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Julio Foppoli

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 ³The 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 ³Silent 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.

ne 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.

n 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.

³We¶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!´

³How come they not learn after doing this for more than three weeks!´

My reply in most cases is the same: ³Just 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: ³la 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 ³ignorance is rude and causes us to do stupid
things.´

n 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 ³had 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 ³above 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 ³seven-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
EN
M
US 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
³yes´ or ³no´ replies. Does this mean she had not made any progress?
Does this means she had not learned anything? Not in the least!
n 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 ³we had not been wasting our time!´

nce 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: ³Are you in a eally
Communicative Second Language Classroom?,´ Making the Most out of
Your Second Language Acquisition Program,´ and ³Second Language
Acquisition in Adult Learners ± Parts 1 and 2.´)

If we are ³masters 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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