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”:
- “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).
- “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.
- 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).
- “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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.