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The Silent Period of Second Language Acquisition – Know This Before Frustration Takes Over!
There are five distinct stages in the second language acquisition process:
1) The Period of Silence
2) Early Production Period
3) Period of Emergence of Speech
4) Intermediate Production Period
5) Advanced Production Period
Although there is a lot of research on these different stages, of these five periods, probably the most misunderstood, ignored or even unknown both by teachers and students seems to be the first one, the Silent Period, which will be the focus of our article today a. .
What is the silent period?
The first stage of the language acquisition process is called “The Silent Period” simply because students don’t do much talking anymore. In some students this period can be shorter or longer, ranging from 2 to 6 months, although it can also take a long time, depending on the exposure to the foreign language that the student has.
For example, a foreigner living abroad and 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 a second language is taught for four or five hours by day In turn, this student’s period of silence can be considerably shorter than that of a second language learner of just two hours per week. So 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 student can understand more than he/she can produce. You can easily see this in two-year-old babies too! You can talk to them normally and they can definitely understand whatever you say. However, even if they meant exactly what you said, they wouldn’t 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, despite the fact that they can understand every word you said.
This goes hand in hand with the fact that understanding precedes production. We will always be able to understand more than we can produce. For example, even though I know little or nothing about economics, accounting and marketing, when I watch or read news reports about these fields, I can get a very good and accurate idea of what these reports are about. However, if someone asked me to explain what the reports said, I would surely use general language and simpler explanations to describe what the experts stated using specific jargon and technical analysis.
In other words, at the level of understanding, I could understand everything, but at the level of production I may not be able to express everything I hear in exactly the same way. But with more exposure to these topics, and if they became meaningful to me and part of my daily reality, after a while I would be able to start using this specific jargon as part of my daily vocabulary me. In this example, the time period between my first exposure to the subject, perhaps the first time I heard a report on the subject and when I could talk about it freely without jargon or any language-related problems could be considered my silence. period in the field.
I want to emphasize here that I am stretching the linguists’ definition of this period a little while saying this. Linguistics refers specifically to when a person begins to acquire the language when exposed to it, he understands a lot but is no longer able to express his ideas. When they talk about the “Silent Period” they don’t mean that it refers to language acquisition at any stage of the second language acquisition process like I do. This is my humble opinion after many 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 and a second language this takes on a new dimension, of course. For a long time they may not be able to pronounce a single word and that is perfectly fine and is part and parcel of the language acquisition process. What is so special about this period is that it has the special ability to make adult students anxious and make teachers absolutely crazy! This is by far the most difficult period for both teachers and students alike.
One of the main reasons why I decided to write this article was to remind teachers of this important stage of second language acquisition and to make students aware of its existence so as not to place a heavy burden on themselves. Knowing this simple fact, both teachers and learners can share the joy of teaching and learning without the stress associated with feeling like they are not reaching their goals.
Sometimes, the teacher’s lack of knowledge about these types of issues can produce unintended disastrous results on the students’ self-esteem. How common it is for those of us who specialize in teaching methodology to encounter 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 exercises, lots of rehearsals, we’ve created real-life situations to make the language come to life 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 by, since our students are in a truly communicative environment, they will begin to produce what they cannot do now.
Widespread ignorance of this stage in the language acquisition process can create many unwanted situations. As a Colombian proverb says: “la ignorancia es atrevida.”
Lacking an exact English language, or at 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 at a wonderful school in the United States teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to a child from Mexico, I received a call from my supervisor. He was very concerned because the principal of the school I was working at had called him to complain about my teaching skills because my student had “not made any progress at all” since he started receiving my services. Even though this same principal sat in on one of my classes and wrote a report saying that my work was “above average,” he seriously doubted that my teaching approach really worked. After all, although the lesson was fun and provided many communicative opportunities for the students to use the language, it did not see any exercises, repetitions, exercises to fill in the gaps, and grammar rules were never presented to My group has “seven”. – old man.” So, in his opinion, it was only natural that this student could not do or say much in English. The funny thing was…. this student was in the United States for less than two months and has been receiving ESL services for less than a month and a half!!!!
Plus, contrary to what this principal thought, he made HUGE progress. He could already understand most basic classroom greetings and directives; he could understand many types of questions on different topics every day. He could even understand many things that people told him to do with basic facts! However, when it came to speaking, he could only say one or two hellos and give “yes” or “no” answers. Does that mean he didn’t make any progress? Does that mean he didn’t learn anything? Not in the least! On the contrary, he was well advanced in his first stage of second language acquisition and very soon after he entered the early production period. Plain and simple, he went through his silent period.
When I spoke to the principal and explained, as politely as possible, what the silent period was and how much progress this girl had made, she couldn’t help blushing and sighing with relief at the thought that ” we weren’t wasting our time!”
Once again, when we know 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 currently learning, given the right language environment (For more information on the right language environment, please read my other articles : “Are you in a truly communicative second language classroom?,” Making the most of your second language acquisition program,” and “Second language acquisition in adult learners – Parts 1 and 2.”
If we are the “master and captain” 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 fact can give you a completely different perspective of your work . . But if you are working 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 asking for 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 dispel the darkness surrounding the 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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