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A silent period in language learning

I regularly have Zoom calls with a friend of mine and an English teacher who is Hungarian. Sometimes she has to answer phone calls and then I have a chance to catch the sound of her native language. Now, I don’t understand a word in Hungarian, but only yesterday, after a minute of listening to her, I was able to pick up a word that could be “yes”, judging by how and when she used it. I checked with her – I was almost right, this word meant “right”. What am I leading to?

Well, I think it’s very important to give oneself time and permission to be with a language for a while and not use it at all, a silent period, if you like. And I think this is often overlooked, especially by beginners or those on the opposite side of the scale, the advanced learners.

If you take the case of babies, they are exposed to a language for at least two years before they make their attempts at it. And it’s not just some language around, it’s language directed at them and modified for them, involving them and connecting words and intonation with all sorts of real life phenomena, like objects, actions, feelings and qualities. (It’s called motherese, by the way.) What about adults? Do they ever have this luxury? Hardly. Worse, they are often expected or expect themselves to start using language almost immediately. But why? Where’s the logic in it? How natural is it?

I’ve watched comments of different polyglots on the net and some say they take up to three month (!) to get used to the language they’re learning and develop the basic comprehension of it. They would start by just listening to the language and paying attention to the pronunciation, intonation, and sounds, identifying cognates (=words with similar meanings to those they know in other languages) and trying to deduce some simple phrases, like “yes”, “no”, “thank you”, “hello”, etc and doing a lot of guessing in general.

Then they would start building their understanding of the language. To speed it up, subtitles in the known languages may be used or translation in general. I even read a comment that said the person preferred to take a textbook and just read it, without doing any exercises at all. And then read it again (or a similar one of the same level) and focus on the productive side and learning grammar and vocab. What’s more, this approach also gives time to get familiar with natives’ body language and the expression of emotions that may differ from culture to culture.

Once you’ve had this time with the language, it’s then much easier to start using it and learn particular grammatical structures or words because you’ve already had exposure to them. They don’t seem alien, or frightening, or weird. They look familiar and it’s a comforting feeling.

I’ve experienced this with French. I had two favourite video cassettes as a child, the Notre Dame de Paris musical and a film with Gerard Depardieu called Cyrano de Bergerac. And I watched them multiple times for many years. The film was actually dubbed, but the French speech could be heard in the background. So when I started studying French at university it was the matter of matching the sound of the language to the meaning or the written form, which happened quite quickly and mostly effortlessly. Interestingly, it was easy to remember noun genders – they just felt like it. Nothing looked or sounded “weird” to me, and it’s still the same – I don’t see new words as obstacles (like some of my students complained about English words as if they were enemies), but more like friends that were forgotten. So even though I had a very poor exposure to the language, it helped me enormously.

If you look closely at the Extra series, it becomes clear what kind of exposure may be beneficial for learners. More importantly, learning with such videos will help develop a certain attitude to language learning and the necessary skills of guessing and dealing with the unknown.

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s an educational set of videos made in English (30 episodes), French, Spanish and German (13 episodes) as an introduction to them. The plot: an American/ British guy (Hector in the English Series and Sam in the others) comes to stay with his pen pal (of many years ago). The pen pal, who’s renting a small apartment with her roommate, has almost forgotten about him and is taken by surprise by his arrival. Hector’s/Sam’s attempts at learning the featured language given his rudimentary grasp of it create lots of funny moments and the dynamic for the story as well as learning opportunities for the viewers. There’s also their neighbour who’s a weird guy obsessed with acting and motorbikes who eventually hosts Hector/ Sam and they become friends.

The sort of attitude the series instils:

  • Accepting the complexity and variety of language in general. Although the given language is generally graded down, it still presents a variety of structures and vocab from the very beginning. For example, one of the first phrases heard and seen (as if in an email) is in the past tense, which is obviously not given to beginners at the first lesson. But it’s part of the story and we soon guess what that meant.
  • It’s OK to guess and not know something exactly or in translation. The pace of speech in the series is also quite natural except when it’s clarified for Hector/ Sam. This means that there’s no opportunity to understand every word and the viewer has to shift their focus from individual words to the situation and deduce what’s going on and what the characters refer to. With this sort of focus many words may be guessed by the context and that develops the super important skill of guessing. Now, if you come to think of it, guessing is very different from translating or being given the definition of a word. Guessing involves a great deal of uncertainty, which is not always an easy state to be in.
  • It takes time and multiple exposure to learn a word/ phrase and it’s OK. If you have some patience to overcome the initial frustration of understanding little in the first episode or two, if you allow yourself to relax and just follow the plot, you’ll soon start noticing that some language repeats. It happens either between the two girls/ boys, presented as natural echo questions showing surprise/ other emotions, or when teaching Hector/ Sam something. Plus, all four characters exchange emails/ texts either with their friends or parents, so you’ll regularly see the summary of the plot written on the screen. So you’ll gradually get used to the new expressions, and if you repeat them with the characters, it won’t be too difficult to try using them by yourself, even not knowing the grammar behind.
  • Paying attention to pronunciation, intonation and articulation is paramount. Finally, although the speech sounds mostly natural, it is slightly slowed down and exaggerated in intonation and articulation (no fast connected speech there). That means that you’ll be constantly exposed to typical intonation patterns and standard pronunciation, some of which you’ll hopefully acquire naturally, and observing the characters’ faces may give you a pretty good idea of how to pronounce sounds.
  • You can always put in extra effort and clarify every unknown word after you’ve got the gist. For each episode it’s possible to find worksheets that check one’s understanding of it and focus on key vocabulary in exercises again. Transcripts are also available and you can use them to drive your understanding to 100%.

Now, if you think this set of skills is only for beginners, I will strongly disagree. Let’s take the case of those preparing for CPE. Judging by the number of followers of CPE dedicated groups, it’s an extremely popular topic.

The problem here is, I think, very low frequency vocabulary. When I joined a group to prepare for the exam, almost ten years ago, I was given a bunch of former papers to do and lots of Use of English exercises without the caveat that doing tests is the tip of the iceberg and it should be accompanied by extensive reading and listening. And I distinctly remember my horror and frustration at the number of unknown words with which I didn’t have any associations whatsoever. Nothing at all. All the texts looked extremely difficult and made me feel very insecure about my knowledge of English. I wasn’t alone, though, many other students complained at how difficult the lexis was, and still now I read comments on the same pain. But this is so much unnecessary stress. And it’s sad when instead of enjoying the language you feel frustrated, upset and in doubt. But let’s think about why it happens.

Now I occasionally open CPE texts or books, look at the tasks and I want to do more of them, not to look away! Now 90% of what I see there looks very familiar and I know enough to appreciate all those nuances in meanings, grammatical complexity and stylistic devices in texts to see the beauty of the language and its expressive powers. So of course I want to get my hands dirty and put it all to use.

What happened then? Well, over the years I’ve deepened my passive knowledge by extensive reading and listening to the point that now I am really ready to test it. And I regret that all those years ago I pushed myself to “achieve a higher level” and that I put myself under so much pressure that the mere idea of exams makes me feel bad now. Worse, my psyche “remembers” all that stress and goes hysterical at any attempts at formal certification (I suddenly get so anxious I can hardly do anything). These are defence mechanisms in action.

So, my point: with higher levels it’s even more important to give yourself time and just explore the language. Read books in the original, both fiction and non-fiction, watch documentaries, listen to long talks, lectures, interviews or educational podcasts. Identify interesting topics and follow them. Develop your curiosity and pursue topics unusual for yourself. Look up words that seem important or interesting, notice grammatical structures, but without the pressure to use them right away or remember them forever. Make it part of your life and not another “achievement”. Just give yourself time to naturally grow your knowledge and approach tests when you’re ready to hone your skills and not learn them in a short period of time.

Of course, you don’t have to be “silent” as you’re exploring the language, but discussing the topics you find interesting in the way that suits you with the people who you choose with the frequence that fits your everyday life is quite different from learning a language in a group and having to use new expressions all the time, no matter whether you need them right now or not.

And what do you think?

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