Saturday, March 27, 2010

On the silent period.

On the silent period

November 14, 2009 by Solnushka

You have a bit of a love/ hate relationship with a man named Stephen Krashen.

Not that he knows you exist, mind. He’s a luminary in the field of research into language acquisition*, although his entire body of work seems to consist of him stating the bleeding obvious and then giving it a seriously researched kind of name, preferably accompanied by a nice, completely unprovable, formula and being hailed as a visionary**.

To be fair, when he started out he was battling against the prevailing language teaching method called audiolingualism. Based on behaviorism, it was a pedagogical style a bit like training a dog not to shit on the carpet. A student makes a mistake with cohesive devices, has his nose thoroughly rubbed in it, listens to a lot of Beethoven, and eventually becomes too traumatised ever to use ‘however’ to join two ideas in one sentence ever again.

Krashen’s big revelation was to point out that, as we learn much better if we are feeling happy, motivated, confident and anxiety-free, some aspects of this approach might not be terribly efficient.

Of course, Krashen also called it ‘the affective filter hypothesis’. Much to your irritation, it’s a phrase that seems to have made its way straight to the hindbrain of the EFL profession and stuck there.

But just because you have a proper cynical bristle at any claims that being pleasant, especially pleasantness given a special name, is the key to saving the planet, doesn’t necessarily make the claims wrong. The reason why he irritates you so much is that you agree with him about almost everything, you just don’t like having to use the phrase ‘comprehensible input’ before anyone else will agree about the importance of grading your language when talking to students of a second language.

That said, you’ve always been suspicious of his ideas about the ’silent period’ (TM) in language acquisition***.

You once watched a very amusing video of him explaining this theory. The way he tells it, the entire idea came about as a result of him being unable to get his (Japanese?) neighbours’ kids to produce any words in English for months and months and months and months, despite being on the receiving end of his expertise as a non-teacher-of but thinker-in-depth-about language.

Yet finally they did speak! And it was as if a flood barrier had opened and lo, Stephen did behold that before we are ready to communicate we need to spend a certain amount of time listening to and understanding language first. He recommends that students are not pushed into using the target language in classrooms but that art should mirror real life and they should be allowed to acquire language naturally. Just like babies do in their first language.

Now normally you hesitate to use yourself as an example of how people learn languages because in fact you don’t. Learn languages that is. Or even acquire them. In fact, you especially don’t acquire them. You spent ten months listen to Russian the first time round and didn’t pick up a word. You sent seven more years there and still can’t hold your own in conversation. The times when your Russian made any ground was, in fact, the times when you were being forced to actually use the bloody language, which is why your domestic Russian is much better than anything else, including, occasionally, English, thanks to your non-English speaking MiL.

It’s also why children, any children, don’t learn to speak by watching TV. The input can be as comprehensible as you like, but there’s no interaction, no struggle for communication and ultimately, no acquisition. As the BabyEinsteiners found out to their cost. In your opinion, the reason why babies spend so long listening to the language before producing it has more to do with physical ability to produce, combined with a certain mental immaturity. Look at the success of baby signing, for example. Give him the tools to use language before his lips are able to co-ordinate with his tongue and he will take that opportunity. He’s not waiting around for any other reason.

Of course, this one of Krashen’s theories isn’t at all where your profession is now. Now you’re all about the task-based learning. Learning to communicate through having a go at it, being given feedback on a performance and then going again. Forcing the buggers to interact, in effect.

But you are up close and personal to a case of the silent period in action at the moment because the Star is being stubborn about producing his first word.

Or at least, a word that he uses more than once, in an appropriate context, without excessive prompting.

You aren’t too bothered. It’s clear he understands. He’ll point at things you ask him to. He’ll point at things Papa asks him to. He’ll bring you a book when you suggest it. He’ll even put them away when Babushka gives the command.

So you suspect he’s being excessively noncommittal because he is being brought up bilingually.

‘There’s a train!’ shouts Mummy, gleefully. ‘A train!’

‘Poezd,’ says Babushka, a few minutes later. ‘Smotri poezd!’

‘Duck!’ Mummy points out. ‘Ducky duck duck!’

‘Utka!’ Babushka exclaims. ‘Uty uty utka!’

‘Helicopter!’ yells Mummy, gesturing madly. ‘It’s a helicopter!’

‘Vertalot! challenges Babushka. ‘Eta vertalot!’

The Star therefore has wisely come to a compromise. He makes noises which both Mummy and Babushka agree on.

Anything on wheels is now greeted by ‘toot toot!’ Dogs are growled at, cows**** receive something approximating a moo, and he caws when he sees a crow. All things he has been taught, mainly by his Babushka, who is excellent at coming up with toddler friendly sounds.

Still, you will be relieved when you can get onto the next stage of his language development proper.

Teaching him the correct use of the word ‘however’. Naturally.

And now for something completely related:

Tom: The soup is cold, Mommy.
Mommy: Tom, you never spoke before!
Tom: The soup was never cold before.

*He’s also, you gather, a bit of an activist in the war zone of bilingual education.

**Of course, it’s easy to dis the inventor of sliced bread now.

***Sadly, ‘language acquisition’ is another phrase Krashen has patented.

****In pictures. This is central London.

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