The first sign of madness

Do you talk to yourself in your second or third language? Probably not because that would be weird, wouldn’t it? Another reason not to do it is because most language learning for adults is firmly rooted in what’s sometimes termed the conduit approach or communicative approach. This is what commonly drives pedagogy in adult second language classes: the passing back and forth of information between conversational partners. This can be very structured, e.g. in the form of a gap fill exercise  (e.g. relaying information about missing train times on a timetable). It might be less formally structured but still controlled by the teacher to some degree, e.g. “find out the following pieces of information from your partner”. Alternatively, your language teacher might set the communication context and ascribe roles, e.g. “you’re in a cafe in Istria, you are the waiter and you three are customers”. This is all good language practice. Ultimately you want to be able to talk to your in-laws in Welsh about something or you want to order something at a cafe in Croatia. That is, you want to communicate. However, language isn’t just something we do to other people in order to produce some kind of effect- language is also in our heads and we vocalise things even when no-one is around to hear it. If we’re struggling with a procedural task then we might talk ourselves through what the options are. This kind of speech often manifests itself as telegrammatic, i.e. not in full or proper sentences. It’s the kind of language we need after we’ve bought something from IKEA:

“Hmmmm. That one… no- wrong piece. Where is…? Right, put that…and yes! Done!”

analysis blackboard board bubble
Photo by Pixabay on

Children who are learning their first language get to use this kind of speech all day every day. They get to sit in a chair in the middle of a room and point at things, name them and receive a constant stream of linguistic feedback from adults. They get to say absolute nonsense, but adults process it as having communicative import and offer interpretations and corrections of what the child says. A small barely-verbal child might say “It’s a booo blah eurgh!” and an adult will reply “Yes, it’s a sheep! It’s not blue though. Do you want the sheep?”. It’s very unfair really- we never get this optimum language learning environment ever again. All this language practice means kids end up speaking their native language fluently whilst having made no automatic or conscious effort.

They then use their language skills to talk to themselves whilst engaged in procedural tasks and play. Lev Vygotsky was a famous Soviet psychologist whose work on the development of children is difficult for any social sciences undergraduate to avoid. Vygotsky found that when children are confronted with difficult tasks they engage in private or self-directed speech in order to focus their attention and ultimately overcome these difficulties:

> “Where’s the pencil? I need a blue pencil. Never mind, I’ll draw with the red one and wet it with water; it will become dark and look like blue” (from Vysgotsky’s Thought and Language)

James Lantolf & William Frawley offered categorizations of private speech in the context of second language learning:

Object-regulation: this kind of language allows the speaker to “get a grip” of the situation or difficult they’re currently facing. These might take the form of metacomments about the task or about how the speaker is feeling about completing it. Some examples from Steven McCafferty include the following, which were taken from second language research on describing complex picture sequences:

  • “Think this picture is not good”
  • “I can do this in Spanish but not in English”
  • “I can see a boy walking down the street”

Other-regulation: addressing (otherwise irrelevant) questions to someone, i.e. in Mcafferty’s picture description task the subjects in the studies he considers often ask the researcher questions, e.g. “This picture… do you want to tell me, I tell you where he is or…?”. Also in this category are questions the speaker asks of themself, e.g. “How do I say this…? Hmmm. I know this word…”

Self-regulation: this is the final category identified by Lantolf & Frawley and concerns speech which signals the speaker is making progress in the task or correcting a difficulty or mistake, e.g. “five monkeys are playing with a man- no- the man is angry”.

Steven McCafferty surveys a number of studies that have examined second language speakers’ self-directed or private speech and finds that learners expend just as much or more effort in self-regulating and talking to themselves as they do in actually communicating and completing the task at hand. We use language to talk to ourselves when we’re small children, however, it doesn’t look as though talking to ourselves is something that dies out completely. It resurfaces in our native language when we’re engaged in completing a difficult task and it can also resurface in second language contexts. It seems that we have a  natural linguistic predisposition to speak to ourselves.

However, adult language learners aren’t encouraged to speak to themselves. The focus is always on communicating, on imparting information to others and receiving information from conversational partners during evening classes. But what about talking to yourself in the target language? I teach a lot of people over Skype and in person who don’t live somewhere where Welsh is spoken, either in Wales, or England or more exotically in Canada and further afield. “I’ve got no-one to talk to! No-one to practice with”. Yes you have, you have yourself. It’s not the first sign of madness, it’s the first sign of language learning. If kids can talk to themselves, why can’t adult learners?

Here are some examples of how and when to use self-directed speech in your target language:  

  • Prepare a list of self-directed phrases, e.g.:
    • “No that’s not right”
    • “Where did I put my pen?”
    • “I’ll move this a bit”
    • “That’s better”
  • Use self-directed speech when engaging in a procedural task, e.g. talk yourself through the constituent stages of making a cake or mending your bicycle.
  • Plan in your target language: if you’re flicking through your calendar to try and find a convenient time to do something then go through the options out loud in the target language, e.g.:
    • “I can’t do Monday because I have a Greek lesson”
    • “I’ve got a meeting in Cardiff on Thursday so I can’t do it then”
    • “August would be best, but which day… ?”
  • Swear! Swearing in a second or third language has recently become a subject of psycholinguistic investigation. Language scientists use the term reduced emotional resonance to describe how second language speakers feel when they describe their new language as “meaning less to them” or “having less impact” than their native tongue. Swearing can be difficult because you don’t have the insight into what is normal or acceptable in your target language, particularly if you don’t live somewhere where the language you’re learning is routinely spoken. But swearing, particularly when used as an exclamation, is something everyone does, it’s automatic, it’s real-time language and represents a perfect opportunity for self-directed speech. Try replacing your first language exclamations with some from your target language- making sure they won’t cause a scene if you use them. Remember, you might have reduced emotional resonance in your second language, so check with a trustworthy native or proficient speaker before committing yourself to a selection of profanities! By making a conscious effort to swear or exclaim in your target language you can start to make language use, previously something confined to a classroom or book, into something which is instead instantly on your tongue, delivered without hesitation and used in real-time. Eventually, you can scream automatically, loudly and confidently at yourself in Polish or Welsh when you next drop something out your foot or realise you’ve forgotten your umbrella when it starts raining.

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