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The “Silent Period” in Language Acquisition: Truth or Myth?

During the years, I have become more and more suspicious of “natural approaches” to second language education. I once was a believer, but not any more…

In fact, my skepticism has grown so much in one particular area that I can hardly contain myself when I hear it introduced to new teachers (or parents) as an inevitable (and natural) stage in second language acquisition: the “Silent Period.”

The “silent period” in second language acquisition refers to the period of time when the child or adult is first introduced to the second language and the time when he or she begins to speak.

There was a time when I believed in the inevitability of the silent period as well. As many other language educators, I had learned by heart – and loved –linguist Stephen Krashen’s 5 revolutionary hypotheses that changed the curse of language education forever (he proposed them in the late 70’s and early 80’s). Indeed, I had internalized those hypotheses to the point that they had become my norm with my students and with my own kids as well.

I wasn’t alone. Krashen’s fresh ideas were adopted without much questioning by language educators in the US and even abroad – such was (and is) his influence to this date. Why were his hypotheses so attractive? Because they represented a 180° departure from the very artificial teaching that was taking place at that time (and unfortunately keeps taking place today): grammar-based language instruction.

So after that time in the late 70’s, the pendulum swung from the very artificial teaching of grammar to a more “natural” approach (BTW, that was the title of the foundational book written by Tracy Terrell and Stephen Krashen in 1977: The Natural Approach (Language Teaching Methodology).

At the core of Krashen’s approach ever since has been the primacy of listening to “comprehensible input” over everything else. If we listen and we can understand, he argues, we will eventually be able to speak. Listening is then presented as a fundamental step in language acquisition; speaking is not fundamental in this respect. Also, not only is speaking not necessary, but it should not even be encouraged or forced.

What do I think today? Firstly, I think that we have to be careful with pendulum moves, for as brilliant as they may sound in the moment.

Secondly, in the case at hand, I think that the silent period is neither natural nor necessary. In fact, I think it is detrimental for the language learner for many different reasons. Let me explain why.

The origins of the silent period idea can be traced to a comparison with the years that babies typically take before they start talking in the first language. According to this way of thinking, babies spend the first years listening and trying to comprehend what they hear. Only when they have a solid grasp of the language are they able to start speaking.

Since this long period of muteness followed by speech is the “natural” way with the first language, then it makes sense to assume that this is the “natural” way to go with the second language as well: let your students listen for a while and wait for them to start speaking on their own. Do not push speaking.

There are two problems with this understanding of the silent period as a natural stage in the path towards language acquisition:

  • Babies are not quiet; they may not say complete words or sentences, but they are definitely not quiet. The cause of their inability to speak is developmental and not related to the amount of language one needs to comprehend before speaking. In reality, ever since they are born, babies not only perceive the language that surrounds them, but they also start playing with sounds and trying to communicate in their own way with their caregivers. More importantly, they learn A LOT about language by doing so. Therefore, babies and infants are as active trying to understand what they hear as they are trying to produce sounds and speak. Recent studies on babies’ processing of language in the brain confirm that each skill supports the other.
  • Children (or adults) learning a second language are not “naturally” quiet either. They already know how to speak in their first language, and if they don’t speak in the second language is simply because they don’t have the vocabulary to convey the things that they want to say. They are also confronting a new set of sounds (phonemes). Because second language learners already know how to speak in their first language, it can be extremely frustrating for them to not be able to convey their messages for months or even years.

I had plenty of evidence showing me that there was something wrong with this theory of the silent period. For years, I had used a lot of comprehensible input techniques but my students didn’t speak. No wonder, since I didn’t ask them to speak!

But this was not just happening in my classes. Ask any world language student who has been in language classes for a long, long time, sometimes for many years and they can hardly say anything in the target language (this may be your own experience). Ask any ESL student who spent many months without being able to participate in anything taking place in the class and still struggles when speaking.

I had also evidence that comprehensible input wasn’t enough with my own kids at home. There is a saying in Spanish that goes “En casa del herrero, cuchara de palo” (“In the house of the metal smith, wooden spoon”) which means that you may believe that you are fantastic at your profession, but you will be tested even in your own home. Well… I have been tested in my home.

It so happens that of the three children that I have, the three of them have received some type of speech intervention. Talk about wooden spoons for a language educator!

Sitting beside the fantastic speech therapists that helped my children, I realized that we should not take nature for granted. Nature needs a little help. I learned how to speak to my children in ways that engage them in speech and conversation at their level. I learned that I had to be purposeful and help them directly with some sounds, vocabulary, and semantics (meanings).  More importantly, I learned that speech is fundamental in language acquisition. It is fundamental not only for babies and infants but also for second language learners of all ages.

Even with so much evidence in front of me, it still took me a long time to discard the theory of the silent period. In fact, in some of my books published by McGraw-Hill you will see that I speak about it matter-of-factly, and recommended parents and teachers not to push speaking. (Fortunately for me, my books are actually geared to help people speak, so I guess I was sending a double message.)

Well, I have now learned my lesson. The time has come for me to wave the silent period “goodbye.” It is time to help everyone speak now!

Best,

Ana Lomba

P. S. Please let me know what you think about the silent period. I would love to hear about your experience with it.

P.S.S. Also, I am preparing a free webinar on how to create lesson plans to teach young children. It will be sometime in July, but I still don’t have the exact date. If you would like to be notified, please sign up to my list by adding your information on the box on the right sidebar (and thanks!).

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Ana Lomba is changing the way people think about and interact with young children learning languages. Her Parents’ Choice award-winning books, lively songs, games, stories, and mobile applications are quickly becoming favorites with teachers and parents who want to nurture young children’ inborn language abilities. Key to the success of Ana’s break-through method is a focus on the family as the ideal environment for early language learning – even her signature curriculum for language programs is built with parents in mind. Ana has taught toddler, preschool, elementary school, and college-level Spanish courses, and held leadership positions with some of the most influential language organizations in the US, including ACTFL, NNELL and FLENJ. After graduating with a law degree from Spain, her native country, Ana pursued graduate studies at Binghamton University, Princeton University, and NYU.

24 Responses to The “Silent Period” in Language Acquisition: Truth or Myth?

    • Ana Lomba says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, Janet. Yes, I know about Swain’s comprehensible output and also Van Patten (and I’ve gone to some of his presentations). As you suggest, it is important to know that side of the story too. I’m responding to an article in the Washington Post by Krashen that you may have read as well: http://wapo.st/O1rgJW It’s like if we hadn’t learned anything since then.

    • Simon says:

      I thought the post was interesting but I for one have used the ‘silent’ period on myself when learning Korean (6 months) and although it was boring I found when I started to speak I quickly overtook people who had been studying for longer and who had used conventional methods. I used cartoons and drama as my input (things I could follow).
      I could also more easily follow conversations than those using a conventional method of study as their input was limited.
      I think your post makes some good points, but I also think you lack any concrete evidence to back up your argument. Just as I say it works, you say it does not (many studies have shown the silent period to be of benefit to new students, but your post is based on opinion) so who is to believed?
      Maybe, just maybe this method can work for many, but not all.
      Any educator who uses only ONE method needs to double check thier methods. Any educator who says a categorical NO to a method also needs to reasses their methods. Each theory is a tool, not a fix all.

      • Ana Lomba says:

        Writing this post was an interesting exercise in many ways. I find it very interesting that people still think that Comprehensible Input is King and that there is nothing else out there of any value.

        Like many of you, I too have studied several languages – starting with English from preschool – and have had the chance of being exposed to many different personalities, teaching styles and methods.

        In addition, I have studied abroad. I have taught during many years all the way from toddlers to college. I am a published author in the field. I have been on language organization boards. I have raised 3 bilingual children… So I can claim that I have been quite successful as a learner, a professional, and a parent.

        But I’m not making my claim just based on my “Blink” (have you read Malcolm Gladwell’s book?) – although I think that at this time and age I can blink with quite confidence. The thing is, any beginners course on second language acquisition will actually prove my point! Research over the last four decades from all over the world – quite healthy and abundant – shows that, in reality, the key is somewhere in the communicational back-and-forth that goes on among individuals. It’s not just CI.

        Please note that I am not saying that CI is not important or that some silence may be inevitable. What I am saying is that we, as educators and parents, should not just talk and wait.
        And yes, I agree that it is important not to follow any one method :)

        BTW, thanks to all for your comments and keep them coming!

  1. I agree with you completely and I think many teachers do! In my experience this discussion is complicated by many factors. Pointing out the need for more exposure to the language can often be misinterpreted as calling for a silent period. For example, with adult learners (college students) they are often asked to produce verb forms and structures they have never heard – they would benefit from much more exposure to the spoken language. That is NOT the same as the silent period at all, but it gets mixed up in the conversation. Working with children, I often find myself telling parents that children can learn by listening to encourage them to model and interact naturally rather than pointing at objects and expecting the child to name them. In this case, I am not advocating for a silent period, I am encouraging more exposure to the sounds of the language before being pressed to produce in artificial ways. I find that songs are still one of the best ways for early learners to produce correct, natural language, especially in settings where there the adults are not skilled enough to be purposeful in their use of the language.

    There is much education that needs to be done with parents about what to expect when their children are learning a language. They hear it is “easy,” that children are “sponges” and that they will be “bilingual” in no time. (Don’t even get me started on the use of the word bilingual in the United States today!). Part of that education needs to stress the quantity and quality of interaction that children need to master a language.

  2. Elle says:

    I was not forced to speak Spanish in the home growing up, and am now forced to go back and re-invent the wheel. With the fear that my Spanish wasn’t strong enough and no family in town, I didn’t speak Spanish with my older children, and they don’t have it! I learned my lesson, and am making my daughter speak only Spanish with me, since day 1. She didn’t say a word til age 2, then for 8 months, from age 2-2.5, she tested and tested and tested me with English. I NEVER gave in. Acted as if I truly didn’t understand her, and would never give her what she wanted. People around us would be horrified, including her brothers, and try to SABATOGE my efforts! Family, friends, strangers, etc. At 2.5 years, it’s like something CLICKED, and she completely stopped testing. At age 4, she is a confident Spanish speaker. I have Spanish speaking friends who didn’t force speaking, and their kids don’t speak it. The strange thing is their parents Spanish is better than mine! I definitely agree with you Ana! Push them to speak!

  3. Andrew Graff says:

    Hi Ana,

    It seems to me that the “Silent Period” used to be understood in a really dogmatic way, and perhaps still is understood dogmatically by many.

    I, however, was struck by the fact this “student-as-sponge” hypothesis is *not* in current practice by today’s Comprehensible Input teachers. [I humbly out myself as one of them, just a few years into my career.] While that concept of acquisition vs. spouting-out the learned vocab is still in the foreground, *every* single webinar, conference, blog article I engage with is about creating a dynamic second-language environment which tries to get as much evidence of understanding as possible from each kid – evidence of involvement each period, including LOTS of second-language speech, choral response, individual response, comprehension checks, and consistent modelling of correct syntax and grammar and vocabulary choice–

    Indeed, interacting with the students is the key to compelling input — It’s not compelling if it’s not dynamic and not coming straight from the kids [or at least personalized info is A LOT more likely to be compelling to them!]

    Can you help me to understand what I am missing about your conception of the Silent Period?

  4. Tracey Hastie says:

    I thought there was some sense to the ‘silent period’ theory but I personally would never have spoken if I hadn’t needed to speak – my oldest daughter didn’t talk for the first few weeks in her Bolivian school (at 11 years old) and after that she has never stopped.
    But my 4 year olds whilst they did talk later speak perfect Spanish and English. I believe it is necessary to speak in order to be able to speak.
    My grandmother seems to prove the ‘silent’ idea true as she was prohibited from speaking Maori when a child but her grandmopther only spoke Maori. When she was 80+ years old she was listening to my aunty practice Maori that she was learning at university when she suddenly interrupted and spoke to her in Maori perfectly (it was hidden away all that time – athought she did go to a Maori speaking church she had never spoken!!)
    Maybe there are individual differences but I don’t think silence should be enforced. In fact I think it would usually go against the idea of fluent speaking.

  5. I think that if you read Krashen’s article carefully, you’ll see that he is talking about “forcing” students to speak before they are ready to do so. this is entirely different from “encouraging” students to speak. All comprehensible input teachers I know are very encouraging towards their students, but do not force them to say more than they can do spontaneously. Students in middle and high school speak a lot during CI-classes, because all the time there is verbal interaction going between the teacher and the students.

    So I agree with Andrew Graff that the Silent Period may still be understood in a dogmatic way when it just means “allow the kids to start speaking at their own time and level.” There is no “forcing students to be quiet”. Small children need much more time before they can utter spontaneously what the have acquired. In elementary schools, therefor, CI teachers will ask the kids to respond physically to the CI (which is not “forcing them to be silent!”). Still, this means *communication*. Comprehensible input is not just talking to students without any response, like you’re filling a bottle with water. It is constant interaction, with either silent or verbal responses and reactions. Like Ignacio Almandoz said in a post on a TPRS forum, telling about a Russian CI class he had attended: “we also laughed a lot. Laughing is nothing silent, and laughter also serves as feedback for the teacher, because without comprehension there can be no laughter”.

  6. When I first heard the “silent period” I knew it was bogus. I have 4 kids and I never noticed a “natural” silent period. But, I didn’t throw it out either. Now I spend half my time listening and reading. Literally I time it so exactly half of my time is only spent on input based learning and the other half is output based. Balance the pendulum.

  7. Steve Smith says:

    Interesting blog post and discussion. Of course, there was nothing highly original about Krashen’s notion of comprehensible input as “natural” methods have been around for many decades (cp. Henry Sweet). I bet there haven’t been many teachers who have imposed silence on their classes either. Krashen’s comprehension hypothesis seems like common sense (although, like all these theories, it is unprovable). Common sense also dictates an eclectic approach involving lots of target language comprehension, some controlled practice and explanation, a good deal of speaking and reinforcement with writing. Thankfully, we are now in the “post methods” era where we treat with scepticism any new panacea method for second language acquisition.

  8. Ana Lomba says:

    I have read all your comments with interest and this is what I have to say: we have to be more proactive as far as speech is concerned. While we may in principle reject the idea of the silent period, we may in fact be enabling it by waiting for that magic moment who-knows-when when our students will speak “spontaneously.” Can you imagine a math teacher deciding to wait until her students warm up to math and decide to engage in arithmetic problems spontaneously? I certainly would have never taken the step – thinking about anything math gave me the chills. Just in the same way, speech is a core language skill, and we cannot leave it to chance. There should be speaking activities in our daily lesson plans from day one, whatever age it is, from toddlers to nonagenarians. We can’t afford to leave speech to chance. I do agree with you that we live in a post-methods world, but unfortunately, many of those methods may still be clinging unconsciously in the back of our brain and may surface when we less expect them. I am glad that we are talking about this topic because it’s been bothering me for a long time and I wanted to see what others thought. I’m excited that today, with technology and all that we know about grouping and teaming our students, it doesn’t need to be like in the old times with the teacher soliciting answers and correcting students in front of the class. No reason to fear and avoid speaking whatsoever.

  9. victoria says:

    Good, practical and sensible arguments on both sides of the pendulum…Perhaps the best perspective is not to take anything too dogmatically. I think there is still a period of adjustment to new sounds and vocabulary, but no reason not to insist on participation at least in parroting, repeating the way to say something simple, (especially if it is something that the language learner wants to be able to communicate), games in TL and singing right from the start. My view is that language teachers provide the keys, but students have to want to turn them in the lock and the sooner they open the door the better!

  10. I think in many instances we think the silent period is normal and as you said “natural.” But personal I don’t believe in the Silent Period. Babies will mumble and try to speak in the second language from day 1. The key is to encourage them to speak. Even without explaining I invite them to repeat. This may through a rhyme, chant, song or downright command. The bottom line is that they must be encouraged to engage the language.

  11. Natalie says:

    I couldn’t have said it better myself, but I have found myself telling content area teachers that it’s okay if newcomers don’t speak at first. I only say this though because they are in a classroom full of native English speakers, not because they don’t want to speak up! That said, I also have to say that some very shy students are hesitant for quite some time to even speak in the safe environment of the ESOL class. I don’t push them to speak in front of the class for awhile. I guess I feel that it’s more the “affective filter” when it comes to language learners (at least adolescent learners) than any sort of “natural” silent period. On another note, I often wonder if I am teaching my toddler good language learning habits, but I tend to think the pendulum always swings more to the nature side than nurture anyway.

  12. Margaret Kohler says:

    There are so many factors to consider. One really important point here concerns the age of the student. For example, I very much believe many 3 year olds go through more of a silent period, than say a 5-year old. 3 year olds made me believe in the Silent Period, but I don’t see it exactly the same for every age.

    Unfortunately some teachers seem to want to make kids parrot words without knowing if the child understands what the word means, just repeating for the sake of repeating. I’ve seen it, and it’s not pleasant! So that’s one end of the pendulum…

    For a silent period that is built in but which moves naturally to speaking, consider the Montessori method, with its 3 periods of learning: presentation (teacher presents, speaks); (2) recognition, the longest period (student shows recognition often through many different non-verbal means; then (3) production (student speaks the word or phrase WITH understanding.) This model shows that you can have a “silent period” where the learner first listens, then shows understanding in an abundance of ways, while not necessarily speaking. As we move from period 2 to 3, we can start with choral speaking and singing and move to individual speaking, and layer in more complexity. The “verbal” kids will start producing language long before the shy or more non-verbal kids, but you value all of them and give them the time, with encouragement, to begin speaking as they are comfortable. Here I’m referring especially to 3-6 year olds, but the process can be adapted to older kids of course. Most of all I believe like Kristin, above, that there is a difference between making someone speak and encouraging or inviting them to speak.

    I also think there is a big range of differences between kids who are very verbal, to kids who are quieter, more introverted. Pressuring young kids to speak can be really detrimental to some with quieter personalities. It can change language learning to a rote, unpleasant, performance task, when it can and should be a very natural, meaningful and fun activity. You have to respect children and give them time and diverse opportunities to make the speaking meaningful to them, not just a constant series of repetitions.

    I agree that speaking is important – it should always be part of the learning process and shouldn’t be put off, but how you get there makes a big difference. It makes me think of all those computer programs out there which are supposed to teach you a language, but where there is no one to talk to???! Clearly just listening is not enough, and if you go on too long without speaking, how do you later cross that bridge? I think going without speaking too long would create its own sort of affective filter.

    Back to age — language learning goes on at every different age, and even a small difference in age can make an immense difference in factors that motivate students and create a climate of successful language learning, including for speaking activities. Choral speaking, singing, chanting, phonetics on the computer, dialogues, plays, pair work, conversations, describing things, etc. etc. There are many different ways of reaching kids with what interest them the most, at the age they are at, but speaking meaningfully is the key. Make it meaningful for that age learner.

    Personality differences can also exist in any age of learner, and as a quiet person myself, I would have loved being skillfully encouraged to speak, but not pressured, when I started learning language.

    This is a very interesting topic! Thanks for raising the question. Like most topics, there clearly isn’t a either/or answer, but a certain amount of complexity.

  13. Sylvia Duckworth says:

    With AIM (The Accelerative Integrated Method) students are encouraged to speak in the L2 from the very first day, in unison while the teacher gestures, therefore eliminating the “Silent Period” all together.

    Here is a video of AIM, Day one:
    https://vimeo.com/6600901
    password: aimlanguage

    Students continue to improve their fluency over the course of the year because their verbal output is high from the very beginning.

    To see the progression of these students over the course of the school year, take a look at
    http://www.sylviaduckworth.blogspot.ca/

    Scroll to earlier posts to view earlier videos. The password to view the videos is always
    aimlanguage.

  14. Gloria Rojas says:

    As a bilingual (Spanish/English) speech/language pathologist I have to say that I often hear “So and so is going through the silent period” and typically I feel frustrated when I hear this term being used by well intentioned bilingual teachers. It’s interesting Ana, that you mention this topic although the rationale for my frustration stems from a different place than yours. Of the thousands of bilingual children I’ve tested in the past 30 years or so, the vast majority of the ones I have found eligible for special education services, demonstrate the greatest difficulty with listening comprehension skills. We know that in order to effectively use language expressively, listening comprehension of those skills comes first. So receptive skills precede expressive skills. All of these skills are developmental but I agree that there is no “magical moment” when children spontaneously begin to utilize a second language following a silent period. My most recent example of this was a “bilingual” 3.5 yr old boy who was referred to me for an evalation. At that age I always start with toys (play-based assessmnt) and I attempt formal assessment however with this little guy it was evident within the first few minutes that formal assessment was not going to work. I had a school psychologist and speech pathologist also observing me work with this child. He was clearly Spanish dominant but language-wise was functioning at around the 9-12 month age level receptively and expressively. He didn’t appear to have any cognitive delays although speech/articulation skills sounded dysarthric and not apraxic. Most children who are typically developing wouldn’t need this level of intervention. My point in all of this is to say….NO…. No silent period…. If a child can speak (and can understand) he will speak. Can you imagine waiting until this mysterious silent period would magically disappear?? I broke it down into tiny little pieces in terms of goals. This child had less than 20 words in his verbal repertoire. One of the problems is that he would not imitate. In this case, you have to consider imitation skills. I won’t get into it here but sometimes you have to really work on those receptive skills (tell him, show him, help him) with comprehension and then there are 8 levels of imitation to work through before you can expect verbal imitation of single-word and two-word combinations. The degree to which a child has foundational skills in their native language will determine ease of second language acquisition. If the child has the conceptual framework in one language, learning the “label” in the second language is effortless. I wish I could convey this in a more precise way to teachers who are wasting precious time waiting for miraculous silent periods to magically disappear.

  15. robert raymond says:

    ana, excellent! the monitor hypothesis has always been equivocal, because it doesn’t take into consideration that the developmental path to productive speech in the L2 requires opportunity for output. child learners, and especially adolescent and adult learners need, even want in instructional settings, the chance to be able to work on phonology and prosody. as an L2 teacher, i would be doing my students a disservice if i didn’t accommodate that need, even more expect of my students that they must attempt, to speak. adolescent and adult learners actively rely on metalinguistic strategies in learning additional languages. output is therefore a crucial part of the learning process for them.

  16. Ben Slavic says:

    I agree with Kirstin and not with Sylvia or Steve. Steve says: “I bet there haven’t been many teachers who have imposed silence on their classes either.”

    I have been using comprehensible input for over twelve years and have never imposed silence on my classes. I have just given the kids’ speech formation the time it needs.

    Some kids output early and others later, as happens with first languages. The notion of forced silence expressed above, as Kirstin says, “…may still be understood in a dogmatic way when [the Silent Period] just means “allow the kids to start speaking at their own time and level.” There is no “forcing students to be quiet”.

    The deeper mind learns how to output the language. It is too complex for the conscious mind. Most language teachers in the world don’t want that to be true. If it were true, they would have to change. And yet it is true. We learn languages unconsciously by focusing on the message and not the words, and speech only emerges when it is ready.

    Conscious left hemisphere dominant instruction is fine, required even, in classes in which the mode of learning is conscious, like history. But not for languages. We now know that conscious analysis of language doesn’t work, hasn’t worked, and will never work. The process must be made unconscious.

    When we force speech, we end up giving the conscious mind too much to chew on and it takes over. The conscious mind likes to chew on things, but it can’t chew on that much language. Too complex, too much food. That’s called school. The conscious mind should not be allowed to take over in a language class. Understanding the language and any resultant speech formation are both unconscious processes.

    This conscious focus on the language – on its words and how they fit together like a big jigsaw puzzle – subverts the real way we learn languages. So what we should do is give the conscious mind something to occupy itself with in class, jsut a few words or structures, while we flood the unconscious minds of our students with properly spoken speech in the target language (grammar), where the real process of acquisition can take place. How?

    We just keep repeating a few structures over and over and over during class in different ways that keep the attention of the kids’ conscious minds on the three words. In one class, I took a class of 41 students through 96 repetitions of the word “scolds”.

    I asked the kids if their parents scolded them (making sure that they knew that they were to offer only lighthearted, cute, humorous answers) and we ended up with one girl whose parents scolded her at dinner but not at breakfast or lunch and I also shared that my teachers scolded me when I was in military high school. Sounds silly, but isn’t. It’s seriously language acquisition. The speech? It’s coming later in waves, but not now. Now the kid is just listening, building a rich base of language that will explode in speech when it is ready to, and it won’t be memorized junk, but real speech.

    Then, in that class, I added in a second structure (from “Table Manners Part 2″ by Anne Matava) and we were talking about how kids got scolded for “eating like an animal”. One kid got scolded for eating like a giraffe and another for eating like a cow. Stuff like that where the focus by the kids’ conscious minds was only on those two structures as they were repeated in class over and over and over in various ways. Silly stuff? Actually not.

    What was really happening? All the other words that I was saying, 90% of the lesson, being too much for the kids’ conscious minds to absorb, was going into their unconscious minds for later processing during sleep. I was really filling their deeper minds with much more of the language than they were aware of. I was preparing the kids for real speech by giving them massive amounts of language on which to build that speech. And I wasn’t giving it to them in lists.

    Then, in deep sleep, the mind takes everything it heard that day and either rejects or accepts what it heard that day. It is the way we acquire languages. Some of what we heard, if we heard it enough, is accepted, and some, being too complex or not having been repeated enough or not being interesting enough, is rejected. Over time, the language is formed in that way.

    So the deeper mind must be allowed to do its work. We can’t mess with it. We must keep our kids’ minds focused on those few words. While our students are busy looking at a few stars, we are tricking them into absorbing the entire night sky around them. But if they try to look at too many stars at once with their conscious mind, they can’t absorb all that, and the system fails. There are too many stars.

    People don’t fully appreciate what the so-called Silent Period is. It is not silent at all, but it is silent to the conscious mind. We can’t even begin to understand all the things that go on in the unconsious mind of a student who is well focused during a comprehension based class. A symphony of complex neurological connections is being made in every second of class when a student is fully listening to the target language spoken to them in various and interesting and personalized ways.

    But what happens when we force that process of speech where the kid speaks before they are ready? We then call in the attention of the conscious mind into the process of speech creation. But it takes thousands of hours for the speech connections to be made from the rich bed of language that has been put into the deeper mind over thousands of hours of listening to emerge in true (not memorized or parroted) speech. We can’t speed that process up any more than we can force a road to be built from Seattle to Miama in a few weeks when years are required to build the road because of the distance involved. Can a child learn her first language via force?

    This is the problem I have with people who advocate forced speech in children. It’s man messing with nature, and it rarely works. That is why the most sacred things that happen in life, the formation of a human being, the creation of a language system, all occur out of reach of human meddling.

    We have lots of research supporting the above position. Where is the research supporting the position that forced speech works?

  17. Pingback: 5 Stages of Second Language Acquisition | Concordia Masters of Education

  18. Susan Rutledge says:

    I am in the process of teaching the silent period concept to potential classroom teachers. As I am reading throught these comments, I do agree there are 2 sides to the silent period “claim.” I tend to think that there needs to be some time for a student to process all the information, verbal and non-verbal, that is being thrown at him or her. I have gone through the silent period myself and have noted it in my youngest child. Yes, by our nature, we are sound making creatures, but I do believe that classroom teachers need to be aware that the brain needs time to process. Speech is inevitable in a normally devleoping person. Providing comprehensibile input and opportunities for a student to engage in speech is much more important than forcing the speech. When I speak with my youngest in German it is almost like a game since he knows he has to be in English outside the home. When he refuses to speak German, I do not force him since I feel this would devalue German and unmotivate him to learn and live in German. I will definitely help my students become aware that there are 2 sides to this argument concerning the silent period. However, I am like Ben, where is the research concerning these claims?

    • Ana Lomba says:

      Susan, as I said, this is based on my own experience as a mom and a practitioner with many years of experience teaching young children, including heritage children. You say that “Speech is inevitable in a normally devleoping person” and I do not agree with that. I have two kids that are “normally developing” and a third that is a special child. Even the two normal ones needed speech therapy when they were young – and I thought I knew a lot about language development! I’ve seen many of my friends’ kids, also heritage speakers, needing support as well in their two languages. I do not assume anymore that language happens naturally. Actually, I don’t assume that any learning happens naturally. Learning of all sorts needs some smart scaffolding, and all children, including the brightest ones, need some help at one point or another. But returning to languages, how can we assume that learning a new language happens naturally when our schools are filled with ESL students that struggle for years and years to learn English? Why is it that Latinos have so much trouble graduating? And why do so many heritage students never master their home language? Could it be that we should be doing a better job at scaffolding speech? I think so. I’ve seen speech therapists at work with my 3 kids and I am a total convert. I’ll continue to incorporate the invaluable lessons I’ve learned from them into my work.

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