Speaking Too Early is a Waste of Time

Posted on | February 8, 2011 | 25 Comments

The result (or “interim result” as some might put it) of Keith‘s now-famous “TV Method” experiment has recently sparked numerous discussions and fierce debates in the online language learning communities.

Some people are even taking this as a proof to proclaim that “silent period” is a waste of time. In my opinion, the experiment is more for measuring the effectiveness of “natural input” (versus “comprehensible input”) than that of the “silent period”.

I believe having an initial “silent period” is much more effective than spending time and effort speaking in the beginning stage. Before going into my arguments, let me first clear some misunderstandings of the “silent period”:

  1. “Silent period” is not passive
    It is not a time in which the learner sits back, slacks off, and isolates himself from the native speakers. Instead, this is a critical moment when the learner actively absorbs sounds, vocabulary, and patterns of the new language by doing intensive input activities, such as reading, listening to the radio, watching TV in the target language, and even listening to native speakers speaking among themselves. Most parts of the input must be comprehensible, or made comprehensible by explanations (the “TV Method” does not satisfy this condition).
  2. “Silent period” is not an unbreakable fixed period of time
    The length is completely arbitrary and it is up to individual learners. Some people set it to 3 months, some 6 months, and some 2000 hours. ALG sets it to 800 hours. If the learner finds he is more ready to speak than planned, he can by all means break the silence at any time.
  3. One does not attain fluency at the end of the “silent period”
    No one can become fluent by working on input only. After the “silent period”, you still need to put in a lot of work on speaking and writing. Advocates of the “silent period” believe that they will play a better “catch up” and will eventually produce better results (in terms of accent and fluency).
  4. “Silent period” is not anti-social
    “Silent period” does not forbid learners to interact with native speakers. It is just that you are not forced to speak their language with them. On the contrary, you should be able to understand more about their culture by spending time absorbing it from TV, radio, books, music, and other media. You are also being considerate by not torturing them with your Tarzan language (read below).

Speaking in the beginning stage is way different from speaking in the intermediate stage. In the beginning stage, you don’t even have chance to stumble or make errors. You just speak like Tarzan. At first, people might find you enthusiastic or even entertaining. When you insist on speaking like that, you will just become annoying to them. Of course they won’t say this in front of you.

Regardless of what the native speakers think of your Tarzan language, speaking too early is not effective for your own language learning. Here are the reasons:

  1. There is nothing much to say
    You cannot say more than you know. At the beginning, you simply have nothing much to say. You may apply some phrases you just learned from your favourite phrasebook, but you won’t be able to understand the responses from the native speakers. So you go back and learn some more phrases, or simply move on and find other victims to practice the same phrases again.
  2. The time could be well spent on absorbing the language yourself
    You may plan to extract words or phrases from the native speakers by talking to them. You would probably ask a lot of questions like “what does this mean?” or “how do you say this in your language?” I would argue that it is much more time-saving just to look them up yourself. The native speakers also deserve more respect than being treated as walking dictionaries.
  3. It produces high anxiety
    Speaking in the beginning stage gives you high anxiety. According to the “affective filter” theory, this significantly hinders your learning process.
  4. It could mess up your accent
    One thing I notice from Keith is that although he is still a beginner in speaking, he already has a pretty good accent (the native speaker in his second speech also noticed this). Many linguists will tell you that a good accent is hard to acquire, no matter how much time you spend on working on it. “Silent period” allows the learner to internalize the correct sounds of the language before forming habits of producing bad sounds, thus reducing the chance of fossilization.

The initial period of learning a language is crucial to you. It is the time you lay your solid foundation. Do not waste it on speaking like Tarzan and annoying innocent people. Having said that, when you are ready, make no excuse to prolong your silent period. It is easy to fall into the trap of avoiding speaking. You are often more ready than you think. Seek help and motivation on overcoming your shyness.


25 Responses to “Speaking Too Early is a Waste of Time”

  1. Tweets that mention Speaking Too Early is a Waste of Time : Tower of Confusion -- Topsy.com
    February 8th, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by renevanvijk, Labor Teacher and Aaron @PhraseMix, Edwin on Languages. Edwin on Languages said: Silent period is NOT a waste of time but speaking too early is. http://bit.ly/fRAmAJ #languages […]

  2. Leo
    February 8th, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

    I can’t agree with any of the four points above. But what I want to suggest with this comment is: don’t cite Citizendium. It is an awful and completely unreliable source in its handful of approved articles and even more in its unapproved ones. See for example: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Citizendium

  3. edwin
    February 8th, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    Hi Leo, thanks for your comment.

    There are 8 points in my post. So you agree with the other 4 points?

  4. Benny the Irish polyglot
    February 8th, 2011 @ 7:55 pm

    So… many… things… to disagree with…
    *head explodes*

  5. edwin
    February 8th, 2011 @ 8:31 pm

    Hi Benny, thanks for dropping by. It’s an honour … to disagree with you. Just kidding.

  6. Igor
    February 9th, 2011 @ 3:37 am

    Very good. Anyone would agree, unless he’s a parrot who likes to repeat things right away, things that he doesn’t really understand. But hey, he’s very social, he stands on your shoulder and talks to the tourists: me speak, me talk, me Tarzan, you Jane…

  7. Keith
    February 9th, 2011 @ 7:06 am

    Hello Edwin! Thanks for the commentary. I don’t remember ever reading before, a rule for the silent period that states input must be comprehensible or else being silent will not count towards the silent period. The TV method itself is not “the silent period.” They are two independent things that can be done simultaneously, or overlap each other. The silent period can be observed regardless of the comprehensibility of the input. OK, I hope I’ve made my point. I have nothing else to disagree with in this post. The rest looks pretty good to me. Keep up the great work!

  8. Sebastian Velasquez
    February 9th, 2011 @ 8:56 am

    I had a silent period, but not for the same reasons; I was too afraid to make mistakes and feel like an stupid. However, It’s right to say that you can learn some things in this stage: expressions, pronunciation, accent, even body language.

    Now, I still make mistakes, but I feel more confident to speak.

  9. edwin
    February 9th, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    Hi Keith,

    Both Krashen (The input hypothesis 1985) and Terrell (The natural approach to language teaching: an update 1982) said that input should be comprehensible (or i+1 as Krashen puts it).

    We are essentially doing input activities in the silent period, so according to Krashen and Terrell, it has to be comprehensible.

  10. Alexandre
    February 9th, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    How long must a person wait before learning piano if they aim to become a world-renowned pianist?

    How long must a child wait before he starts skating in the hopes of becoming a famous hockey player?

    How long should a child wait before learning how to ski if she wishes to make it to the Olympics?

    How old must you be to start singing if you wish to sing opera for the Met?

    How long should you wait before you speak a language if you wish to speak it like a native speaker?

    The answer to all of these questions is simple and intuitive: no amount of delay will bring improvement. Practice and dedication do.

    Pronunciation of a second language is a balancing act, and mastery of this complex juggling act comes after a long period of constant fine-tuning. Waiting and delaying doesn’t give a person a better accent, it simply delays the beginning of this long process of fine-tuning.

    Acquiring a near-native pronunciation takes time and dedication.

    There is magic.

  11. Alexandre
    February 9th, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

    *There is NO magic*

    Sorry for the crucial mistake. I suppose I spoke too early 😉

  12. edwin
    February 9th, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

    Thanks, Alexandre, for your comment.

    I totally agree with you on the point: “There is no magic” in language learning.

    Both advocates and opponents of the “silent period” would agree on the fact that learning a language requires hard work (in both input and output). Whoever sells the concept of easy language learning is lying to us.

  13. josh
    February 10th, 2011 @ 1:18 am


    I disagree with your piano argument and here’s why:

    Suppose you are a 10 year old and you parents force you to start learning the piano. Maybe you play too many video games and they want you to do something better with your time. You on the other hand, don’t have much interest in piano playing. Since you are a good kid, you try hard at the piano to please your parents. You memorize the songs, chords, and all that stuff, and in your mind you have a “data table” of information about piano playing. After a few years you eventually stop playing. It’s been too much work and has become boring to only regurgitate old songs you learned when you were ten.

    Ok, time machine back to 10 years old. Now lets say you go with your parents to a concert somewhere. And for one reason or another the piano player in the band really killed it, really made an impression on you. You think to your self “that would be awesome if I could play an instrument like that!”. You don’t tell your parents that you want to learn piano just yet, but you begin to start listening to lots of music. Eventually you can hear songs in your head, you know what you favorite type of music is, and maybe you can even think up new riffs in your head before you fall asleep. You have no idea how to play a chord on a piano but all the sounds are there in your head. If you begin experimenting with sounds on a cheap casio keyboard now, will it allow you to be a more creative and better musician in the future?

    In some cases the answer is Yes. But just to be fair, in many cases the answer will be No. I think the success of such learning comes down to motivation and patience. Are you motivated and patient enough to jack around on a cheap keyboard until you are awesome at it?

    Are you motivated and patient enough to take in foreign input until you understand it?

  14. edwin
    February 10th, 2011 @ 7:21 am

    Hi Josh,
    Incidentally, I have the same thought in my mind about learning piano. What happen if we let the students listening to many pieces many times before teaching them. Will it be more effective? But I don’t have data to back anything up.

    But essential, this could apply to any learning. Musical instruments, sports, arts, etc.

  15. Alexandre
    February 10th, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    Edwin and Josh,

    I expected that kind of rebuttal, but it’s irrelevant: if a person wants to learn something, there is no advantage in delaying the learning process.

    Your argument is that one shouldn’t be forced to do something they have no interest in, or they will eventually give up. I think we’d all agree with that.

  16. edwin
    February 10th, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    I think my argument is that speaking and listening are not two independent development processes. Speaking builds on top of the foundation of listening.

    I guess it is like practising chords in piano. If you spend time of practising chords at the beginning, later if you are given a new piece to learn, you will find it easier to pick up.

    You can of course jump into the new piece right away, but it will be less effective without learning the chords first.

  17. Alexandre
    February 10th, 2011 @ 11:20 am

    Edwin — agreed.

  18. Pain in the English… and other blogs I love @ Gloria Cappelli
    February 12th, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

    […] The Tower of Confusion has often good articles too. I found this about language acquisition especially interesting: Speaking too early is a waste of time. […]

  19. Iversen
    March 9th, 2011 @ 4:26 am

    There is one case where I wouldn’t adhere to the idea of a silent period – namely if I’m travelling. There you have to use whatever you have got while you have the chance. Apart from that I support the idea.

    Actually I also think it is worthwhile for beginners to listen for the sounds without caring too much about the meaning. Trying to jump directly to understanding means either that you live on unreliable guesswork or you have to choose extremely simple texts.

    It’s the same thing with speaking. If you do it too early you have to cut corners by resorting to a narrow vocabulary, simple constructions a prelearned chunks – nothing wrong with chunks by the way, but your speech shouldn’t be limited to yes yes no no.

    So while you build up your skills you certainly should train your active skills, but this can be done by writing, by speaking to yourself or by thinking. Then you aren’t wasting other people’s time, and you don’t have to feel pushed to cut curners (and you don’t have to pay a teacher).

    The risk is of course that you can’t see your own errors, but provided that you are willing to revise your habits it is much easier to correct errors when you are slightly mor advanced – not while you are still struggling to form a simple sentence.

    Thanks for bringing this discussion up.

  20. Spanglish Queen
    March 16th, 2011 @ 11:03 am

    I don’t know why everyone gets so uptight about different learning methods. Do what works best for you!

    Some people really do need to shut their mouths and listen first. Now if that is for 20, 200, or 2000 hours- I don’t know. But there are people who can “speak” a language but you can’t understand what they are saying because the pronunciation is just off. Be quiet, listen, and then speak- just like a baby.

    Other people need to study grammar books and go to chat groups- and every other traditional method that works for some and not for others. Good for them. Everyone learns differently.

    Get over it. Worry about yourself, and not what everyone else is doing- unless you are somehow capitalizing on language learning.

  21. Alexandre
    March 17th, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    Babies don’t wait before they speak; in fact, they speak as early as they can, even though it’s mostly incomprehensible. Adults around them are also very patient in trying to accomodate them and to understand them, something very adults are lucky enough to have.

  22. Alexandre
    March 17th, 2011 @ 8:36 am

    “very few adults”

  23. Aidan
    March 17th, 2011 @ 9:44 am

    I really like your ideas here because you hit on something which goes beyond language learning. It is always a delicate balancing act between being cute and being annoying when speaking foreign languages. I don’t think that it is black and white, you need to look at the context of the situation.
    English is the dominant language in my work environment. Even though I speak fluent Dutch some Dutch colleagues (particularly higher up people who use English all day) prefer speaking English. I don’t insist on the conversation being in Dutch.
    When I am learning a new language I do normally try to speak it as much as I can but I generally look for people who will be more supportive and tolerant of my efforts. To be honest it always helps if the person can speak English too so that you can explain what you really meant. It also means that you can switch from one language to the other and take breaks. This is normally how I speak Japanese. Short bursts in Japanese followed by English interaction followed by more Japanese. I don’t see great value in not being able to talk about things because your level is too poor to express things properly or understand their answers. You need to put the passive work in before you can be effective at the output part.
    One point that seems to be missed in these threads is that much interaction is 1 to N and not 1 to 1. I am quite often surrounded by people speaking Dutch/Polish/Japanese and I try to listen to everything but I don’t go out of the way to break the conversational flow just to practice the language around me. Speaking is good but it needs to be appropriate.
    With almost every language I find that women are more tolerant of speaking (or even murdering) their language. They often find it cool that a foreign man is trying to learn their language. Of course some guys are encouraging too but I can feel the vibes pretty quickly if somebody thinks you are wasting their time. An example is a waiter who speaks good English not being enamoured if I speak Spanish.
    Basically I think that you need to use your target language appropriately. Sometimes you might get lots of practice in one go, other times you might not say anything at all because you don’t think it is appropriate.

  24. edwin
    March 17th, 2011 @ 9:47 am

    Thanks, Spanglish Queen and Alexandre, for your comments.

    Whether a baby deliberately waits before she speaks or not does not matter. The main point is that she does listen a lot first before she speaks.

    Having said that, I personally don’t like to use the ‘baby’ argument to support the ‘silence period” approach, since we should be comparing adults learning a second language to children learn a second language instead of their first language.

  25. edwin
    March 18th, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

    Yes, I agree very much, Aidan. You need to use your target language appropriately.

    One point on your comment. You sounds like you are over your silent period already. If this is the case, you should try to speak as much as possible. You will stumble often and it is very tempting to switch language. Avoid this by all means.

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