Long Silent Period

Has anyone learned to comprehend a language well without spending time speaking or writing? I’ve heard over and over again that speaking/writing helps accelerate the overall learning process, but I’m curious if its possible to learn to comprehend very well without it.

I did speaking with Pimsleur, in my high school Spanish class, and sometimes I read out loud, but that’s about it, and I’m wondering how far I can go without it.

You learn mostly by listening and reading.

You don’t learn much, if anything, by speaking and writing.

cue trolls to come in here on this point.

You can learn from feedback on your speaking and writing (and through elaboration and reflection in speaking and writing) - but, again, that feedback is just called listening and reading.

No one does it differently than the above. Although many claim they do.


Thank you for your perspective. I’ve been fairly successful so far learning to comprehend with mostly reading and increasing amounts of listening. I’ve been enjoying that approach but I’ve been a bit worried that my progress might get limited at some point without speaking/writing which I’m not very motivated to do right now. I’ll try not to worry about it as much :slight_smile:

@iaing - cue trolls to come in here on this point
Nicely done. The old “anybody who disagrees with me is a troll” defense. I’m very interested in your own special definition of learning then, since it seems to downplay modifying or reinforcing existing knowledge. Let’s see how Wikipedia defines learning:

“Learning is the act of acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing, existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information.”

Hmm, maybe that was written by a troll though. Regardless of one’s definition of learning, I think very few will dispute that fact that not only are speaking and writing beneficial to all other skills, they are actually necessary for some (speaking and writing for example).

In my own experience, and what I’ve observed from students of L-R, ALG, etc, having a long silent period in the beginning is not nearly as effective as having a balanced learning plan. So my advice would be, unless you have a very good reason for it (time constraints, etc) avoid this method.

1 Like

I like to do activities that are meaningful. If I live in the country where the language is spoken, speaking at an early stage in my learning is meaningful. However, when I learn languages away from the country where the language is spoken, I prefer to focus on getting used to the language through lots of listening and reading. This way when I start speaking I can have meaningful conversations. I am better able to understand what people are saying, and better able to express myself. I feel no great urge to speak when I have a limited vocabulary and limited ability to understand. Eventually, however, in order to speak well we need to speak a lot. I think the most important consideration is what each individual learner wants to do as well as his or her particular circumstance.

1 Like

@Wulfgar. Thanks for sharing your experience. I understand what you mean. Sometimes when I’m learning a mathematical concept working through an example can greatly expand my understanding. I’m not sure how much learning math compares with language learning, but I’m sure there is at least some overlap.

1 Like

I like to read and listen to audiobooks in general, but it feels more exciting and meaningful when I’m doing it in a foreign language. It gives me a feeling that I’m doing something productive and opening myself up to a new world. I’d like to be able to communicate eventually but I get more motivated by comprehension. I enjoyed your video on this subject by the way but this is the first time I’ve learned a second language and was curious if other people have been taking the same path. Thank you for sharing your experience.

Of course speaking/writing helps accelerate the overall learning process but does it really help improve comprehension? I don’t think so.

I remember my studying English - I actually could only use some video tapes and audio material. For the first two years I didn’t even exchange a single word in English with anybody because I just didn’t have this possibility. I just listened to the available material and read a lot.

And I think it worked.

1 Like

As a novice language learner I’ve avoided ANYTHING that will discourage me. I found out pretty early that I quit if I indulge in anything that isn’t enjoyable. For me, producing the language is the most difficult thing and therefore it’s not enjoyable for me at this stage (around 18 months of learning inconsistently).

I’ve already quit spending time with Spanish a few times for long periods, the first time was because I booked a Skype lesson and failed spectacularly in trying to produce anything, I wasn’t expecting much, but it was way worse than I thought it was going to be. The other times have been when I’ve attempted to listen to something that is massively above my level and couldn’t pick out anything, it’s very demoralising.

I feel like I now know what to avoid at this stage in order to remain on task, and trying to produce the language is one of those things at the moment. I know I’ll have/want to at some point, but until I have enough to defend myself with, I don’t think it’s the way forward for me just yet. You can talk about balance etc but if it’s so unenjoyable that it makes you want to quit I don’t think it’s something I personally should be doing, even after x number of months. If it means I’ll spend 3 years on my comprehension without attempting to speak then so be it, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

It’s not like I’m not improving, the more I understand, the more I feel like I will be able to produce eventually. I do wonder how to say things every now and then, I might say a sentence in my head and check if it’s right, I’ve also started to unconsciously think of the alternative in Spanish for small phrases as I’m talking or thinking in English. I see this as my brain learning to accept the new language as something it’s going to need.

I’ve listened to Steve talk about how if he goes to a country after a long period of extensive input it won’t take him long to develop his speaking, and I feel like that might be true, even if you’ve barely spoken. I know I’m in a better place now than I was when I attempted to speak, perhaps I could muster a few sentences now and be happy about that, but to be honest I won’t be happy until I feel that I won’t be a massive burden on the person I’m attempting to speak with.

Again, I realise that no matter when I to attempt to speak, I won’t be good at it, but I want to at least be able to understand most of what the other person is saying, otherwise my attempts to speak will just be speaking “at” them rather than “with” them. This is my own personal preference, I’m sure there are plenty of learners who are quite happy to go at someone with a few phrases and little comprehension, but that’s not my personality, We’re all different, so being told when you should attempt to speak isn’t a one size fits all situation in my opinion, especially if it’s something that will discourage the learner at that stage in their learning.

It might be that I learn a second language to a good level, then attempt to learn a third language and I think that speaking early is the best thing to do, thing is, I don’t have the experience of successfully completing the task of learning another language yet. Someone can tell me what the best thing to do is, but I have the feeling that it’s something you’ll figure out for yourself through personal experience. Obviously it’s beneficial to take advice on board, but maybe it’s up to the learner themselves to figure out what advice to adopt at that particular stage in their learning, and I’m sure their methods will evolve and change with time.


Thanks for sharing your experience. I have had a very similar experience as you. When I worry too much about efficiency or what I should be doing it stops being fun and I move on to doing other things. I suppose at the end of the day doing something sub-optimally is more efficient than doing nothing. If there comes a point when I enjoy trying to speak, then I’ll do it, but that will likely be when I understand better.

I know what I’m doing is working so far. My internet stopped working properly last night and I read a chapter of my book without Lingq and understood it very well except for a handful of words and my listening is slowly getting better as well. I’m wondering though how far people have taken this approach. I’m wondering if there are people who have had very high levels of understanding without practicing speaking. Thank you for sharing.

This is one of the areas where I actually agree with Benny - start conversing early on. That being said, although I start speaking on the first day (repeating native words and sentences), I don’t start conversing until I have a few hundred words and some basic grammar under my belt. I typically start conversing 2-3 months in. That’s where I differ from Benny.

I’ve noticed that people who delay are much less likely to ever do what it takes to converse in the language. For example, I’ve met and read about many ALG students in Thailand who wait a long time to begin speaking. When they start to speak, they have just as much trouble as students in other programs who start conversing in the beginning months. Most ALG students quit well before the program ends, because they realize what a terrible method it is.

It’s the same case for people who lock themselves up in their rooms and only read & listen. After meeting people that do this personally, and reading about many of them online, my conclusion is they are much less likely to reach a decent level of production in a language. There are some exceptions, but the vast majority of them seem to be pretty happy in their closets. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but the long silent period doesn’t seem like a good strategy for those who want to get good at conversation.

I agree with you to the point where IF I had a family member or close friend who was a Spanish speaker then I would love to converse with them and would probably benefit from that enormously. This is a reason I’m interested in learning Tagalog because I have some family members who speak it. I have had real conversations (if you can call it that :wink: with native Spanish speakers, but those opportunities are very limited in my day to day life.

As to whether it is a generally a good strategy I’ll leave that up to other people (not really the question in this thread), but for me it has been a FANTASTIC strategy. I never would have met any of my goals otherwise. I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish but hadn’t had any success until I started reading and listening to Spanish content. If I had decided for some reason that in order to avoid a silent period, that I could not continue reading and listening unless I started practicing speaking, then I would have just stopped and made no progress.

As to this point about people “locking themselves in a room”. I could characterize people who depend on language exchanges as people who have too much free time to spend on “fake” interactions. I have an exciting and demanding career, a family, a social life, so how could I have time to schedule a meeting with some dork on Skype (being facetious here)? The free times I have to spend learning language are not times that I could spend on a Skype conversation (i.e. on the train or on a walk). My point is that you come off as unimaginative when you make narrow assumptions about other people’s lifestyles.

People are going to have different opportunities/constraints and different motivations that will lead them down different paths. It’s more important to work within that framework to find something that personally works than to follow some general guidelines.