Is talking to yourself a useful technique to help you learn a language? Many successful learners swear by it and, done right, it offers four clear benefits. First, self-talk (as the technique is also called) builds up confidence (by removing performance pressure). Second, it lets you focus entirely on your own voice (so you can pay attention to accuracy). Third, it’s a super-convenient form of speaking practice (because it doesn’t depend on the cooperation of anybody else). Finally, it can help you to “fill and flag” gaps in your knowledge.
In the first half of this post we’ll unpack the benefits to of talking to yourself in more detail. Then, in the second half, you’ll find some practical tips on how to go about it as you learn that language.
Why is self-talk a good idea in language learning?
There are at least four headline reasons why talking (out loud) to yourself in your target language makes a lot of sense:
Self-talk removes performance pressure (builds confidence)
You may get anxious in real situations where people can get impatient, for example during transactions in a store or on a phone call in your foreign language. In short, you’re under “performance pressure”.
If you’re practising such scenarios on your own, though, you are freed up to experiment and take risks. This is your chance to push the boundaries of your powers of expression in your new language while not being “under the spotlight”, as it were.
Nobody’s listening, so you can also exaggerate your accent / intonation in a way that may initially feel too flamboyant for real life, but which might actually get you closer to where you need to be.
Self-talk puts the focus purely on your own speaking (builds accuracy)
Live conversation is a two-way experience. That’s the whole point! If you’re talking to yourself, in contrast, you don’t have to give some of your attention over to anticipating how the other person is going to respond and interpreting what they do say (and their wider body language).
When you practise speaking on your own, you can’t get away with mumbling or half-expressing something and leaving your interlocutor to fill in the gaps.
You can’t resort to gesticulation as a get out for lack of language.
You have to fill the silences and, as you do so, you will hear yourself more (including any errors).
Self-talk enables you to get extra practice without depending on others (it’s convenient)
Self-talk is an always-available way to reinforce your understanding of vocab and grammar that you’ve already learned and tp practice recalling it (essential to lodging it in your memory).
You can broach awkward topics that you may not be comfortable discussing with others or subjects that are simply too niche for your average language tutor or exchange partner (such as work technicalities or unusual hobbies).
Self-talk helps you “flag and fill” gaps in your knowledge
When you come up against something you can’t say due to missing vocabulary or grammar, you can jot it down in English, keep talking and then check later. It wouldn’t be so practical to take even quick notes like this in real life. I bet you’d be less likely to follow up, as well.
How to talk to yourself when learning a language (pro tips)
So, then, how do we do self-talk right?
Here are my pro tips:
Keep it short
The exercise will be quite intense, so keep it short. Start with talk to yourself sessions of just three to five minutes. You can always build up to longer as you gain in experience.
Actually speak out loud!
It’s a real thrill when you catch yourself thinking in a new language but, for the self-talk technique, it’s important to speak out loud.
First, in order to train your mouth as well as your mind.
Second, to keep you on task. If you were to depend on your thoughts alone, you could easily wonder off topic (and back into your native language).
Third, hearing yourself helps normalise the idea of speaking in your new language and will help you to notice mistakes.
Monologue or dialogue?
A simulated two-way self-talk “conversation” is closest to most “real life” scenarios, but you’ll see that some of the topic ideas below lend themselves to a monologue as well.
Begin with whichever appeals most and try the other every now and again.
Don’t be shy about playing roles. Instead, get in touch with your inner drama queen and ham it up a bit!
What should I talk about?
Here are some initial topic ideas, but the possibilities really are endless:
- narrate your day so far
- describe what you can see in your immediate surroundings
- role-play a scenario from your recent life (or from the life of somebody you know or a celebrity or historical figure)
- give somebody directions (how to find the way somewhere, how to do something)
- have an imaginary argument
- re-enact a well-known scene from your favourite novel or film
- talk on a topic that you think you’ll need
- find a short YouTube video or podcast in your language (or in English). Watch or listen and try to retell what you’ve heard. Or turn off the sound and narrate what you see, pressing pause when you need to
- imagine a future or conditional scenario (to practise those future or conditional forms of expression)
What if there’s something I can’t say?
Have a notepad and pen to hand. Jot down the roadblock very briefly. Try to talk round the gap, using what language you do have. If you’ve forgotten the word for “dog” you could maybe say “animal friend” or “my animal” or “like a cat but not a cat”.
How to supercharge your self-talk
We said that one of the benefits of talking to yourself was that it removes any worry about how you’re coming across to an interlocutor. It lets you focus exclusively on your own speaking.
But if self-talk is going to feel realistic, you do need some pressure.
So, record yourself as you speak.
This will force you to keep up the pace and to articulate clearly.
You can then listen back and evaluate yourself or play the recording to your teacher, exchange partner or other helpful advanced speaker. Ask for constructive feedback.
Keep (and date) some at least of your recordings. They’ll be great evidence of how far you’ve come six months and six years down the line.
So that’s a quick round up of the reasons why talking to yourself is a useful addition to your range of language learning techniques and there as some top tips for how to do it.
Nobody is saying, of course, that self-talk can take the place of speaking with other people.
But many of us have found that it’s an effective and efficient way to build up our confidence and accuracy, learn more, get in some extra practice and then go on and have better conversations. What about you?
What about you? Are you already an accomplished self-talker, one who’s had the last laugh with family members who initially thought you had a screw loose?
If the self-talk technique is new to you, how about giving it a go?
If you’re already an old hand, do you do it along the lines I’ve described here or have you given it a slightly different twist?
Follow up questions, comments or suggestions are, as always, very welcome, so share your thoughts in the comments below.