Today I would like to evaluate the idea of implementing a Silent Period, which has been suggested by several polyglot bloggers. I will cover various aspects of it, including the idea, effectiveness and comfort.
The Silent Period is defined as a period of several weeks up to a year during which language learners understand a lot passively but don't try to speak (much). The phenomenon was initially observed by Stephen Krashen and subsequently in various experiments. What is important though is that these experiments observed that language learners generally have this kind of period, NOT that it is good for them, i.e. there is no proof that learners who spend a longer period being silent at the beginning of their studies will later be more fluent speakers than learners who make an effort to speak earlier.
In my view, the existence of a Silent Period could very well be an artefact of the way languages are taught: when you're in a classroom with 17 other students for a 90 minute class, and this time is divided equally between all students, you will by necessity spend at least 85 minutes listening and at most 5 minutes speaking, probably much less or even not speaking at all, depending on how long the teacher speaks. Significant amounts of speaking can therefore only happen once you're advanced enough to venture outside the classroom. Similarly, if you're using a self-study method like Teach Yourself, Colloquial or Duolingo, speaking is one of the most neglected parts of your learning, because it is hard to simulate this without a teacher who talks with you. That is why my Roadmap to Quick & Dirty Conversational Ability includes a healthy dose of 1:1 speaking practice.
Of course it depends on your goals. If your goal is to e.g. be able to read books in your target language, then it may make sense to not pursue speaking ability at all in order to make faster progress on your reading comprehension. There are even self-study textbooks like Spanish for Reading which are dedicated to teaching you to read Spanish and which completely leave out any mention of how to ask someone their name, ask them how they are and so on. If it's a conscious choice to skip conversation and focus 100% on comprehension, if your primary motivation to learn the language is to be able to read books or understand TV series, then absolutely have a Silent Period for years and years if you want.
If however you are motivated by the idea of being able to talk with your family/neighbours/friends or people abroad in their native language, then you need to plan how you will build up your speaking ability. Speaking ability does not miraculously arise after X months of only reading. Compare this to someone who wants to learn how to swim and watches a ton of how-to-swim videos, swimming championships and so on. This person will not suddenly be able to swim one day. In fact, there are diminishing returns to time spent watching people swim without having the experience of swimming yourself:
1. You don't know what to watch out for.
2. You cannot judge how this technique would truly feel until you've tried it in the water yourself.
3. The videos could probably help you eliminate some mistakes you're making, but for that you first have to know which mistakes you're making, so that you can zoom in on how the professionals are doing it differently.
4. Even if you are gifted with incredible powers of observation of the smallest details, and incredible powers of imitation, you cannot hope to imitate the professionals until you've built up the muscles and internalised the motion sequences.
All of this also applies to language-learning. Yes, even the part about building up muscles, because your mouth and tongue need to practice producing the foreign sounds and practice transitions between sounds that are not normally combined in your native language (e.g. Greek F-TH) before they can produce the foreign language in a somewhat fluid fashion. Some language learners report actual fatigue or soreness in the mouth after speaking for a while.
The same applies to the brain: your brain likes to work in chunks. It would be way too much effort to cook each sentence from scratch (from words and grammar), instead your brain just heats up pre-cooked bits and maybe adds one or two extra ingredients. In order for that to happen, it has to have a lot of pre-cooked bits lying around. And these bits are cooked while having a ton of awkward and then less-awkward conversations. You cannot avoid having awkward and slow conversations, you can just delay them. But if you delay them, you also delay the time when you'll stop sounding awkward. That only makes sense if your goal is not "having conversations ASAP" but something else.
Does it make any sense then to have a Silent Period?
Well, I rarely "speak from day 1", as Benny Lewis would advocate. I don't enjoy using Google Translate to translate their question and then use it again to translate what I want to reply and so on. I generally study
b) how are you and
c) introducing myself
before I have a first session with a tutor, so that there is something I can practice.
This also means that in the case of languages that express things very differently from English (e.g. Japanese), I spend slightly more time in this "Silent Period" because I need more time to understand the sentence patterns I see in my textbook. Meanwhile in languages like Spanish, French, Swedish and so on, I take one glance at a sentence and note X=A, Y=B, Z=C, alright, got it, can do.
I don't have unlimited money, so I don't want to use precious tutor time on having them teach me something that I could have learned perfectly well by myself. Rather, for me all tutoring time should be used practicing conversation, practicing what I've tried to teach myself and, if necessary, correcting anything I misunderstood. On average I spend about a week using self-study materials before I'm ready to start practicing conversations with a tutor, sometimes two weeks if I'm slow. Definitely not more than that, because I know that "no plan survives contact with the enemy" and I need this contact in order to orient myself, to know what to focus on and to get more out of the self-study materials I'm using (just like the person learning to swim who needs to actually try it in order to get more out of observing others).
Of course first contact always feels daunting. I just remind myself that it's supposed to be that way and that it's a necessary first step if I want to eventually have those fascinating, fun, natural conversations with native speakers.
To make conversations a bit less daunting, you could try self-talk at first: act out the dialogues from your textbook and then start improvising your own dialogues. When you cannot get yourself to book a 45min 1:1 class with a tutor, set a timer and spend those 45 minutes having a target-language conversation (out loud and without writing out sentences!) with yourself, introducing yourself, asking how you are, talking about the weather, about hobbies and so on. This will get boring fast, so then book a class with a tutor - we humans are wired to like getting to know other people and learning things we didn't know from them, so even if you don't know any more words than you did in your self-talk, the conversation with a tutor will feel more interesting. Also, tutors can correct you and help you express more and more, while on your own you're likely to fossilise mistakes. Don't feel bad if you cannot speak very well during this class - if you could, you wouldn't have booked a class, and the tutor would be out of a job. That's the whole point of booking classes rather than talking with friends and random native speakers in your life.
Once you've had a few conversations yourself, the way that you observe other people's conversations will probably be quite different.
In my experience, there are (at least) three modes of observing conversations in a foreign language:
1. "How pretty!", i.e. not even focusing on the content but just noticing how beautiful it sounds and maybe imitating a few syllables.
2. "Yep, got it", i.e. focusing on understanding what is being said and placing a mental checkmark on each chunk that you understood.
3. "How useful!", i.e. focusing on gleaning expressions that you could use in your next conversation, noting the way someone asked a question or changed the topic and imagining your own answer.
This third mode is the most important when it comes to developing your speaking ability, and it develops only once you start having conversations yourself. From now on, make an active effort to use this mode when listening.
The Silent Period is a fact of life: both the way language teaching is set up and our own comfort pushes us to stay silent at the beginning of our studies - and possibly for a long time if there is no outside pressure to start speaking.
This does not mean that the Silent Period is something we should actively pursue. In my view, 1-2 weeks of silence is probably not a bad thing while you learn the very basics, but as soon as you have studied some dialogues you should try to have some conversation yourself, in order to activate a mode of learning that constantly evaluates your way of using the language vs. native speakers' way of using the language. If you never try using the language yourself, you risk getting stuck in an observational mode where the target language is a pretty object but not something relevant to your self-expression.
Happy language learning!