There is a phenomenon in language learning that some researchers call “the Silent Period.” Broadly speaking, this is a period, usually at the very beginning of language acquisition, during which the learner does not even attempt to speak. Not everybody agrees on its definition or its function, or even whether such a discernible period exists as such, but it’s an interesting idea.
In any language classroom, there are going to be students who just will not open their mouths to speak, at least not at first. Teachers usually interpret this as shyness, or inhibition, or stubbornness. If you’re socially anxious to begin with, uttering error-filled gibberish in front of classmates might be a paralyzing proposition. But some researchers hypothesize that this silent period is not just a failure to communicate or a function of nerves. Second language acquisition theorists who favor input-heavy approaches (see: Stephen Krashen) assert that the Silent Period is actually an important part of language learning and performs an important function. Many actually believe that language teachers should mandate a silent period, being careful not to require speech production in the very early stages of learning.
There are several reasons proposed for this. Some theorists believe in very strongly input oriented approaches, to the exclusion of output – meaning, learners are to hear and read lots and lots of stuff in the target language, but not to produce any utterances themselves (at least not at first). This is based on an idea of how the mind acquires language. Some theorists believe that input alone is sufficient but output can’t hurt, while others go so far as to insist that learner output actually hinders the process. Krashen, for his part, believes that learners are sufficiently acquiring enough language from input and their participation is not necessary at this stage.
It’s also possible to think about the Silent Period just in terms of learners’ feelings. That is, production in the target language can indeed be very stressful for learners at early stages, and surely causing stress and anxiety is not a great way to encourage learners to stick with it. It would be great if us grownups were as lighthearted about mistakes as children are, but unfortunately we’re just not, and some teachers might feel that allowing for a Silent Period in the classroom takes some of the pressure off.
Recently I came across a little book that presents another very interesting theory of the Silent Period. The book is called Silence in Second Language Learning: A Psychoanalytic Reading, by Colette A. Granger. Granger sees the Silent Period, and all of the anxiety that underlies it, arising not from inhibitions or fear of making mistakes, but rather from a much deeper place in the psyche. She notes that learning a new language is essentially an exercise in making (or rather, re-making) an individual’s identity – an idea I explored in my post about the language ego. Reshaping an identity is a deeply psychical, anxiety-ridden task, and one that calls upon resources of self-reflection and self re-creation. This is obviously a difficult task for anyone. The Silent Period, then, is nothing less than the time and space we need to completely un-make and re-make who we are in the target language.
That, to me, seems like a very strong case for an instructor-mandated Silent Period. But countless other theorists and language learners themselves believe in the opposite – start speaking on day one and practice as much as possible.
So what do you all think? To speak or not to speak?