Full Guide to the Silent Period

The Silent Period hypothesis is a stage in Second Language Acquisition in which the learner is not expected to actively produce any language.

The Silent Period is more common in children than in adult learners because adult are expected to speak during the early stages of acquisition.

The Silent Period is the first out of five periods in Second Language Acquisition:

  1. The Silent Period
  2. The Early Production Period
  3. The Speech Emergence Period
  4. The Intermediate Production Period
  5. The Advanced Production Period

This process in Second Language Acquisition is linked to the hypothesis introduced by Stephen Krashen.

 Krashen indicated that learners should not be expected to communicate during the early stages of acquisition but they should improve their linguistic skills through active listening.

Silent Period in First Language Acquisition

One of the main reasons why the silent period and first language acquisition  stand strong over the years and gain some relevance is because these hypotheses can be glued to other language acquisition concepts and ideas

The silent period reinforces the idea that receptive skills play a crucial role in language learning and teaching. Listening is the key to developing speaking skills. Comprehensible input is and will always be on top as the best approach to acquire and learn language.

The silent period also reinforces the idea that we need to listen to words or expressions consciously or unconsciously to be able to master  these in the future. Successful repetition of the language is an ingredient that you would like to have as part of your english teaching and learning recipe. The idea of successful repetition is closely related to the comprehensible input hypothesis.

The silent period clearly establishes that the speaking is the outcome, if you can produce any amount of words, that means that you have done a pretty good job listening to what others are talking about. This concept is sometimes left behind as people embrace the misconception that speaking is real learning when clearly is not.

The silent period also states within its premises that error correction is something that you do while paying attention to good language role models. By listening to others, you reflect on what you say and make changes to it.  It doesn’t matter how bad the language is at the early stages, this keeps improving without much correction as long as good examples of the target language are thrown at you.

The silent period  and theories of first language acquisition also deal well with errors and mistakes, these are still a good foundation for a continuous improvement process. You don’t get paranoid if a child is mispronouncing a word since you know  that those errors and mistakes will diminish with exposure to the language and  practice. You welcome errors since these are made by anyone who is making an attempt to learn a language

The silent period also involves words that can be linked to mental images and situations as you listen to language in context. I am not entirely sure what the word ‘mom’ means to a baby in the early stages but the baby knows that there is a special bond between him or her and this person who takes care of him or her during long periods of time. We would expect this concept to evolve over the years as the relationship grows between mom and baby.

Finally this segment can be closed by paying attention to relevance, children learn what’s relevant to them and the rest is ignored. Relevance makes learning possible. The world of a baby is made up of simple things that occupy their minds in everyday life and not on things that he or she fails to comprehend. Would you bother explaining to a little kid who has no notions about words such as universe, planet, countries what a territory is ?

Silent Period: Lenght of time

The length of time an ELL spends in the Silent Period depends on several characteristics.

Krashen claims that learners with high motivation, self-confidence, a good self-image, and a low level of anxiety are better equipped for success in second language acquisition.

Low motivation, low self-esteem, and debilitating anxiety can combine to ‘raise’ the affective filter and form a ‘mental block’ that prevents comprehensible input from being used for acquisition.

Silent Period: A Hypothesis?

We have to remember at all times that most language acquisition ideas are hypothesis and not theories so there is a clear difference between both. There is a gap that needs to be filled before we can confirm that the silent period is something that it is set in stone and that it should not dictate how we deal with acquisition and learning

This hypothesis is based on observations made to children who were acquiring the first language, it is evident that babies and children spend a lot of time listening to the world around them before they can produce any words.

Children are not forced to produce anything unless they want to and their first words come out and develop over time after long periods of time monitoring what people around  them say. We know how this process normally works since we have seen it happen with little children. Knowing that producing any language requires lots of subconscious listening is something that we all agree upon regardless of how we view language acquisition and learning

Of course this hypothesis is based on analysis and observation so it shouldn’t be wise to discard the silent period as it was an idea that became popular out of nothing. I also think that regardless of this hypothesis turning into a theory in the future doesn’t mean that teachers will put their existing strategies into a shelf.

How Students Feel during their Silent Period

Some characteristics of learners during the silent period or pre-production stage are:

  1. Learners are able to understand more than they can produce.
  2. Students might avoid to be in situation in which they are required to speak.
  3. Instead of learning from the input of others, they tend to get discouraged and they get easily distracted doing other things in the classroom.
  4. Their vocabulary is limited to some hundred of words

Recommendations for Students in their Silent Period

First: Make sure you are not enrolled in the wrong class, sometimes learners enrolled in classes where classmates have already played with the language in schools, institutes or at work. Make sure you are in the right place with people who have the same level you have.

Second:  Be  enthusiastic,  it is alright to miss one sentence or word here and there when your classmates and teachers are speaking.

Third: Stay busy with the language, students  who study  hard reduce the gap between them and their classmates. practice at home the new structures and grammar  taught in classes .

Fourth: Look for ways to discover new language with friends, through music, movies or browsing the internet, that will expand your vocabulary and as a result you will be able to understand others more.

Fifth:  Don’t  give up, you need English and for that reason you are enrolled in classes so keep yourself motivated and moving forward , learning a language takes time otherwise everybody would know English.

Teachers and Silent Period in Second Language Learning

You should know by now that the silent period hypothesis is based on children observation in language acquisition however we are all reduced to a children-like stage if we are taken to a world in which our language isn’t spoken. Take me to russia and you will see a man who doesn’t know a single word in that language.

It is very likely that you won’t see me producing a single sentence of that language during days and that would take quite some time to engage in controlled conversations and even more time to start freer conversations.

Understanding the silent period that children have can provide great insights to what the silent period is in people who are learning a second language. The silent period is there.  We have seen how people have difficulties grasping the basics when they haven’t studied English before. 

Now that I have planted that seed in your mind, it is time to explore what lessons can be learned, lessons that are practical and that we might have forgotten over the years.

#1 Relevance

I think that we have to stop this idea of teaching things which are not relevant to students. We have lost the north in our efforts. I have been teaching since 2014 and I have experienced first hand how irrelevant some topics for students were. Let’s take the example of safety at work which focuses on words such as helmet, apron and boots and others. An argument can be made that the topic can be used later in life but it is not necessarily relevant to a 14-year-old highschool boy or girl. 

What good comes from saying that you should wear an apron if you can’t say ‘I don’t know where the supermarket’ or ‘please turn off the fan’.  Learning a language should start with the most relevant topics.

Coming back to the example of me being taken to Russia, I would spend my first learning efforts trying to figure how to greet people and probably how to pay for something in the supermarket.

Bad example of poor decision making about vocabulary is choosing vocabulary that has nothing to do with the environment in which they live. For example teaching words like rugby, sledding  and other words which are not relevant to students that we have.

#2 Mental Images

Something that we have to do better at is using visuals to stimulate knowledge,  I bet that every successful language learner can link a word to an image or situation. We have to use more memorable images and interactive content in our classes. A practical approach to this can be linking vocabulary to an image. Presentations about what a picture means to us can be a relevant way to remember new vocabulary. 

#3 Dealing with Error Correction

We have to acknowledge that errors and mistakes will be made and that all of them can’t be corrected. As long as you keep providing learners with comprehensible input and with successful repetition. They will be able to contrast what they say and how they say something with what people say around them.

What children say in the early stages is far from being perfect however we see how their language keeps evolving through time until it reaches perfection.

#4 Don’t Focus on the Outcome

We have to spend more time doing listening tasks in and out of the classroom, not sure if all teachers agree with me on this one but listening to passages in English is one of the least practiced skills since having listening tasks in the classroom implies using  a process within the lesson itself.

A listening lesson follows a framework on his own in which the schema needs to be activated, students need to be prepared and given a reason to pay attention to the listening passage and use the language from it in  a freer activity.

Using this process out of the classroom tends to be even more complicated since the guidance of the teacher is not there to support the student along the way. The point is that we need to dedicate a chunk of our lessons to teach students how to listen.

We see how some teachers focus so much on the outcome which is speaking and tend to forget about listening which is the real model of pronunciation, structure and provider of successful repetition. 

I also think that on the same note we have to make listening tasks freer. In this day and age, we should forget about the recorder at the front of the class and let students handle the process themselves. Listening in the classroom has to be as close as to the actual listening outside the classroom.

We have seen how little children watch the same cartoon shows over and over again so we should let students listen to a passage as many times as they want since playing or rewinding a track is not a waste of time when you are learning a language. I know that there are time constraints however we can create more exercises around the same listening passage, some of them can be completed in clases and the rest at home.

I don’t think that children sitting in front of the TV watching their favorite song is a waste of time, we as parents let them be and we respect the process.  We know that they are learning something every time they watch a video. They are probably paying attention to many things since the reason they are watching has to do with the acquisition of language and the context around the words being said.

# 5 Successful Repetition

The last practical advice that we have to consider seriously is linking the structures and vocabulary learned in one class to subsequent classes. We have to be reasonable, we have to use what we learn as years pass. We have to stop and rethink if we are moving too fast for the sake of  completing units and not necessarily to learn and reinforce.  If we already studied the simple present, let’s make sure that we use that structure in coming lessons.  For instance, if we already know how to make sentences with the modal can, we can use that in a wide variety of topics

  • I can swim (sports)
  • I can fix your bike ( means of transportation)
  • I can buy you dinner (Invitations)

Learn More

These are some posts that might help you in your efforts to teach English

  1. 5 Challenges English Language Learners Face
  2. 10 Characteristics of Teacher-Centered Instruction
  3. 15 Awesome ESL Games and Activities
  4. PPP Framework: Presentation, Practice and Production
  5. How to Teach Collocations
  6. 6 Fluency Activities for the ESL Classroom
  7. 10 Characteristics of Student-Centered Learning
Manuel Campos, English Professor

Manuel Campos

I am Jose Manuel, English professor and creator of EnglishPost.org, a blog whose mission is to share lessons for those who want to learn and improve their English