Re-assessing the place of the “silent period” in the development of English as an Additional Language among children in Early Years settings
This paper explores the acceptance of a “silent period” as a stage in second language development for children acquiring English as an Additional Language in Early Years settings. Current views suggest that it is normal for children to very quickly stop using their mother tongue and enter a period of silence. A positive perspective on this is that children may be using this time to observe and grow in understanding of the second language. However, there may also be negative effects, as children may become withdrawn and miss out on opportunities to develop relationships and language. It is the argument of this paper that if this silent period is normalised, there is potential for ambivalence around the well-being of the child which may run counter to best Early Years practice. This study consisted of a qualitative content analysis which drew on twenty case studies collected by Early Years Educators documenting children’s progress over the initial weeks and months in Early Years settings. The main findings were that some children did indeed enter a silent period and shyness was a risk factor for this being prolonged. Non-verbal communication was used positively by some children to develop relationships with other children, but negatively by others, in the form of aggression and frustration, until they developed enough language to communicate. The children who did best continued to use their home language and non-verbal communication which enabled them to form relationships. Over time this became a bridge into the second language. Strategies used by educators included supporting children in small groups and bringing the home language into the setting in keeping with recommendations of policy documents in Ireland. Ultimately, this paper argues that the normalisation of a silent period may infringe on children’s rights to be active participants in their own learning. Moreover, it may limit the extent to which they are meaningfully valued, respected, empowered, cared for and included in Early Years settings.
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