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The Silent Period of Second Language Acquisition – Know This Before Frustration Takes Over!
There are five different stages in the process of acquiring a second language:
1) A period of silence
2) Early period of production
3) Period of emergence of speech
4) Intermediate production period
5) Advanced production period
Although there is an abundance of research on these various stages, of these five periods, probably the most misunderstood, ignored or even unknown by both teachers and students is the first, the Silent Period, which will be the focus of our article today. .
What is a quiet period?
The first stage of the language acquisition process is called the “Silent Period” simply because students are not talking much yet. For some students, this period can be shorter or longer, ranging from 2 to 6 months, although it can take much longer, depending on the foreign language exposure the student has.
For example, a foreigner who lives abroad and is surrounded by a new language all day may have a shorter period of silence than a student in his home country who attends a bilingual school where the second language is taught for four or five hours a day. In turn, this student’s quiet period may be significantly shorter than that of those who study a second language for only two hours a week. Thus it becomes clear that generalizing how long this period can last is almost impossible because it depends on many personal and individual variables that come into play.
The main characteristic of this stage is that after some initial exposure to the language, the learner can understand much more than they can produce. You can easily see this even in two-year-old babies! You can have a normal conversation with them and they can definitely understand whatever you say. However, even if they wanted to say exactly what you said, they couldn’t. They may use some of your words, but it would be impossible for them to express their ideas in a similarly organized way, despite the fact that they can understand every word we say.
This goes hand in hand with the fact that understanding preceded production. We will always be able to understand much more than we can produce. For example, despite knowing little or nothing about economics, accounting, and marketing, when I watch or read reports about those fields, I can get a pretty good and accurate idea of what those reports are about. However, if someone asked me to explain what the reports say, I would certainly resort to general language and simpler explanations to describe what the experts stated using specific jargon and technical analysis.
In other words, on a comprehension level I might be able to understand everything, but on a production level I might not be able to express everything I heard in exactly the same way. However, with more exposure to these topics, and when they become meaningful to me and part of my everyday reality, after a while I might start using that specific jargon as part of my everyday vocabulary. In this example, the period of time between my first exposure to the subject, perhaps when I first heard a report on those subjects, and the time when I was able to talk about it freely without jargon or any language problems, could be considered my silence. field period.
I want to point out here that I am stretching the definition of linguists of this period a bit by saying this. Linguists specifically refer to the time when a person begins to acquire a language through exposure to it, understands a lot, but is not yet able to express his ideas. When they talk about the “Silent Period” they do not imply that it refers to language acquisition at any stage of the second language acquisition process as I do. This is my humble opinion after several years of working with second language learners. Again, this is something that I have personally observed, and I feel that it could be perfectly applied to language learners at any stage of their learning, as shown in the previous example.
As we have just seen, when it comes to the first contact between the learner and the second language, it naturally takes on a new dimension. For a long time they may not be able to say a single word and that is perfectly fine and an integral part of the language acquisition process. What is so unusual about this period is that it has a special ability to upset adult students and drive teachers completely crazy! This is by far the most difficult period for both teachers and students.
One of the main reasons why I decided to write this article was to remind teachers of this crucial stage in second language acquisition and to make students aware of its existence so that they don’t burden themselves. By knowing this simple fact, both teachers and students can share the joy of teaching and learning without the stress of falling short of their goals.
Sometimes, teachers’ lack of knowledge about such matters can produce unintended disastrous results on their students’ self-esteem. How common it is for those of us who specialize in teaching methodologies to encounter disappointed or even angry teachers who complain about their students’ lack of progress.
“We’ve been working on the present tense for over two months now. We’ve done exercises, lots of repetition, we’ve created real-life situations to make the language come alive, and yet, they can produce little or nothing!”
“How come they don’t learn after doing this for over three weeks!”
My answer in most cases is the same: “Just give them more time.”
As time goes on, provided our students are in a truly communicative environment, they will begin to produce what they currently cannot.
Widespread ignorance of this stage in the language acquisition process can create very undesirable situations. As a Colombian saying goes: “la ignorancia es atrevida.”
In the absence of an exact English idiom, or at least not knowing it, I will proceed to explain its meaning. The saying basically says that “Ignorance is rude and makes us do stupid things.”
On one occasion, while I was working at a pretty nice school in the US teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to a kid from Mexico, I got a call from my supervisor. She was extremely concerned because the principal of the school where I worked called her to complain about my teaching abilities because my student had “not improved at all” since she started receiving my services. Although this same principal sat in on one of my classes and even wrote a report saying my work was “above average,” she seriously doubted that my teaching approach was actually working. After all, although the lesson was fun and provided plenty of communicative opportunities for students to use the language, she saw no drills, repetitions, fill-in-the-blanks, and grammar rules were never introduced to my group of “seven-year-olds.” So, in her opinion, it was natural that this student couldn’t do or say much in English.The funny thing was…. this student has been in the US for less than two months and has been receiving ESL services for less than a month and a half! !!!
Moreover, contrary to the idea this headmistress had, she made HUGE progress. She could already understand most greetings and basic classroom instructions; she could understand several types of questions on a variety of everyday topics. She could even understand many things people told her to do and basic facts! However, when it came to conversation, she could only say one or two hellos and respond with a yes or no. Does that mean she hasn’t made any progress? Does that mean she hasn’t learned anything? Not in the least! On the contrary, she was far advanced in the initial phase of acquiring a second language and very quickly entered the early period of production. Plain and simple, she was going through a period of silence.
When I spoke to the director and explained as politely as possible what the silence period was and how much progress this girl had made, she couldn’t help but blush and sigh with relief at the thought that “we weren’t wasting our time!”
Once again, knowing this simple fact we can relax, enjoy what we are doing without the frustrating feeling of getting nowhere. Students can also enjoy the freedom of knowing that sooner or later they will be able to apply everything they are learning now, given the right language setting (For more information on the right language setting, read my other articles: “Are you in a truly communicative second language classroom ?, “Getting the Most Out of Your Second Language Acquisition Program” and “Second Language Acquisition in Adult Learners – Parts 1 and 2.”)
If we are the “masters and commanders” of our class, as can happen if you have your own language school or if you have the freedom to do what you want, just knowing this simple fact can give you a completely different perspective on your work. However, if you work for someone who demands quick and immediate results, the best advice I could give you is to do your own research on the subject; read as much as you can and be prepared to be accountable for everything you do with your students. Talk to your supervisor, peers, students, or anyone looking for results now, and simply explain to them what the wealth of research on this issue shows. More often than not, the light projected by knowledge will dispel the darkness that surrounds ignorance. Not only will they understand what you mean, but they will also appreciate your efforts to make your classes more enjoyable and stress-free.
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