Understanding Silence and Reticence: Ways of Participating in Second Language Acquisition

Kate Maher, Kyoto, University of Foreign Studies

[Dat Bao. London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2014. pp. vi + 229. ¥3,978. ISBN: 978-1-4742-5306-2.]

Many language teachers try to reduce student silence, and they believe talk time is more valuable for improving language skills. Although a lot of students may realise this, what about their perspective on being silent in class? Is it a lost opportunity for practicing their language skills, or do they see it as a valuable moment for language acquisition? Understanding Silence and Reticence presents students’ perspectives on silence from six language learning contexts. From an anti-essentialist view of silence (Jaworski, 1993), Bao urges readers to reconsider silence not just as an empty moment, arguing that there is “a justifiable place for productive silence in pedagogy” (p. 3).

Bao begins by establishing his justification for silent pedagogy in SLA, demonstrating how it has often been dismissed as ineffective for learning. He includes an outline of past theoretical research to illustrate the spectrum of meanings and functions of silent behaviour throughout all the stages of SLA, which go beyond the silent period. The following chapters present studies from six different countries: Australia, China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Each study uses qualitative methodology to collect and analyse perspectives of students in each context. The complexity of silence in SLA is apparent in the differences highlighted by each study. However, shared views also exist amongst narratives and views expressed by students. Consciously or not, Bao shows that students use silence in multiple ways for language learning; reflection, cognitive processing, rehearsal, and dealing with anxiety. The experiences of students in the studies also indicate there are multiple influences, sometimes simultaneously, on a student’s silent display. These are often related to socio-cultural values, psychological aspects, educational expectations, and individual differences.

In the final chapter, Bao draws on their shared perspectives to demonstrate the positive roles silence can play in SLA, and introduces silent engagement pedagogy (SEP) with a proposed learning model. Here he distinguishes between high and low-quality talk and silence, and gives a series of points to consider when planning a class activity to effectively use high-quality talk and silence to facilitate language acquisition. His concluding message calls for respect of student silence, providing learning space through moments of silence, and using silence as a chance for building learner autonomy. At the same time, he advises against leaving silent students alone. Rather than waiting for them, teachers should give them guidance on how to effectively use their silence.

Bao’s work contributes to the understanding of the ambiguous and complex phenomenon of silence in SLA, building on other recent work that has sought to emphasize the multiple routes that can lead to student silence (King, 2013) and the significance of its function in language learning. SLA literature often focuses on verbal participation, so this book helps to balance the focus on silence by portraying a positive interpretation and thus encouraging a more balanced teaching approach in the classroom that values talk and silence at different moments. Importantly, Bao achieves this by bringing to light perspectives of silent students’ learning needs.

Although this book raises awareness regarding the positive side of silence, it is lacking in practical application of SEP. Throughout the discussion, stress is placed upon the teacher’s ability to effectively use silence for SLA. Bao comments that teachers do not receive adequate training and usually focus on the negative interpretations of silence (p. i). Therefore, this book might have been more practical for teachers if there had been additional advice and suggestions on how to implement SEP. The learning model has reflective questions and an example activity that uses poetry, but this is somewhat limited in terms of guidance and content. Adding an intervention study may have been a useful way to demonstrate methodological application of SEP with teacher and student perspectives.

Through theoretical and learner perspectives of silence, this book aims to reposition silence in SLA as not just something to support talk, but as a valuable form of participation that should be considered with a similar impact on language learning as verbal participation. Teachers that encourage silent learning moments in class may find new approaches in this book. For those concerned about student silence or their own silence in language class, Bao provides socio-cultural, psychological, and educational explanations that encourage understanding and improve the quality of verbal and silent participation. 


Jaworski, A. (1993). The power of silence: Social and pragmatic perspectives. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

King, J. (2013). Silence in the second language classroom. Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

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