There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.
John Cage, Silence
I’ve been in Malaysia for ten weeks and I’ve probably uttered about one word of Malay for each of them. Not the most concerted effort, then, to assimilate into the local culture, but in my defence I’ve been busy unpacking my socks, sitting in traffic jams and getting lost in IKEA. My real alibi, though, the real reason I’m not fluent yet, is the silent period.
As the name very helpfully suggests, the silent period is the time during which beginning language learners remain silent, and it’s easily observed in babies, who tend not to say very much for a year or so. ‘Silent’ is perhaps a misnomer, however, because while babies are presumably spending their first twelve months listening attentively to the language around them along with learning other useful life skills, they’re also making plenty of noise, as I discovered over 14 gruelling hours on the plane over here.
It’s not the teacher-directed noise we find in language classrooms, though, where A1 students are cajoled into saying something, anything, as soon as possible after entering the lesson. Glance at the first lesson in the Beginner or Starter level of any coursebook series, and you’ll see novice students being asked to utter nonsense like “how do you do”, “charmed, I’m sure”, and “thrilled to make your acquaintance”, or at least words to that effect. Precisely why we’re so keen to get students talking immediately seems to have been taken for granted (but see Susan Cain’s book Quiet for some fascinating ideas).
For a time in the late 70s and 80s a number of studies (Asher, Kusudo & De La Torre, 1974; Gary, 1975; Postovsky, 1974) seemed to confirm the benefits of allowing students time to simply comprehend the language, and methodologies like TPR, the Silent Way, and the Natural Approach incorporated it as a fundamental tenet. Students were more confident, learnt faster, and demonstrated less L1 transfer. But perhaps because of the fiddliness of Cuisenaire rods, or James Asher’s dodgy toupée, these more eccentric excuses for teaching have largely fallen by the wayside, and so has the notion of a silent period for low-level students.
That’s a shame, because while I haven’t said a great deal in Malay since stepping off the plane, I’ve certainly still been able to absorb some of the language. Isolated words can easily be picked up from signs, I can spot written and spoken borrowings from English just about everywhere, watching people around town gives clues as to pragmatics, and even the voices on the radio in my taxi home provide valuable pointers on prosody and pronunciation. Most of what I’ve picked up is also far more useful than the niceties students normally start with.
Hence, as William Littlewood notes, “the crucial factor becomes not so much whether a learner is actually speaking, but whether he is participating in a deeper sense: paying attention to the interaction and processing mentally the language to which he is exposed” (1984, p. 93). And indeed, more recently, María de Guerrero (2004) has shown that that is precisely what happens when adult learners are given the chance to be silent: students will inwardly repeat what they hear and quietly vocalise, deliberately or spontaneously, what others say, tacitly coming to grips with their new language. Children have always engaged in such ‘private speech’, as Piaget (1926) recognised.
All of which suggests that allowing beginners the space to remain silent as they initially meet the language might lead to more positive outcomes, for all concerned, when they finally do begin to speak. Teachers might wish to consider:
- doing more receptive work, particularly listening, and focusing on comprehensible input 
- using authentic materials for the prosodic and pragmatic features they can illustrate
- allowing responses in students’ L1
- allowing written, rather than spoken, responses
- allowing students to respond non-verbally, through movement or gesture
- casting an eye over some Silent Way or TPR techniques (but please, not the Cuisenaire rods)
Teachers might also do well to fall silent themselves once in a while. Kenneth Tobin (1987) found that giving students longer to respond before speaking – more ‘wait time’ – led to more comprehensive answers and better learning outcomes, which sounds good enough to me.
Of course, there comes a time, hopefully not too long after starting, when students need to take the plunge and say something. And I have every intention of opening my mouth in Malay soon. But for the time being, silence really is golden.
Asher, J. J., Kusudo, J. A., & De La Torre, R. (1974). Learning a second language through commands: the second field test. Modern Language Journal, 58(1-2), 24-32.
De Guerrero, M. C. M. (2004). Early stages of L2 inner speech development: what verbal reports suggest. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 14(1), 90-112.
Gary, J. O. (1975). Delayed oral practice in initial stages of second language learning. In M. Burt & H. Dulay (Eds.), New Directions in Second Language Learning, Teaching and Bilingual Education (pp. 89-95). Washington D.C.: TESOL.
Littlewood, W. (1984). Foreign and Second Language Learning. Cambridge: CUP.
Piaget, J. (1926). The Language and Thought of the Child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Postovsky, V. A. (1974). Effects of delay in oral practice at the beginning of second language learning. Modern Language Journal, 58(5-6), 229-239.
Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57(1), 69-95.
 I’m not a Krashenist but this is just common sense.