Speak Only When Ready – But When Will You be Ready?

Posted on | March 21, 2010 | 12 Comments

There was an interesting exchange between Steve the Linguist and Benny the Irish Polyglot. I downloaded the podcast more than a week ago but only managed to get through it on a red-eye flight back from Seattle yesterday.

In brief, Steve thinks that we should first immerse ourselves into a lot of input activities and then try to speak with native speakers when we are ready. Benny argues that some people will never think that they are ‘ready’.

I am a believer of the ‘silent period’ hypothesis. I don’t think we should speak right at the beginning. The million-dollar question is: how long should this period last? The quick answer is, of course, it depends on the individual learner. To some, it could be years or months. To Benny, it could be hours. But then Benny made a valid point that many people have a tendency of prolonging this honeymoon period and indulge themselves into too many input activities instead of challenging themselves to engage in any output activity. The ‘silent period’ is often used as an excuse to keep ourselves well within our comfort zone. As a result, we can never improve.

One evening in Seattle last week, I decided to check out a Mexican torta place nearby. My Mexican amigo came along. Naturally enough, he made his order in Spanish and I, still thinking that I was in my ‘silent period’ of Spanish, made my order in English. The Hispanic cashier asked in Spanish if we were eating in. My colleague was occupied in putting away his change, so I answered on behalf of him in Spanish, “Sí, por aquí” (yes, for here). The lady looked a bit shocked and uttered some words which probably meant, “Hey, you speak Spanish!”. Following the standard protocol, I replied, “Un poco” (a little bit).

An afterthought on this incident is that, if I were to go alone, I would probably be speaking English all the way and the cashier would never speak to me in Spanish. I would end up sitting in the place, reading the wall posters and watching the Spanish TV, convincing myself that I was doing well with all these ‘input’ activities.

On my flight to Seattle earlier in the week, a Chinese Canadian sitting next to me started a conversation with me in Mandarin, so I learned that he has been living in Toronto for a few years. Then when the flight attendant came by and asked him what to drink, he suddenly turned mute and started using sign language. Was he too timid to speak, even to utter simple words like ‘orange juice’ or ‘water’? Or was he simply honouring his ‘silent period’?

On contrary to the above incident, I have encountered many people who are willing to struggle with their broken English. Each of these occasions reminds me of going through the same pain when I was a teen. We simply have to get used to this inconvenience, or even embarrassment, of speaking like a fool. I think Benny is trying to make the point that we need to learn to enjoy this experience and be good at it.

Benny challenges the followers of the ‘intensive input’ approach to get out and converse with people. Don’t use the ‘silent period’ as an excuse. There will never be a time when we are truly ‘ready’ to speak.


12 Responses to “Speak Only When Ready – But When Will You be Ready?”

  1. Benny the Irish polyglot
    March 21st, 2010 @ 7:14 am

    Thanks for this! You understood precisely the point I was trying to make 😉

    Your story reminds me of when I lived in San Francisco; I specifically chose the Excelsior (outer Mission) district, and would eat out in Mexican restaurants most of the time and order and converse entirely in Spanish. I spoke MORE Spanish than English over that month in San Francisco. It boggles my mind that Americans genuinely interested in learning Spanish don’t use the millions of opportunities around them to practise.

    But as you say, they have to leave their comfort zone. I always tell people to just accept they’ll make mistakes and even embrace it. I guarantee you that in my first weeks or month trying any language I probably never utter a single perfectly correct sentence… and yet I get everything I want from businesses and have a social life without using English. Over time I improve towards fluency and iron out these mistakes.

    It seems so obvious to me, I was surprised Steve was adamant against stepping outside of this comfort zone until you are “ready”. I’ve met people who have LIVED in a country for years who still don’t feel “ready” and I’m sick of it, so I’m hoping my words will push people to take a few risks and realise that the world does not actually end when they utter a non-100% sentence in the early stages and still get their point across 😉

  2. JP Villanueva
    March 21st, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    I agree with Benny the Irish Polyglot. To me “honoring the silent period” or “waiting until you are ready” is a function of fear. Sure, the fear paralyzes beginners, but that doesn’t make it honorable. The fear is based on a monolingual attitude that making a mistake shows stupidity.

    In the classroom there is no “honoring the silent period.” It absolutely does not serve teachers’ goal of creating a language acquisition rich environment from the beginning. Usually on the first day of class I’ll ask someone their name, and they’ll freeze on their name… by the time they realize that they can actually say their own name, I ask, “are you ok?” and they realize the fear was over nothing… and entirely unnecessary.

    That’s not to say I’m not fearless myself when it comes to speaking one of my weaker languages… I just refuse to honor that fear.

  3. Robin
    March 22nd, 2010 @ 5:12 am

    As I am living in a multi-lingual country whenever I have to move to another state I should learn a new language to talk to local people. Initially I would be a silent observer of the native speakers while building vocabulary and learning some grammar. Then I would break the silent period and start talking. I think talking to people without afraid of mistakes is the best way to learn a new language.

  4. reineke
    March 27th, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    I’ve been “silent” in German for a very long time. I mean a very long time. I rarely used Italian. This is how I learn languages. I am aware of the silent period and it makes sense but this is not the reason I’ve been silent. The problem is, it’s difficult to come up with meaningful activities that involve speaking foreign languages while living in another country. And yes, after about uh, ten-twenty years or so of exposure to language fun I don’t “feel ready”.

  5. Amelia
    March 31st, 2010 @ 8:05 am

    I agree with Benny. Fear is definitely a major issue for a lot of us, but sometimes you just have to push through it. And it really does get easier the more often you step out of your comfort zone and use the language. I’ve also known people who’ve lived in a country for years w/o learning the language and they seemed to have convinced themselves they were incapable of speaking the local language just because the skill hadn’t “come to” them all that time.

    As for practice, you don’t always have to try to have meaningful conversations in a language you hardly know. In immersion situations, I’ve just started out talking with shopkeepers and the like to build confidence and worked up from there.

  6. N.T.
    April 13th, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

    I agree with the others. I think the fastest way to learn how to speak is by speaking, although it is discouraging to watch the pained facial expressions of listeners during the early stages of practicing a new language.

    One approach that I found helpful when moving to countries where I didn’t speak the local language well was to arrange language exchanges with locals who wanted to improve their English. We would meet regularly to practice languages. Precisely because the hardest task was always speaking, not comprehension, rather than dividing the time, e.g., 1 hour of Spanish followed by 1 hour of English, we held bilingual conversations in which each of us exclusively spoke the other person’s language, e.g., I spoke only Spanish and the Spaniard spoke only English. This was a great way to improve fluency, and it was less intimidating to practice with someone else who was also a language learner.

  7. Street-Smart Language Learning™
    May 10th, 2010 @ 12:33 am

    We all seem to be in agreement here. Upon rereading this article, I just tweeted out Q: When should you start trying to speak in your target language? A: Yesterday. I also enjoyed turning Steve’s arguments on their head, not that it did anything to persuade Steve.

  8. Mike
    May 26th, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    I have also been a follower of the “silent period” approach. I too have gotten into the habit of prolonging this period too long. For me, language was a mainly individual pursuit with no social connection. I have recently come around to accepting Benny’s perspective.

    Although I like to focus on grammar and read the language in isolation, I have come to see that if I never practice the language I not only never learn to converse – I also forget the grammar I learned. Speaking the language gives one some real conversational skills and gives the abstract grammar real roots. Grammar is just a logical abstraction or shortcut for a formalized, living language anyway.

    I participated in a Spanish conversation group for an hour a week when I was learning the grammar on my own, long before I took any classes. I can honestly say that I gained a lot more conversational fluency in the group than in the classes. I have finally come around: one must use what one has learned right away or else lose it.

  9. espanol mi amor
    May 26th, 2010 @ 11:59 pm

    I don’t believe in practicing ” the silent period” for a long time. What’s the best way to speak a language than imitating sounds made by the locals and having someone correct you? I live in a country where we cater to many tourists and we actually don’t mind correcting their grammar or pronunciation if they ask for our help.

  10. Ramses
    June 2nd, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    Contrary what many people believe, there is actually a science to this silect period stuff. I has been researched what the optimal amount of hours of input is before someone hsould speak. It seems that it is around 800 to 1000 hours, like the Automatic Language Growth theory states.

    Reading he paper “The Success of Silence” (can be found at http://algworld.com/archives.php) is a good idea I think.

    It’s nice to say things like: “You should speak when you think you’re ready”, or, “the student knows best when to speak”, but that’s a bunch of bullcrap. Getting a feeling for the sound of the language is impossible within a few hours.

  11. edwin
    June 2nd, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    I understand. The sad thing is that for many people, after waiting for 800 to 1000 hours, they are happy to wait longer before they put up the courage to speak.

    I see a lot of 2nd-generation immigrants here in Canada, who can understand perfectly his parents’ language, but can’t and won’t speak a word of it. They are just used to not speaking the language.

  12. bill
    June 27th, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    First, I am a big believer in trying to get out there and using whatever language you are learning. Even the most basic single sentence exchanges can help establish the levels of confidence and reward that are essential to picking up a new language.

    Yet, in my experience with Spanish and Portuguese, the public use of a foreign language is a mix of personal ability, circumstance and question of appropriateness. (Funny enough, little below seems to apply to Brazilians as they have almost always been exceptionally willing to speak in Portuguese, regardless of the circumstances.)

    I have lived in NYC for over 10 years now and I am NOT a believer that you can just go up to someone and speak to them in Spanish just b/c they “look” like they are native speakers. For example, do I address a Mexican delivery guy in Spanish just b/c he looks Latino? (A more interesting question is that, if I do address him in Spanish am I implying that he CAN’T speak English?) On that note, the simple selection of which language to use in a conversation can be a subtle application of power or influence which can potentially rub some people the wrong way if delivered inappropriately. While a non-native manager of a restaurant might freely speak and learn Spanish with his employees, he may not have the same freedom with the native Spanish speaking bilingual owner of the restaurant.

    At least here in NYC, I get the impression that native Spanish speakers are a bit more sensitive interacting with non-native speakers in comparison with Miami/LA where it is almost EXPECTED that everyone should speak Spanish. But of course if you happen to be in a Spanish-speaking NYC neighborhood those expectations might apply – but in the mid-lower parts of Manhattan the city is definitely ENGLISH-driven (even with well over 100-different languages regularly spoken on the streets).

    There is also a sense in parts of NYC, that even though it is “quaint” that you want to practice your Spanish, many people are so wound up, relatively edgy or simply don’t respect your interests (heck, some bilingual speakers simply DON’T LIKE TO LISTEN TO “GRINGO” ACCENTS) that they really don’t have the patience to have a conversation with someone who isn’t speaking in an absolutely fluid manner. The question here is that if you start a conversation in Spanish and get English responses, how much longer does one continue to try to imply that they want to practice their Spanish. It almost becomes a war of attrition based on ability – that is, whoever is able to continue to best express themselves pushes the conversation into that language. This can be a touchy moment because it becomes less about what is being spoken of and more of what language is going to be used.

    Additionally, when dealing with bilingual (also English speaking) individuals, I think there is a sort of pre-programmed language response. As crazy as it sounds, my darker skinned non-native speakers can swing a Spanish conversation far easier than a light-skinned individual with bilingual speakers. (even if some are less capable). Many bilingual Latinos I have known (after living a couple of years in Latin America, working with the regional for 4 years and meeting many here in NYC) have told me that they are simply used to talking to non-natives in English and natives in Spanish. (And in some cases, “native” means “darker” – or at least that leads to the suspicion that they are “native“ Latinos.) Some have just been wired that way.

    Now, interacting with native speakers that ONLY speak in Spanish is another story – clearly b/c they have no other option to communicate. Whether they are here in the US, abroad or in their home countries, there shouldn’t be as much of a reluctance to interact with them. Overall though, I have found that speaking Spanish with bilingual speakers can touch on cultural, socio-economic and personal areas that potentially help dictate what language someone feels most comfortable speaking (with certain individuals).

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