Silent Sign (where the teacher gestures without speaking and elicits utterances from learners) offers a quasi-production exercise where learners must take instant decisions about the output they produce and self-correct often at the moment immediately after output. I discussed this dynamic more fully at the section on fluency production. The linguistic areas learners are required to focus on during this dynamic are:
. lexis/structure recall,
. individual word meaning and holistic meaning of each sentence and the complete story.
This means that learners are not involved in seeking their own lexical choices that make up the story they produce. Similarly, they are not required to actively construct the syntactic elements of the sentences they utter. These latter two items probably make up the most complex choices a learner must make when producing output in fluency tasks. I would suggest that the absence of the need to choose and order lexis ("syntactic processing") unclutters the language muddle present at elementary levels allowing learners to focus on the specific tasks of lexis, pronunciation, morphology and meaning.
Silent Sign therefore, provides learners with this Partial Production Environment (PPE) assisting them in the task of acquisition of holistic language while removing the stumbling blocks of Complete Production (CP), which beginner learners may not be ready to deliver. Learners that spend time within the more controlled PPE may then venture onwards to CP when ready to do so.
The protection afforded by PPE allows students to bypass the silent period, a time when learners are still at an early interlanguage stage and may prefer not or not feel able to cope with Complete Production. Asher (1995, 2009) and Krashen (1982, 1995) proposed respecting the silent period by requiring learners to make as few utterances as possible, "we do not wish to force utterances in the target language until [the students] have had an opportunity for the acquisition process to begin" (Krashen 1995:75). The PPE and its protective cocoon setting means that learners can practise and develop oral language from the earliest stages of instruction yet avoid the complexities of syntax issues and word choice.
Admittedly, Krashen referred to an almost complete silence during the silent period. He claims that pronunciation of words in a foreign language can also offer difficulties for learners and perhaps lead to the raising of "affective filters" which can have a negative effect on acquisition and eventual attitude towards learning the new language. My own revamped definition of what a silent period indeed must be somewhat controversial because in the end it actually constitutes a very noisy silent period with all learners calling out their utterances in unison! However, as this is a group activity, there is also a certain protection learners can feel comforted by due to the interaction of their peers at the same time. The benefits of the group dynamic I discuss here...
Finally, I am drawing my conclusions regarding the aspects of a silent period definition that are a product of my own observations. These have always been limited to teaching Spanish children (in particular from Andalusia) who are, as a culture, very verbal and self-confident. In my experience, requiring these learners to engage in pronunciation tasks is something they enjoy and enthuse in. The metalinguistic tasks of handling morphology items during Silent Sign are reserved only for the older eight to eleven-year-olds and never for very young children. Furthermore, morphology handling is a very gradual process which is initially limited to the most simple tasks.
I distinctly remember from annotated class notes probably my youngest group who followed an English course with gestures as the driving force behind new language input and eliciting. They started at seven years old. As a group they were verbal and even sounded full of self-confidence and willing to produce aloud the new language elicited from them by gestures and enjoyed the stories we explored in class. At that time (early 2000s) I had not appreciated the importance of Krashen's silent period and frequently tried to encourage my learners into engaging in fluency production activities. My attempts failed miserably - I began to doubt any acquisition was taking place at all with this gesture approach. However, the following year, the same students suddenly began not only to show competence in production tasks but also offer to participate in them using the language they had been exposed to the year before. Confidence in the approach I was following suddenly became restored. This case-study remains with me as evidence of a true silent period, an observable latency period where language had to be absorbed before its production, yet interestingly, the Silent Sign eliciting phase (PPE) did not appear to conflict with silent period requirements.
Article based on findings from Phd thesis. (Bilbrough 2017)
Asher, J.J. (2009). The Total Physical Response. Learning Another Language Through Actions. Sky Oak Productions; 7th edition.
Krashen, S.D. and T. Terrell. (1995). The Natural Approach. Language acquisition in the classroom. Phoenix ELT. Prentice Hall International.
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