It has long been assumed both by teachers and students of English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign Language (EFL) that one can learn a second language (L2) effectively by using it productively as soon as possible. The more active the students are in oral practice, the faster, it is believed, they will learn L2. Consequently, an ESL/EFL teacher often demands that students talk right away and expends great effort to make them repeat after his model from the first day of the class.
A number of experiments were conducted to test a 'silent period' hypothesis and results reported seem to constitute arguments in favor of a 'silent period' in initial stages of L2 learning even in the formal environment. There are also several researchers who have developed teaching strategies based on a 'silent period' hypothesis. The purpose of this paper is to search through the literature concerning such experiments and researches and to consider the possibility of introducing such strategies in ESL/EFL classrooms.
Asher's experiments show that experimental subjects are superior to the control subjects not only in the listening skill but also in both pronunciation and control of grammar. Asher added (1972:138) "Perhaps even more striking than the high level of listening skill is the transfer-of-learning to reading...." According to his report, after 32 hours of training in German, the adults who ranged in age from 17 to 60 and met twice a week for two hours per evening outperformed the control subjects not only in listening skills but also reading. The control subjects were finishing their advanced college course in German which took more than 80 hours. The experiments also show that the experimental subject has attained a long-term retention of the learned items. One of the explanations Asher (1982) gives is that this procedure may help facilitate long-term recall for the same reason that the practice of any manual skill such as ice skating, bicycling or swimming produces long-term recall.
What do the results of all these experiments imply to ESL teachers? Can they introduce a delayed oral practice in their classroom? Yes; but as Gary (1975:95) mentioned, "this approach cannot be used haphazardly. It must be a carefully sequenced program requiring active listening, where the students are both required to demonstrate their comprehension and are given corrective feedback about their response." I would like to consider the characteristics of this approach along with some of the crucial conditions which make this approach effective and successful.
3.1 Comprehensible Input and Modes of Non-verbal Response
One of the important characteristics of these strategies is that students are exposed to ample comprehensible input during a 'silent period'. Terrell (1982) says acquisition does not take place by listening to speech that is not understood by the student. Krashen (1985) claims that the optimal level of the input should contain i+1, structures slightly beyond the acquirer's current state of competence. Krashen also introduces Cross's research (1977) and argues that not only the level of the input but also the amount of comprehensible input plays an important role in child language acquisition. According to Cross, children rapidly acquiring language abilities usually heard a great deal of comprehensible input.
Another characteristic of these strategies is that they are designed not only to avoid oral practice in initial phases but also to make students demonstrate their comprehension of materials in a variety of non-verbal ways. The difference between these strategies and those of the traditional audio-lingual or other attempts to teach listening and speaking of a foreign language almost simultaneously is additional non-verbal responses as well as 'lack' of oral practice. As we have already seen, in the case of Asher's technique, students respond physically. Postovsky makes use of writing as a non-verbal response. In the Comprehension Method, students choose correct answers by touching the panel of the machine, TAPAC. In the Natural Approach, students can respond physically or by uttering simple words such as peers' names or "Yes"/'No", or even in their first language. Swaffar and Woodruff, in their program, also use Asher's TPR for the first few weeks.
These two points above explain why the traditional way exposing students to authentic English does not work. It is often proposed by some ESL/EFL teachers that listening comprehension is so important that it is useful to let students watch TV programs produced in English speaking countries, or, if students are young, to let them listen to nursery rhymes recorded by a native speaker of English. Then, it is assumed, the more the students are exposed to this kind of authentic English, the more chance they have to master listening comprehension ability. These activities may be useful to motivate students in learning English, but are not enough by themselves. Firstly, if the input is far above the students' comprehension, it will be very painful, frustrating and of little use for the students to keep listening to it. Secondly, if the students are satisfied just with watching TV programs or listening to records, there is no active response on the part of the students. The language acquiring process is always an interaction of stimuli-responses on both sides. Children acquiring a language in natural settings are not passive at all. Even in a 'silent period', there is no such thing as one-way communication. Even a new-born baby can respond to its parents or caretakers by stopping crying or changing the tones of its cries. In addition to this, it is often reported that children who have been taken care of using TV programs show a delay in language acquisition. Though TV programs are made up of audio-visual stimuli, they do not demand viewers to respond to them. They just keep sending stimuli independently of the viewers.
In a natural setting, caretakers and teachers try to simplify their speech using many contexts and referents which make the verbal input comprehensible for children. In this kind of environment, children always respond to verbal stimuli in some way. Through such interactions children rapidly internalize a language. The most important point for ESL/EFL teachers seems to make the input comprehensible for their students and also to choose the optimum mode of non-verbal response according to the age and learning styles of students. It may vary widely depending on the class size, length of class time, students' interests and objectives, and so on. If teachers, after taking all these things into consideration, can develop suitable teaching methods and materials, delayed oral practice can be efficiently realized in the classroom situation.
Another characteristic of this approach is that allowing students to be silent in class serves to present a learning situation with less anxiety. To put it in another way, in a classroom with this kind of approach, the students receive comprehensible input in a low anxiety environment. Asher (1966:81) mentioned that to force speaking from the beginning of training may be somewhat analogous to electroshock experiments with rats. If students are compelled to utter alien sounds from the start of training, the forced noise-making may function as a stressful stimulus similar to electroshock for rats and it may tend to inhibit understanding. Terrell (1977:333) points out that the standard problem of embarrassment is reduced considerably by allowing the students to respond in their first language.
This may be especially true for the learners who are past puberty. Most of them are self-conscious and they are anxious and nervous about making errors in front of their peers and very sensitive to sounding strange. Therefore we can say students in an L2 classroom, especially at high school or adult levels, feel much more comfortable and acquire the target language more rapidly if they are not compelled to respond until they feel ready.
The next characteristic of this approach is that teachers can give students only an authentic model of the target language in class. ESL/EFL teachers always try hard to give their students an authentic model of English. When teachers are non-native speakers of English, they usually make use of tape-recorders. But ironically enough, the more active the oral activities become, the less the students are exposed to a target language. As Postovsky mentioned (1974:231), even if ESL teachers are native speakers of English and can present students with an authentic model, in the audio-lingual class where each student is vocally active, students hear themselves more than they hear the teacher. The auditory input which they are processing, then, is not the authentic language, but the classroom dialect rich with all the distortions. This is not the case in a delayed oral practice approach. Students only hear their teachers and/or taped voices.
The other characteristic of this approach is to encourage students to problem-solve and guess at the meaning of unfamiliar elements in foreign utterances on the basis of context and other cues in the given linguistic environment. Teachers should not present grammar as a set, but rather should help students construct their own grammar through problem-solving. Children acquiring a language in natural settings learn grammar in this way. Swaffar and Woodruff (1978:29) mentioned that in their training "preparations with the aid of a dictionary were actively discouraged, and students were not penalized for incorrect guesses."
Once the students are familiar with the way of problem-solving, then they will not have any trouble confronting unknown utterances. According to Asher's experiments (1972:138), the experimental students showed high competence with novel utterances, which they had never heard before.
The results of these several experiments fully support the 'silent period' hypothesis; i.e. at the initial phase of language acquisition, it is advisable to avoid oral practice and concentrate on comprehension. There is no evidence that the students who started their L2 learning in this strategy were outperformed by students in the traditional orally active classes. As Gary (1975:93) mentioned, "If it is true that students who weren't required to speak in initial stages would do at least as well as students who were required to speak, then teachers would no longer have to feel compelled to spend a lot of time on oral drill and have more flexibility for individualization of instruction." As already seen above, this approach is effective to lower anxiety and therefore enhance learning. A great deal of transfer-of-learning to other skills has been observed in the achievement of the experimental students. Gary (1975) found in her experiment that the experimental students' rate of learning appeared to be superior to that of the control students. Additionally, Postovsky (1982) mentions that this approach helps to prevent interference². Interference occurs when beginning students are tasked with the production of a foreign sentence, because in this case they are actually asked to retrieve something they have not yet stored in their memory. Therefore they will make an attempt to process the foreign sentence through the only channels available to them: those of their native language.
Then why not start speaking later? As we have already seen in the researches presented above, the students should be exposed to a great amount of input in the target language which is comprehensible and authentic. They should not be demanded to respond in the target language but should respond in an optimum mode of response until they are ready to speak. This will certainly enhance their acquisition and give good results after the transition to oral or written production.
If we assume some similarity between the language learning process in natural settings and that in formal settings and try to apply some knowledge of the former to the latter, we cannot chop out a certain phase in question alone from the natural environment and transfer it to formal settings. Even if a 'silent period' does exist in a language acquisition process in natural settings, it might be of little use to introduce a 'silent period' alone in our classroom. We have to transfer a lot of elements concomitant with natural settings. There are some more reservations to be considered.
(1) In natural settings children are exposed to a target language almost all day long. If a 'silent period' continues for three months in the case of a child who attends an English speaking school for eight hours a day, that period is equivalent to four years of learning in a formal class which meets only three hours a week. Can teachers wait such a long time for students to produce any sounds?
(2) Children acquiring language in natural settings seem to be strongly motivated. Children are interested in every interaction in the environment. According to the degree of their understanding, they may or may not eat something good, join in an interesting activity, miss their turn, etc. It can easily be imagined how difficult it is to always realize such an urgent need or desire in a classroom. If language teachers use only the target language in class, they can serve as a comprehensible model and give the students a chance to know that understanding a language is more than processing quizzes. But native-like proficiency in the target language is required on the part of the teachers. Not all of the teachers satisfy this requirement.
(3) The natural environment is rich in concrete referents which help children figure out the meaning of strange sounds in the target language. Children can grasp the meaning to some extent without knowing the meaning of all the words. It is almost impossible for teachers to bring all the referents into a classroom.
(4) In natural settings there are a lot of simple expressions which are used frequently and repeatedly, which students in a formal classroom rarely have a chance to use. Instead they are usually required to proceed step by step to more complicated expressions. So the program should include a great deal of repetitions without making students tired of them.
If we, as ESL/EFL teachers, pay full attention to these concomitant factors and succeed in realizing a true language environment in the classroom, our 'silent period' hypothesis will give us fruitful results.