Teachers: Here’s What You Should Know About Bilingual Students Who Fall Silent In The Classroom

Do you have a child in your classroom that is learning English as their second language? Has this child suddenly ceased most oral communication, relying only on gestures and short utterances to express their thoughts? If so, the child is experiencing one of two potential occurrences -- the silent period of language acquisition, which is perfectly normal and no cause for concern; or language loss, which can interfere with the child's cognitive ability and needs the immediate attention of a skilled speech pathologist. 

The Silent Phase Of Language Acquisition 

Many children who are learning English as a second language go through a period of time during which they focus solely on listening to the new language. During the silent phase, the child understands their first language and much of what they hear in their second language; however, their minds are so busy digesting all the new words and sounds they hear that actually speaking either language out loud takes backseat to just acquiring the language -- getting the language into their minds so that they can practice it at a later date.

This period of silence may last anywhere from a few days to six months. Don't attempt to try to make the child in the silent phase of language acquisition speak until they are ready to do so. They will begin using both their primary language and secondary language again on their own accord once they are comfortable that they have acquired enough of their new language to express it orally.

Language Loss

Language loss, or subtractive bilingualism, occurs when, in an effort to learn a new language, the child begins to forget or disregard their primary language. This condition often occurs in adopted children whose parents do not speak the child's primary language. Since these children are fully submersed in their new language both at home and in the classroom, their primary language is not maintained and begins to be forgotten.

With their primary language suffering, the child doesn't have a base on which to build a new language, and their understanding of their secondary language also starts to diminish. In a response to this loss of understanding, the child may stop communicating altogether.

So Which Is It? 

How do you know whether a child is losing their understanding of both their primary and secondary language or just going through the silent phase of acquiring a new language? You watch the child closely. Look for signs that they understand what you are saying to them. Ask the child questions that they can answer with yes and no responses. Watch for responses in their body language, such as smiles when something funny is said or frowns as an appropriate responses to upsetting news.

If you feel as though the child in your classroom has fallen silent yet still understands most of what is spoken to them, then the child is likely just in the silent phase of learning a new language. However, if the child remains silent for more than 6 months, or seems to understand less and less of what is spoken to them in either their primary language or secondary language, then it's time to talk to his or her parents about getting them to visit a speech pathologist.

For the issue of language loss, it's best to have a bilingual speech pathologist that speaks both the child's primary and secondary languages. If this isn't possible, however, then the parents may need to list the help of an interpreter to work together with the child and speech pathologist. Contact a professional speech pathologist, like those at Eastern Carolina Ear Nose & Throat-Head, and ask if they have any bilingual qualifications.

If you have a child in your classroom who is working on learning English but has quit speaking, it may or may not be a cause for concern. Monitor the child closely and be ready to get the parents and professional help involved if you think the child comprehension ability is beginning to diminish.