The Silent Period of Second Language Acquisition – Know This Before Frustration Takes Over!

By Julio Foppoli

The first stage of the language acquisition process is called “The Silent Period” simply because the students aren’t doing much talking yet. In this article we will analyse this period that causes so much (unnecessary) frustration among students and teachers alike.

There are five different stages in the second language acquisition process:

1) The Silent Period

2) The Early Production Period

3) The Speech Emergence Period

4) The Intermediate Production Period

5) The Advanced Production Period

Even though there is wealth of research on these different stages, out of these five periods, probably the most misunderstood, ignored or even unknown both by teachers and students alike is the first, the Silent Period, which will be the focus of our article today.

What is the Silent Period?

The first stage of the language acquisition process is called “The Silent Period” simply because the students aren’t doing much talking yet. In some learners this period may be shorter or longer, ranging between 2 to 6 months, though it may take much longer too, depending on the exposure to the foreign language that the learner has.

For example, a foreigner living abroad and surrounded by a new language all day may have a shorter silent period than a student in his home country who attends a bilingual school in which a second language is taught for four or five hours a day. In turn, this student’s silent period may be considerably shorter than that of a learner studying a second language for just two hours a week. So it becomes clear that generalizing how long this period may last is nearly 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 is able to understand much more than s/he can produce. You can easily see this in two-year-old babies too! You can speak to them normally and they can definitely understand whatever you say. However, even if they wanted to say exactly what you said, they would not be able to. They may use some of your words but they would find it impossible to express their ideas in a similarly organized way, in spite of the fact that they may understand every single word we said.

This goes hand in hand with the fact that comprehension preceded production. We will always be able to understand much more than we can produce. For example, in spite of knowing little or nothing about economics, accounting and marketing, when I watch or read news reports on 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 said, I would surely resort to general language and simpler explanations to describe what the experts stated using specific jargon and technical analysis.

In other words, at the level of comprehension, I could manage to understand everything, but at the level of production I may not able to express everything I heard in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, with more exposure on those topics, and if they became meaningful to me and part of my everyday reality, after a while I would be able to start to use that specific jargon as part of my everyday vocabulary. In this example, the stretch of time between my initial exposure to the topic, maybe the first time I heard a report on those topics and the time when I could talk about it freely without jargon or any language-related problems could be considered my silent period in the field.

I want to highlight here that I am stretching the linguists’ definition of this period a little bit while saying this. Linguists refer specifically to the time when a person starts to acquire the language through exposure to it, understands a lot but is unable to express his or her ideas yet. When they talk about the “Silent Period” they do not imply that it refers to the acquisition of language 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 noticed that I feel 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 a language learner with a second language this takes a new dimension, of course. For a long time they may be unable to utter a single word and that is perfectly fine and it is part and parcel of the language acquisition process. What is so peculiar about this period is that it has the special ability to make adult students anxious and drive teachers absolutely crazy! This is by far the most difficult period both for teachers and students alike.

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 as not to place a heavy burden on themselves. By knowing this simple fact both teachers and learners can share the joy of teaching and learning without the stress associated with the feeling that they are not reaching their goals.

On occasions, the teacher’s lack of knowledge on these kinds of issues can produce unintentional disastrous results on their students’ self-esteem. How common it is for those of us who specialize in teaching methodologies to meet disappointed or even angry teachers complaining about their students’ lack of progress.

“We’ve been working on the Present Tense for over two months now. We’ve been doing drills, lots of repetitions, we’ve created real-life situations to make the language come to life and yet, they can produce little or nothing!”

“How come they not learn after doing this for more than three weeks!”

My reply in most cases is the same: “Just give them more time.”

As times goes by, provided that our students are in a truly communicative setting, they will start to produce what they cannot do right now.

The widespread ignorance of this stage in the language acquisition process can create very unwanted situations. As a Colombian saying goes: “la ignorancia es atrevida.”
Lacking an exact English idiom, or al least not knowing one myself, I will proceed to explain its meaning. The saying basically says that “ignorance is rude and causes us to do stupid things.”

On one occasion, while working in a pretty nice school in the US teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to a child from Mexico, I got a call from my supervisor. She was extremely concerned as the principal of the school I was working at had called her to complain about my skills as a teacher as my student “had not been making any progress at all” since she started to receive my services. Even though this same principal had sat in on one of my classes and even written a report that said that my work was “above average,” she seriously doubted that my teaching approach really worked. After all, although the lesson had been fun and provided plenty of communicative opportunities for students to put the language to use, she had not seen any drills, repetitions, gap filling exercises, and grammar rules had never been presented to my group of “seven-year-olders.” So, in her opinion, it was only natural this student could not do or say much in English. The funny thing was…. this student has been in the US for less than two months and had been receiving ESL services for less than a month and a half!!!!

What is more, unlike the idea this principal had, she had made ENORMOUS progress. She could already understand most greetings and basic classroom directives; she could understand several types of questions on different everyday topics. She could even understand many things that people told her to do and basic facts! However, when it came to talking, she could just say one or two greetings and produce “yes” or “no” replies. Does this mean she had not made any progress? Does this means she had not learned anything? Not in the least! On the contrary, she was way advanced in her initial stage of second language acquisition and very soon afterwards she entered the early production period. Plain and simple, she was going through her silent period.

When I talked to the principal and explained to her, as politely as possible, what the silent period was and how much progress this girl had made, she could not help blushing and sighing with relief at the idea that “we had not been wasting our time!”

Once more, by knowing this simple fact we can relax, enjoy what we are doing without the frustrating feeling that we are getting nowhere. Students can also enjoy the freedom of knowing that sooner or later they will be able to put into practice whatever they are learning now, given the right language setting (For more info on the right language setting, please read my other articles: “Are you in a Really Communicative Second Language Classroom?,” Making the Most out of Your Second Language Acquisition Program,” and “Second Language Acquisition in Adult Learners – Parts 1 and 2.”)

If we are “masters and commanders” of our class, as it may happen if you have your own language school or if you have the freedom to do as you please, just knowing this simple fact can give you a whole different perspective of your work. Nevertheless, if you are working for someone who demands quick and immediate results, the best piece of advice I could give you is to do your own research on this topic; read as much as you can and be prepared to account for whatever you do with your students. Talk to your supervisor, peers, students or whoever is demanding results now and simply explain to them what the wealth of research on this issue shows. More often than not, the light that knowledge projects will dissipate 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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