Friday, December 29, 2006

When to Speak

Steve Kaufmann posted a provocative thought on his blog.

I guess I would summarize my philosophy as follows; until I can read and listen to a novel, news programs, and recorded conversations... and enjoy doing so, I have no desire to speak with anyone.

This criterion takes the idea much farther than I have ever tried to take it personally, but I've read a lot recently about the advantages of an initial silent period. Understanding a large amount of input before trying to speak has been shown to result in better grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary for most students. As I've mentioned, I think this can probably be generalized to a behavior that's useful indefinitely in a second language, even after the initial acquisition takes place.

AUA advises students not to speak during the first 800 hours of class time. Steve says he has no desire to speak until he can read and understand a novel. I wonder what other criteria people advise or use for the duration of an initial silent period.


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Kelly said...

I suppose if you're learning a language and not living in the country where it's spoken, you could have the luxury of not speaking it for those 800 hours (which seems a LOT of study time, especially if you never practice speaking it).

If you're living in the country whose language you're learning, I feel that you don't really have that particular luxury, especially in areas where English (or any other foreign language) is not widespread. How else would you communicate with the people you deal with on a daily basis? Sign language can only get you so far. So I don't really subscribe to this approach to language learning. I personally feel it's best to learn to speak as early as possible...and this is coming from someone who is very shy in social situations!

Scott Imig said...

Hi, Kelly,

Thanks for the thoughts!

I take your point about living in a country where the language is spoken, and it's pretty clear that that's by far the best way to pick up a language, whether you try to observe a silent period or not. You're lucky to live in the Netherlands and study Dutch!

By living in a country where the language is spoken, you're likely to get a lot of comprehensible input all the time, and the silent period may not matter as much. You get comprehensible input from the media, street signs, shop windows, and everything in the environment. I spoke as early and as much as possible when I studied French for a year in Belgium, and my fluency became pretty good.

I wasn't even aware of the Silent Period Hypothesis until I had already learned a lot of Thai (and a lot of French). So I've never actually tried to maintain an initial silent period in my own studies. I still think the general ideas of learning to speak by listening and "using what's there" hold a lot of merit and utility for someone in my situation.

By the way, the AUA recommendation of 800 hours of class time is actually for Thai students living in Bangkok, but I think some of the students are quite insulated from Thai input outside of class.

Kelly said...

I must say that my quest to learn Dutch was actually prompted by the fact I moved to the Netherlands...not vice versa! Nevertheless, it's amazing how much you can pick up simply by doing your daily chores or glancing at those leaflets that come through the post. :)

I think I would never get the chance to observe that silent period here because my partner's parents speak no English. We're living with them at the moment so it's either sign language all the way and not speaking a word to them or shunning the silent period and simply getting on with it!

I suppose it's not that hard for someone living in Bangkok to miss that Thai input you mention. It seems to be a fairly international city with a big expat community so I wouldn't be surprised if those Thai classes were the only input some people get in their daily lives. Still, I'm sure many of them are still absorbing new words and phrases without even realising as it's hard not to. :)

Scott Imig said...

Wow! You're not only in a country where the language is spoken. You're also living with native speakers who don't speak your L1! For a motivated student, I'm pretty sure the advantages in that situation trump all other considerations. ;-)