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