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.