There are five different stages in the second language acquisition process:
1) The period of silence
2) The early production period
3) The period of appearance of speech
4) The intermediate production period
5) The advanced production period
Although there is a large amount of research on these different stages, of these five periods, probably the most misunderstood, ignored or even unknown by both teachers and students is the first, the Period of Silence, which will be the central theme of our article of today. .
What is the period of silence?
The first stage of the language acquisition process is called “The Silence Period” simply because students are not talking much yet. For some students, this period can be shorter or longer, ranging from 2 to 6 months, although it can also take much longer, depending on the student’s exposure to the foreign language.
For example, a foreigner who lives abroad and is surrounded by a new language all day may have a shorter period of silence than a student in their home country who attends a bilingual school where a second language is taught. for four to five hours a day. In turn, this student’s period of silence can be considerably shorter than that of a student studying a second language for just two hours a week. So it is 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 an initial exposure to the language, the student is able to understand much more than he can produce. You can easily see this in two year olds too! You can talk to them normally and they can definitely understand what you are saying. However, even if they wanted to say exactly what you said, they couldn’t. They may use some of your words, but it would be impossible for them to express their ideas in a similarly organized way, even though they can understand every word we said.
This goes hand in hand with the fact that understanding preceded production. We can always understand much more than we can produce. For example, despite knowing little or nothing about economics, accounting, and marketing, when I see or read news about those fields, I can get a pretty good and accurate idea of what those reports are about. However, if someone were to ask me to explain what the reports say, I would surely turn to general language and simpler explanations to describe what the experts said using specific jargon and technical analysis.
In other words, at the comprehension level I was able to understand everything, but at the production level I may not be able to express everything I heard in exactly the same way. However, with more exposure to those topics, and if they became meaningful to me and became part of my everyday reality, after a while I might start to use that specific jargon as part of my everyday vocabulary. In this example, the time lapse between my initial exposure to the topic, perhaps the first time I heard a report on those topics, and the time when I was able to speak about it freely without jargon or any language-related issues, could be considered my be quiet. period in the field.
I want to emphasize here that I am stretching the definition of the linguists of this period a bit by saying this. Linguists specifically refer to the moment when a person begins to acquire the language through exposure to it, understands a lot but cannot yet express his ideas. When they speak of the “period of silence” they do not imply that they refer to language acquisition at any stage in the process of acquiring a second language like me. This is my humble opinion after several years of working with second language students. Again, this is something that I have personally noticed that I think could perfectly apply to language learners at any stage of their learning, as shown in the example above.
As we have just seen, when it comes to the first contact between a language learner with a second language, this takes on a new dimension, of course. They may not be able to pronounce a single word for a long time, and that’s perfectly fine and an integral part of the language acquisition process. What is so peculiar about this period is that it has the knack of making adult students anxious and driving teachers crazy! This is by far the most difficult period for both teachers and students.
One of the main reasons I decided to write this article was to remind teachers of this crucial stage in acquiring a second language and to make students aware of its existence so as not to impose a heavy burden on themselves. By knowing this simple fact, both teachers and students can share in the joy of teaching and learning without the stress associated with feeling that they are not reaching their goals.
Sometimes, the lack of knowledge of the teacher on these types of topics can unintentionally produce disastrous results in the self-esteem of his students. How common it is for those of us who specialize in teaching methodologies to encounter disappointed or even angry teachers who complain about their students’ lack of progress.
“We have been working in the present tense for more than two months. We have been doing simulations, many repetitions, we have created real life situations to make language come to life and yet they can produce little or nothing!”
“How come they don’t learn after doing this for more than three weeks!”
My answer in most cases is the same: “Just give them more time.”
As time goes on, as long as our students are in a truly communicative environment, they will begin to produce what they cannot do right now.
The general ignorance of this stage in the language acquisition process can generate very unwanted situations. As a Colombian saying goes: “ignorance is daring.”
In the absence of an exact English idiom, or at least not knowing one myself, I will proceed to explain its meaning. The saying basically says that “ignorance is rude and makes us do stupid things.”
On one occasion, while working in a very nice school in the United States teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to a boy from Mexico, I received a call from my supervisor. I was extremely concerned that the principal of the school I was working at had called her to complain about my teaching skills, as my student had “no progress at all” since she began receiving my services. Although this same principal had sat in one of my classes and even written a report that said my work was “above average,” she seriously doubted that my teaching approach would actually work. After all, although the lesson had been fun and provided many communicative opportunities for students to put the language into practice, she had not seen exercises, repetitions, fill-in-the-blank exercises, and grammar rules had never been introduced to my group of students. “seven – older than one year”. So, in her opinion, it was natural that this student couldn’t do or say much in English. The funny thing was … this student has been in the United States for less than two months and has been receiving ESL services for less than a month and a half!
What’s more, unlike the idea this director had, she had made HUGE progress. He could already understand most of the greetings and basic classroom instructions; he could understand various types of questions on different everyday topics. He could even understand many things that people told him to do and basic facts! However, when it came to speaking, he could only say a hello or two and produce “yes” or “no” responses. Does this mean that he had not made any progress? Does this mean that he had learned nothing? No way! On the contrary, it was well advanced in its initial stage of acquiring a second language and soon after it entered the initial production period. Plain and simple, he was going through his period of silence.
When I spoke to the headmistress and explained, as politely as possible, what the period of silence was and how much progress this girl had progressed, she couldn’t help but blush and sigh in relief at the thought that “we hadn’t been wasting our lives.” weather! “
Once again, 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 what they are learning now, with the appropriate language settings (for more information on proper language settings, 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 “teachers and commanders” of our class, as can happen if you have your own language school or if you have the freedom to do whatever you want, simply knowing this simple fact can give you a completely different perspective on your work. . However, 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 this topic; Read as much as you can and be prepared to report on everything you do with your students. Talk to your supervisor, peers, students, or anyone who is demanding results now and simply explain what the wealth of research on this topic shows. Most of the time, the light that knowledge projects will dispel 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.