How long is the “silent period”?

Babies need 4,000-5,000 hours of langage input before words and basic sentences start coming out– the so-called “silent period.”  There’s loads of evidwence suggesting babies and toddlers understand vocab and even complex grammar, but they aren’t ready for output.

Krashen and Terrell also suggest that in a language classroom we should expect a “silent period” where students are initially not talking.  During this “silent period” students should be learning– getting interesting comprehensible input– and signalling their understanding (yes/no, one-word answers, etc) but not speaking target language.

Today’s question, from a French teacher in Boston, MA, is “how long should the silent period be?”

My answer:  it depends.  Why?

a) Not all students acquire language at the same rate.  Some of our “superstars” seem ready to chat after five minutes of hearing Spanish for the first time.  Other don’t like opening their mouths even after five months!  If we want to keep “the affective filter” low (ie happy, unstressed kids) we should let them talk when they want to.  I do expect eyes on me, choral responses, and yes/no from individual kids, but not “output” with any beginners who can’t or don’t want to do it.

With stories, I just write dialogue on board so kids feel less pressure.

b) The “silent period” seems counterintuitive (especially for language teachers…may of us think that the process and the goal (speech) should be the same) but makes sense.  Language doesn’t need to be practiced in the way that, say, basketball layups or piano scales need to be.  Comprehensible input alone will build a mental foundation for output.

There’s also interesting research about the neuroprocessing of intention and action.  As Benjamin Libet found (and as has been repeated zillions of times), intention and action happen (neurologically) at about the same time.  In other words, we don’t “decide” on what to do/say and then say it.  Rather, our subconscious brain both decides what to do/say AND goes ahead and does it at the same time– our consciousness just “feels” like intention came before action. 

This finding– there’s an interesting chapter in Daniel Dennet’s Consciousness Explained  about this– would suggest that real language acquisition happens “below” the surface of consciousness.  If this is the case, it would seem that we need to “smuggle” language past the conscious mind (or at least get the conscious mind to not interfere with the unconscious).  

This, in my view, is what happens during the silent period.  By not arousing social anxiety or self-consciousness, and by keeping people focused on the (hopefully interesting) message (ideally a story) we are telling, we “sneak” the foundational basics into the unconscious.  Vocab, grammar rules, accent, intonation, etc, these are going in there directly, and form a kind of “platform” on which the rest will eventually assemble itself.

Practically speaking, all I can say here is, “let them talk when they want to.” 

In my first-year Spanish class, we have no oral “exam.”  Kids usually start speaking after 25-30 hours of class time (so let’s say 20-25 hours of comprehensible input).  Initially, I get words, or three-word sentences like “Jasmin is ugly!” (from her best friend Rasna), to which Jasmin replies “Rasna is crazy!”  By the end of Level 1, the mid-range kids can say things like yesterday I went to the store.  I bought three apples.  They were good without any prompting.  

Second-year kids (and my colleague Leanda’s level three French kids) do have an oral exam, which is totally unstructured.  We just talk.  I’ve never had a TPRS-taught kid get less than 7/9 on the oral, an most get 80-100%.

Teachers sometimes seem horrified when we tell them “no oral exam topics.”  Many teachers I know do what I used to do: tell the kids “OK here’s 3 scenarios, be prepared to talk about them.”  The scenarios being, for example, you are shopping for food in France, or visiting a Spanish doctor with a pain in your leg, or talking to an uncle about what you did last summer.  I don’t do this anymore, because what you get are scripts.  The kids memorise a set of questions and answers, and you get something like recitation.  When a kid asks a question s/he isn’t prepared for, the whole thing goes out the window, even if you’ve taught them conversation rescue strategies (tho’ these do help).

Rather, we just talk.  How are you?  Who’s your best friend?  What’s your family like?  What were you like as a baby? 

My biggest surprise last year was with my student Hamid.  I’d had his holder brother Ahmed, and I have his kid brother Fahim, and the whole bunch are smart and pretty funny.  Hamid HATED talking, didn’t make eye contact, didn’t offer funny suggestions, etc etc, during the year. (according to discussion I had on Ben Slavic’s blog, Hamid was, in terms of Jen Schongalla’s interactional rubric on which a lot of Ben’s people “grade” their kids’ “participation,” failing)  He spent a LOT of time drawing (kid’s a great artist).  At the end of the year, Hamid blew away everyone in the class (except for superstar Angela) in both oral and written output.  It was astonishing. 

This, to me mirrored a story Blaine Ray told me.  Blaine took a crew of kids to Yucatan one year, and at the Merida airport kids, Blaine and various parent volunteers got into 5 vans and headed for their hotel.  Somehow one of the vans got lost and Blaine was worried, because the parent driving the van spoke no Spanish, and that van had Blaine’s worst-performing kids in it.  When, two hours later, the van finally showed up at the hotel (with Blaine worried sick) the parent driving it said “Glad I had these boys.  When we got lost they asked for directions, and we were hungry so we stopped and ate, and they talked to the server.  They’re pretty good.”

The moral?  Give ’em tons of input– keep them focused– and you should end up with people who, when they are ready, can speak.




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