Internal monologue (“speaking in your head”) as a form of language learning

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more.

There is one method I’ve been using for years for every single language I learn: the so called “internal monologue” or “inner voice”. It is the inner voice you “hear” while thinking, i.e. the “conversation with yourself” you produce when thinking using a language.

Of course, there are other ways of thinking: you can think in terms of a visual representation of the object you want to think about, to mention just the most common way. If you look at a picture, you don’t translate all you see into wordsthere’s a reason why we say that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Nevertheless, most of the thinking process we do is most succinctly expressed using a natural language. Common thoughts such as “I must go to the doctor tomorrow”, “I wonder if it is enough”, or “I’ll get off at the next station” are virtually always expressed using words.

How is the inner voice useful for language learning?

Probably the hardest thing in language learning is to get your passive vocabulary to become active. It is way too common for people who are able to understand 99% of what other people in a foreign language say not to be able to express a simple thought because they just “can’t find the right words”.

The art of using vocabulary actively is the art of being able to find the right word fast enough. As with everything else, being good at something requires practice. The problem is: how do you practise when there are no native speakers around?

So we come to the original topic of this article. Instead of speaking to someone, speak to yourself. You do all that internal speaking anyway, so why don’t you just try to use a different language?

My mother tongue is Czech, but I changed the primary language of thinking to English. Whenever I see something that could theoretically be hard for me to talk about in English, I just start thinking about it in English. Or in German. Or in any other language I learn. But not in Czech. I’ve done enough thinking in Czech; I don’t learn anything new by doing that.

Are there any advantages in comparison to a real conversation?

There are! Of course, the first one that comes to (my) mind is that if you are introverted (like me), you simply may not have “anything to say” in a conversation. Introverts don’t like to join a conversation when they have nothing essential to add to it (i.e. just for the sake of saying something).

Even if you are not introverted, you may not have enough time to find the right expression in a conversation. You may even repeatedly find a wrong one (which is, perhaps, grammatically incorrect or doesn’t convey the desired meaning) and make it even harder for you to find the right one in the future because the wrong one will be the first one to crop up in your mind.

When you have a private conversation with yourself, you can take your time. You can even spend several minutes thinking about a particular word or a phrase, find the appropriate expression using your cell phone or a computer, or you can make a note to find the expression later. Next time, you will find the right expression much faster, and you will be confident that it is the right expression.

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