Although much research has been done about second language acquisition, it is still a mysterious topic for some people. Which is very strange since 17.9% of the population in the USA (2000 Census) said they spoke a language other than English.
But acquiring a second (or third, etc) language is a complicated process that varies greatly depending on the experience and exposure with the new language, the learner’s personality, and their emotions around learning a new language. The silent period is an initial phase of the language acquisition process, during which children acquiring a new language in natural settings are silent and concentrate on comprehension. So, literally they don’t speak much during this period but they may respond when necessary in a non-verbal way or by using a set of memorized phrases.
However, this silent period phenomenon is also observed when we see how children acquire their native language. We know that during typical language acquisition, a baby spends many months listening to the people around it long before they start using words. Comprehension always comes before production in a natural process of language acquisition, therefore, when acquiring a second language, it is natural that they also follow this process. But, because usually children who come from bilingual homes start learning or are more consistently exposed to their second language when they come to school, it is expected that they speak their second language quickly, without having them the opportunity to follow the normal acquisition process. This can be frustrating to teachers since the length of the silent period can vary greatly for students in classrooms from a few days to a year, and because the child is silent in the dominant classroom language, it can be hard to know where they are in acquiring English.
Next week, I’ll give some suggestion to the classroom teacher who has a student going through the silent period!
Do you have any experiences with silent period you want to share?