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Silence and language learning

Updated: Feb 1

I don’t know why, but when I was deciding what my next newsletter would be, the word silence resonated very loudly in my mind (pun intended).

Silence to learn a new language

I think I need silence. I need my brain to just be quiet. I try to quiet it during my daily meditations, it doesn't always work. Sometimes it (my brain) listens to me sometimes it doesn’t. When I do my daily yoga, I focus on my breathing and for a few seconds, sometimes a few minutes, I stop thinking and relief washes over me.

I’ve also noticed that when I learn something new, a few minutes of silence after the "learning" sinks in, is really helpful. That silent pause gives my brain some space to assimilate it, to take it in.

We live in a society where we feel we have to fill every moment with some kind of noise. If we talk, we exist.

Did you know that when learning a new language, people (children and adults) go through a "silent period"?

"The silent period is a phase reported to have been observed in second-language acquisition where

the learner does not yet produce but is actively processing the second language." (Wikipedia)

Silence to embrace a new language idioma langue
embrace silence

Naming that period of time, knowing that it's been observed and studied and that it's normal, is wonderful news. It means that instead of being frustrated with ourselves when we're not yet able to speak, we can accept that silence knowing that our brain is actively working for us. We just don't realize it is.

I’ve had someone tell me once “but if I don’t talk during meetings, they’ll think I’m stupid because I have nothing to say’. That’s a loaded sentence. The type of sentence that I, as a coach, absolutely love.

Relaxing time in silence to let the brain work
silence flower

- We can choose to be silent during a meeting because we simply don't have enough vocabulary, not necessarily because we are embarrassed. The time will come.

- Of course silence can also be because we're embarrassed to talk in front of others (Feriel I can talk with you but not in a meeting)

- Silence can also be due to the fact that you're an introvert and you don't talk much in general

So, how can we break that silence when we have to speak? Certainly the "coaching" in language coaching can be very very useful.

But what if you don't want any coaching or training at the moment? Until you have enough language skills and/or confidence to speak up, use silence to your advantage:

1. Use your silent listening during meetings to really focus on the language instead of being frustrated with yourself. Make it an opportunity to learn. Take notes, pay attention to words, expressions.

Here's an example : when I travel to Greece for instance, I can't participate in any conversation. But when my friend Elli engages in a conversation with a waiter/waitress or a neighbor or her family, I listen actively, I'm super focused and try to catch words but also expressions, tone of voice, etc.

2. If you work on Teams or Zoom, ask the meeting organizer if they can record the meeting so you can listen to it afterwards.

Objectively, meetings are often a repeat. A lot of the vocabulary is the same from one meeting to the next. In weekly meeting for instance, people invited to the meetings are the same from one week to the next, you can listen to the different voices, accents, word repetition.

3. Ask a colleague that speaks more fluently if you can talk together.

I once met a French team leader who's English was really good. He decided to have all his one-on-one meetings in English to help his team members practice their English. It worked wonders for their confidence (a couple of them worked with me, I saw the difference).

4. Prepare a few sentences ahead of time. There are a lot of articles and videos online where you can find sentences you can actually use to say you agree or disagree for example.

I worked with a person who focused on "how to disagree politely" . He wrote a list of possible expressions that he got from online articles and we went through all of them one by one. At the end he chose 2 sentences that he felt comfortable with and that sounded to him like the kind of thing he would say. He had them written down and easy to glance at during meetings.

5. Easier said than done : always remember that nobody worthwhile will ever think less of you because you don't speak a second language as well as they speak their first language. Noone worth your respect will think you are stupide because you can't speak a second language well.

6. Easy to do : Sit in silence for a few minutes before your meeting. Breathe calmly if you feel stress coming on. Breathing slowly will calm your heart rate, you'll feel it in seconds. Everything is going to be ok.

Author: Feriel Temmar

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