Not so silent after all: Examination and analysis of the silent stage in childhood second language acquisition
Theresa A. Roberts
Department of Child Development, California State University
"A period of silence has been advanced as a characteristic feature of childhood second language acquisition. Evidence is presented to document that the presumption of silence as the second of four typical stages of second language acquisition has influenced policy and practice in preschool classrooms. A narrative review examines the extent and quality of the evidence for a silent stage in second language acquisition in young children. Twelve studies meeting inclusion criteria were reviewed and evaluated. Evidence of a silent, non-verbal, pre-production, or receptive language stage was limited. Significant conceptual and methodological limitations within the largely qualitative studies were found. Four major issues raised by the studies are elaborated upon: the theoretical clarity and operational definitions of silence and stage, phase, or period; the psychological meaning and consequences of silence; the cross-context consistency of individual patterns of silence; and how adult language elicitation and support techniques may modulate silence. Recommendations based on contemporary evidence of language acquisition processes are made for the future study of (1) second language acquisition in preschool children and (2) pedagogical practice within preschool settings to promote second language acquisition. Finally, historical, theoretical, empirical, and contextual influences likely to have given rise to the appeal and ready endorsement of silence as a consistent and typical characteristic of childhood second language acquisition are presented."
" The theoretical paradigm shift from behaviorism to cognitivism in full swing during the years when the silent stage was most vigorously studied (1970s–1980s) aligned with disciplinary developments
in linguistics, foreign language teaching, and second language acquisition; and with Piaget’s stage theory in developmental psychology to invigorate interest in and to shape the conceptual orientation of childhood second language acquisition toward a stage model. It was within this context that the idea of a silent stage in second language acquisition found fertile ground. The result of cross-disciplinary historical, theoretical, and empirical dynamics was a view of childhood second language acquisition that was philosophically appealing and ultimately very influential.
Theoretical over-generalization and simplification encouraged the view that silence was likely to be a discernible, typical, and consistent feature of second language development. Results of a limited number of studies on the silent stage indicate that these expectations are largely unsubstantiated based on widely held standards for what constitutes convincing research evidence. The findings are a reminder of the importance of seeking out and reviewing primary sources rather than relying on secondary sources that may not accurately portray the original results of investigations. This review draws attention to the vulnerability of scientific inquiry to theoretical difficulties and to methodologically weak investigation when research is framed by appealing metaphors standing on fragile conceptual and empirical structures..."
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