If your end-goal is to speak then having a silent period to prepare (while you study, listen, or brace yourself for the glorious coming of your ready day foretold by language learning prophets) is nothing more than a comfortable way to waste time.
It’s amazing how much this is promoted by various methods I see floating around. The silent period is a perfectionists wet-dream – you can’t possibly make any mistakes!
Because “everyone knows” that if you make a single mistake in front of another human being, the whole world will point their fingers at you and guffaw in unison for weeks straight – your reputation will be ruined, and you’ll likely die of embarrassment. Yeah, right(!)
Deal with that bothersome speaking thing later
The silent-period is a shy person’s perfect solution to the embarrassment problem. Postpone the pain – you’ll be better equipped to deal with it later. I’ve got another thing I like to say to shy people.
I even see people online proudly promoting the exact amount of hours they have not spoken a language! I shit you not.
It’s like speaking is this icky gooey cootie-filled gremlin that you must avoid at all costs until you are ready to face it. Um… isn’t speaking the reason you are learning the language in the first place?? If it isn’t then that’s fine, just be honest about it.
I say this not because I learned my mistake many years ago, but because I keep making this mistake and it keeps on costing me. It’s human nature to want to feel ready before getting started on a potentially embarrassing task of speaking a language when you aren’t prepared, but you’ve got to say something or you can’t make progress.
Until you get into the flow, silent periods are just delaying the inevitable hardest first steps. And yes, I won’t lie to you – it does suck and feel frustrating the first few times, but then you get used to it quickly and start to make dramatic progress.
There’s no magic at play here, it’s pure necessity that changes how you focus your efforts.
You must make those first steps; studying, in whatever way or using whatever technology, is avoiding the first steps – not finding better ways to get to the end-goal.
My recent silent period mistakes
Despite how much I talk about this, I still have to apply it properly myself every time I start with a new language. I’m human and prone to making bad judgement calls even when I know from lots of experience it isn’t going to help me.
I’ve had a slow start to speaking Tagalog because (apart from other lazy excuses) I wanted to cover “just enough” material until I was ready, but all that grammar and vocabulary that I’ve been learning hasn’t helped me at all when people enthusiastically start speaking to me in the language.
I can impress locals with pronoun lists and random (irrelevant) words (actually, rest assured, they weren’t that impressed), but I have only started finally conversing this week, and the only thing that made a difference was the fact that I tried. All that grammar and vocab isn’t actually making me speak better, it’s just the fact that I’ve got momentum now that I’ve started!
I realized that I’ve been wasting my time and I’ve got a deadline I’m aiming for, so all this taking-it-easy was getting me nowhere.
I’m still confident I can reach my goal of conversational in time, but wasting several weeks will cost me and mean I’ll have to work extra hard in the remaining month.
When I took on Hungarian, I intentionally decided to “ease myself in” with a few weeks of study preparation. Result? I could argue with people at depth about Hungarian grammar not being that bad, but I couldn’t actually say anything in the language! It was silly – but all that knowledge had backfired and just made me hungry to want to know more before I really got started.
The more you study the more you feel you need to study. You see all that awaits you and it gets intimidating – it’s a vicious circle.
Get out of the vicious circle and take a plunge
The best way out of the circle is to stop thinking so much and to just get into real conversations. Now! Then you have completely different things to think about and you will work in a different way that vastly improves how you speak. Yes, you’ll study too – but your studying will be different this time and have real purpose and immediate application.
Yeah, I know you’re “not ready yet”, and please don’t make me tell you again how many ways you can find natives to speak with in person even if you can’t travel. Not being ready is a state of mind when it comes to speaking a language, it is not an evaluation of your actual abilities to communicate. Someone imaginative can use 100 words to get their point across way more than someone unimaginative with 5,000 words and a sense of feeling unprepared ever could.
The best thing to do by far is to speak from day one and to get into this habit. It’s advice I talk about all the time because when I’ve applied this it has worked tremendously well. Various lazy excuses mean I don’t do this every time, and that genuinely slows me down and I hope I stop “easing myself in” during future language learning projects. It’s time wasted.
My success story of immediately speaking
In case you haven’t read it yet, I highly suggest you have a look at how my first week in Germany went. It was the most successful start I’ve ever had to a language mission, since I ignored all doubts about what I didn’t know and how I wasn’t ready yet, and just spoke the little I did know right away.
After just 3 months I was awarded an excellent mark for the oral part of my C2 exam. There’s no way this could have been possible by application of the silent period.
“Practice makes perfect”.
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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