of
psychoanalysis, linguistics, and cognitive development, thus
considering ways of combining the approaches of each of these

Danon-Boileau sacrifices the use of a solely scientifically
technical terminology in favour of a generally comprehensible
language thus reaching a wider readership. By doing so, to my
humble opinion he nevertheless manages to grip readers with
different experience and background. He even defines his
general attitude to be unreflective comparing it with that of a
'teddy bear' and a 'drowsy nanny', respectively, determined by
instinct and by playing. By no means does the author claim to
preach any particular method, instead he suggests a way of
looking at things in describing his way of working. This kind of
- I would call it -- supreme ease in dealing with this complicated
subject is the definite benefit of Danon-Boileau's book. I
absolutely share Jerome Brunner's acclaim for 'The Silent Child'
printed on the book's jacket: ''Combines the highest quality of
case writing with speculations that are remarkable in their
Guido Oebel (PhD in Linguistics) is a native German and currently
employed as an associate professor with Saga National University
and as a visiting professor with Private University of Kurume,
both situated on the Southern island of Kyushu/Japan. His main
areas of research are: FLL, particularly German as a Foreign
Language (DaF), sociolinguistics, bilingualism, adult education.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0198237863
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 198
Prices: U.K. £ 27.99