A lot of people find themselves thrown into their expat life suddenly. A job offer or a transfer or a new military post comes out of the blue and BAM! Suddenly you and your family find yourselves packing up and moving to Germany. You’re wondering how you’ll ever manage to get the house packed up, let alone to learn the language. You’re overwhelmed (but excited) about the sudden change (and all the cheap and delicious beer and wine you’ve heard abounds in the land of the Autobahn).
When you arrive you sign up for intensive language courses hoping that you’ll be able to at least order a beer at the bar after the first few sessions. But though after a few weeks of classes you find yourself understand more and more, you still can’t fumble your way through the check out line at the grocery store and you can barely get out a sentence when trying to order dinner. Are you hopeless at learning languages? Is your teacher to blame? Are you just going through a shy period? Well, no. You’re going through what many language teachers call “the silent period,” and you’re going to be just fine.
According to esl.com, there are five stages in language learning:
“1) The Silent Period
2) The Early Production Period
3) The Speech Emergence Period
4) The Intermediate Production Period
5) The Advanced Production Period”
And what is “The Silent Period”? Well, it’s you when you understand how much money the cashier has asked you for, but unable to ask her if you can pay with a credit card. It’s you when you understand the specials the waiter has just read to you, but can’t ask him or her if the pasta dish can be made vegetarian. In short: It is any time at the beginning of tackling a foreign language when you find yourself beginning to understand what’s going on around you, but also find yourself constantly frustrated at the fact that you can produce very little speech yourself.
So, how long will this period last, frustrated language learners and newbie expats want to know? Well, esl.com says somewhere between two to six months, give or take depending on the intensity of your situation. If you’re attending two hour-long classes a week in a country where everyone speaks your native language, it could take a bit longer. But if you’re already living abroad among native speakers and taking an intensive course, that number could shrink.
Many language learners are frustrated by this period, the more so when they are unaware that it is a normal part of the language learning process. “For a long time they may be unable to utter a single word and that is perfectly fine and it is part and parcel of the language acquisition process,” explains one ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher here. “What is so peculiar about this period is that it has the special ability to make adult students anxious and drive teachers absolutely crazy! This is by far the most difficult period both for teachers and students alike.”
So when you find yourself in your own silent period, beginning to understand but unable to converse, take heart! You’ve taken your first step on your way to fluency!