What is the Silent Period of the Language Acquisition Process?
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! With many in the community beginning new languages, myself included, there is something that needs to be discussed. The silent period of language acquisition. Something everyone is bound to experience, even those who are living abroad and studying in complete immersion.
When I was living in Belgium, I remember one week I was so quiet that my hosts noticed. I stayed in my room and slept a lot, too. I could tell the relationship with my host parents was becoming strained. I had been living there for 8 weeks and it seemed like I was pulling away from them. That was the last thing I wanted, but I was struggling to speak French.
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I could, however, write. So I wrotemy host mom a letter. I left it for her in the car when she dropped us off and she found it and pulled me aside after school that day. She told me she really appreciated me writing to her and that, even if I wasn't speaking French, she just wanted me to speak. Communication is all that really matters, that's why you are learning a language in the first place.
With that said, there will be a time when you simply do not want to speak for whatever reason it may be. Luckily, it can be overcome in as little as 6 weeks! It won't be a walk in the park, though. The only way to get beyond the silent period is to speak. Irrespective of how many mistakes you make, simply speaking will break you out of your silent period prison.
Once you're out, you're free to continue your vocabulary development and increase your competency overall. The sky is the limit. However, there is no shame in staying silent when getting started, it's very much the norm, and it is actually vital.
Why the Silent Period is Vital to the Language Learning Process?
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Though it can be frustrating to feel trapped inside your head with your target language, it is something everyone experiences, and it's incredible how much progress can be made during silent periods. The reason this time is vital is it is the period during which you will have the most time to dedicate to growing your vocabulary and focusing on comprehensible input.
Until you have to start speaking with native speakers, you have time to build your vocabulary, practice your pronunciation in peace, and read to better understand the grammar patterns in your target language. Will you be able to do these things after you are speaking? Certainly. However, being proactive with your education is important, especially for adult learners who are often time constrained.
With that in mind, there are some things you can focus on during the silent stage to help with speech emergence. The average language learner is not focused on the things that move the needle the most, but you can be and that starts with comprehensible input. You want to be consuming as much content in your target language as possible. Here are some ways to get a foreign language going in your daily life to enhance your second language acquisition.
Advancing Listening Comprehension
Before you are able to speak you must be able to understand. The importance of choosing who and what you listen to early on is important. While it is nice to have a someone speak their native language slowly and annunciate every word for you, it is not something that is likely to happen out in the wild.
Yes, most native speakers will go out of their way to help a language learner, but they cannot speak at half speed forever. One of the ways I go about finding content is by searching for things I am interested in and looking at multiple sources. If you don't like the content there is no reason to force yourself to consume it. If you know what you are interested in you are going to be able to set yourself up for success every time when it comes to your second language.
By listening to different orators you will be able to manage more accents and speed variations when it comes to actually listening and speaking the language you are learning. This is vital to becoming completely fluent. It will help with improving pronunciation during active learning sessions as well as provide more exposure to new sounds.
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For some recommendations in other languages, check out the Library!
Now that you have something to do during the silent period, here is how you can make the most of it.
Understanding the Role of the Silent Period in the Language Learning Process
The things you should focus on during the silent period go beyond comprehensible input and have much more to do with breaking out of it than things to do within it. Simply put, the only way out is through. So use the this stage of your language learning process to do a few things:
One of the reasons people fear speaking is because they aren't confident in their ability to fluidly pronounce words in the language they are learning. If that's the case, the best thing to do is start speaking, but this is easier said than done, so here are some things you can do immediately to start speaking more and working on your pronunciation confidence.
Read out loud
When you read out loud you are able to focus entirely on pronunciation because you aren't wasting brain power coming up with words or crafting a sentence. All you have to do is read what is in front of you. The best part?
You can read it silently as many times as you feel necessary before attempting to say it aloud. Then you can say it as slowly as you need to and work up the speed as you build your confidence.
When you're choosing which books you should read aloud, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the content become progressively more and more difficult. Ideally there is a variation in creators or authors and you are able to see a variety of ways to say the same things.
Sticking with the same content will work, your confidence will grow, but once you are too comfortable it is imperative to increase the difficult level. It is impossible to grow within your comfort zone.
Follow along with lyric videos and audiobooks
Something most people don't think to do is mimic native speakers. When you listen to a new song, you can find the lyric video and sing along with it. Try to imitate the voice as closely as possible. This also works with audiobooks that are available for free on YouTube.
You can find several of those in the Library. Try out a variety of orators, authors, and artists to see what you enjoy and ensure you can understand speech from different people.
All in all the most important thing to focus on is getting as much exposure to comprehensible input as possible.
Comprehensible Input and Second Language Acquisition
A vital concept for language learners to keep in mind is how to use comprehensible input to incrementally improve their language proficiency. When approaching this, the best way to think of it is as progressive overload. When you are able to understand 80%+ of the material you are working with, it is time to advance in level. It will feel like you are constantly struggling, but the timeline is finite.
If you need some more on how to leverage progressive overload in your language learning process you can read more on that here:
A spontaneous transition from the Silent Period to the Speech Generation stage? Really?
Once you have put in your time and gotten enough exposure to the new language, you will begin to notice that you aren't so much translating in your head as you are thinking in the new language. It's like most major changes, it happens slowly, then suddenly. You will one day wake up feeling confident in your speaking abilities and you will no longer hesitate to practice your language every chance you get.
I don't know when it happened for me, but I know that it was slowly, then all at once. If you continue to expose yourself to your target language and focus on the things you are interested in during your language learning journey you will have the same experience.
Language development is unique for each person and each language, but there is no reason to be afraid of or apprehensive of the silent period. Speech emergence will come, it is a natural path for second language learners.
Allow Children to Experience the Silent Period They Need to Learn a New Language
Briefly, when you are working with children, it is completely normal for them to experience this, it may even last longer than normal if you are learning the language with them but refusing to speak. They will imitate you.
If you don't speak, they likely won't either. If you are learning together, you can read aloud to one another and work through the other suggestions as well. It is okay to laugh at yourself, it is actually quite good to be able to laugh at yourself. When you joke about the mistakes you make you are more likely to remember them and therefore improve more quickly.
Use that and teach the child or children you are working with how to escape the silent period and maximize their language learning. Irrespective of what the new language is, doing this things will help you build confidence. If you build up your confidence for long enough you will find no issue speaking when the time comes. It's all part of the language acquisition process.
Learning a second language is no easy endeavor. While it can be simple, there are many things that make it complex. That said, all that really matters at the end of the day is consistency. That's why we started the Duolingo movement.
It's not the perfect app, but being able to see other people working towards the same goal as you is powerful. Especially when all of those people are rooting for your success, too. There are countless language learning programs, but half an hour on Duolingo, combined with the above second language strategies, will allow the average person to make more progress than most online courses.
It is not impossible to learn a language fast, but if that is the goal it is imperative to understand that it will be difficult. Picking up a foreign language at any speed is going to be challenging. But you can do difficult things and be great. So go do difficult things and become great. I will be here by your side endeavoring to do the same. I'll be here rooting for you and watching out for your successes in the meantime.
For more content check out Second Language Strategies dot com or find me on Twitter or Instagram. If you are struggling to get speaking in your target language, get up to 55% off a Babbel subscription using this link. I look forward to seeing everyone’s progress in the months and years to come.
*** NOTE *** We are now 70+ on Duolingo! If you are interested in joining an ever growing number of people who are working toward the same goals, here is a step by step guide on how to join us!