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Nowadays, people usually learn languages in one of two ways: silent learning or speaking the new language from day one. They have their pros and cons but differ from each other greatly.

A silent period is when students don't speak much of the language when they start and the second option is the complete opposite, trying to speak the new language as soon they start. My question is: Which option is more effective?

I am not asking for opinions here but more for studies that prove your point, with some personal experience if needed in your answer.

  • During the silent period, do people read and/or write? – Andrew Grimm Apr 8 '16 at 11:05
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    The question assumes that there are only two options that are complete opposites. Is this an example of a false dichotomy? – Christophe Strobbe Aug 10 '16 at 16:05
  • @ChristopheStrobbe If it is, what is the other option? This is more of something like what is better a or b where a is the opposite of b. I chose those two on purpose, not the false fact that only they exist. – Anthony Pham Aug 10 '16 at 16:09
  • What I see is a scala or range, with speaking from day one at one end, and speaking "later" at the other end, which is open. Speaking from day one is not very different from speaking from day two, but are they opposites? Speaking from day two is not very different from speaking from day three, but they aren't opposites. And so on. So how long is a silent period before it counts as a "silent period"? You get into the Sorites paradox. – Christophe Strobbe Aug 10 '16 at 16:19
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    @ChristopheStrobbe You are taking this a little far. The question starts with a point that which method is better when you start learning the language not after you start. Anyways, the question indirectly assumes you stay with a method and don't change. You don't start a language past day one; you start something on day one. If you want to know how long a silent period is, Google it. If you want to continue this conversation, please do so in chat and ping me. This conversation seems to be getting a little long here – Anthony Pham Aug 10 '16 at 16:45
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"The Five Principles of Effective Second Language Acquisition" by Transparent Language states that students who have a silent period in which they absorb vocabulary and observe the language are much more effective when speaking and writing.

Forcing language learners to rush into sentence formation can interfere with vocabulary learning during the beginning stages of acquiring a new language. Instead, learners should be given time to absorb the meanings of individual words at their own pace before being required to use them in a larger context. Language learners who take that time are far more likely to use the words correctly when they do choose to form sentences.

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    Indeed, little children first learning a language observe quite a bit before they form sentences on par with adults. – intcreator Apr 6 '16 at 8:28
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    I've never thought about that before @brandaemon. I wonder if that has anything to do with your first language being "easier" to pick up than subsequent languages... – James Monger Apr 6 '16 at 11:05
  • I think there's a lot we can learn about learning second languages by considering how almost everyone learns their first language. – intcreator Apr 6 '16 at 16:03
  • See also Stephen Krashen's theory of comprehensible input and (or versus) Merrill Swain's (much less influential) comprehensible output. – Christophe Strobbe Aug 10 '16 at 16:09
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The Canadian linguist Patsy Lightbown published several articles about the following type of experiment:

  • One group of English language learners in the French-speaking part of Canada started learning English at the age of 8 (grade 3) with a method based exclusively on listening and reading. They received native-speaker input by reading texts and listening to tape recordings. This is known as a comprehension-based approach, but since there is not or practice or interaction, it also is an example of a (prolonged) silent period. (In research terms, this was the "experimental group".)
  • Another group of learners of the same age and with the same background started learning English using a regular, aural-oral approach. (In research terms, this was the "comparison group".)

Two years later, in grade 5, both groups were tested. The tests revealed that the learners in the comprehension-based program had learned English as well as learners in the traditional group; in some cases they even performed better. This was not only the case for comprehension-based skills (reading, listening) but also for their speaking skills, even though they had never practiced speaking in class!

However, when both groups were tested again in grade 8, the learners using the comprehension-based approach performed less well than the regular group. So, apparently, a silent period can be effective in the beginning but not in the long run.

See:

  • Lightbown, Patsy; Spada, Nina: How Languages Are Learned. 2nd edition. Oxford University Press, 1999: page 128-129.
  • Lightbown, Patsy; Halter, Randall; White, Joanna; Horst, Marlise: "Comprehension-Based Learning: The Limits of ‘Do It Yourself’", Canadian Modern Language Review 58 (2002): 427-64. (See the abstract.)
  • The above description doesn't make it clear whether the listening-only continued. When you get to the point of being able to use the language some, you need to begin doing so. Comprehensible input is more effective when it is also comprehensible output. – WGroleau Jan 12 '17 at 15:52
  • @WGroleau The listening-only continued until (at least) grade 8, as explained in the last paragraph above the references. – Christophe Strobbe Jan 12 '17 at 16:16
  • It said they were tested again in grade eight but wasn't clear that the listening only continued after the grade five test. So the study reinforces my opinion based on observation of other approaches. Charles Curran claimed that with Community Language Learning, students were conversing in more than one language in less than a year, with a method that allows them to speak whenever they feel like it. Some TPRS teachers claim conversational ability is achieved in a year, even for English speakers learning Chinese. – WGroleau Jan 12 '17 at 17:16
  • @WGroleau That's all very nice, but nothing in my answer says that CLL and TPRS don't work. – Christophe Strobbe Jan 12 '17 at 17:30
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I would say it somehow depends on the correlation between L1 (native language) and L2 (second language). The further the L2 is from the L1, the more difficult it will be for the learner to speak it properly. Correct pronunciation must be put into place with a teacher correcting and advising. The more we wait the more difficult it is to get rid of mispronunciations. The primary use of a language is (should be) to communicate with other people, communication is a two way process ; even if we stumble for words at the beginning and have to use as much corporal language as we use words, it is a real pleasure for the budding speaker to see they have made themselves understood.

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Your goal, which you didn’t state, has some bearing on what is the more effective way to reach that goal.  I’m partial to listening for a while, but eventually one has to start using the language.

But there’s the Benny Lewis “speak from day one” approach, which I would think gets one communicating sooner, but not necessarily with good grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation.  (And if you read much of Lewis, it becomes apparent that “day one” isn’t really day one—he learns some in advance from phrase books.

Another interesting thing about methods is expressed in one of my favorite quotes:

“In the field of language teaching, Method A is the logical
contradiction of Method B: if the assumptions from which A claims to be derived are correct, then B cannot work, and vice versa.  Yet one colleague is getting excellent results with A and another is getting comparable results with B.  How is this possible?” — Earl W. Stevick

I can’t easily cite the studies I’ve read, but things I’ve heard or witnessed are in one of my comments on another answer. I think one answer to Stevick’s rhetorical question is that people are different.  One method might do wonders for a third of the people; another do wonders for another third.  And the salesmen/evangelists tell you all about their model third, not mentioning the ones that are disappointed.

In my own experience, after years of getting top grades in Spanish, I went to Guadalajara and found that I could not communicate.  Some will gloat that this proves only comprehensible input works.  But I think that all that grammar and vocabulary made all the input comprehensible, allowing me to speak well within two weeks.

  • Thanks for the answer. Note, however, that the question asks primarily for studies on the effectiveness of these methods. – Christophe Strobbe Jan 12 '17 at 17:07
  • Studies and experience. Edited for the latter. – WGroleau Jan 12 '17 at 17:26

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