A chamber of mirrors - reflective, just like talking to yourself can be!

Talking to yourself: tap your inner voice to be a canny language learner

Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness, some say. But it’s actually the hallmark of the very canny linguist, too.

Ask most experienced language learners, and they will tell you that the secret is speaking, speaking, speaking. But it’s easy to overlook how useful speaking can be, even when you don’t have a partner. When it comes to talking to yourself, something is most definitely better than nothing.

So don’t be shy (of yourself!). Here are some strategies and key reasons for talking to yourself in the target language.

Mine for missing vocab

When you are actively learning a language, you should be mining for vocabulary all the time. The problem is knowing which vocabulary will be most useful to you. Where should you spend your mining efforts? Well, talking to yourself is a good way to find out.

Try this exercise to start identifying missing words in your mental dictionary. First, set yourself anywhere between one to five minutes with a timer, depending on your level. Use that time to chatter aloud about your job, your day, or some other common topic in the target language. You will almost certainly stumble across thing you lack the words for, but want to say. Don’t worry – just make a note of that missing vocab in your native language. At the end of the five minutes, you should have a list of a few items to look up and add to your vocab lists.

Record, play back and perfect

Time spent talking to yourself is a resource you can maximise the value of by recording it. Set yourself timed challenges to chat about a particular topic whilst recording on your phone or computer. This topic-o-matic I created as a help for my own speaking may be useful if you are struggling for themes.

The resulting recording can be handy in many ways, including:

  • Checking your accent : Listen out for sounds you could improve. But equally, be proud of yourself by noting when you sound particularly authentic!
  • Revision : Build up a library of recordings on your phone, and play them back regularly in order to revisit and consolidate your topic-based material. (Note that this can be amazingly effective for other subjects too – I successfully revised for my Social Sciences degree by recording notes in my own voice and listening back to them regularly on the bus!)

As you grow more confident, you can go a step beyond simple voice recording, and try video. Practise in front of a mirror first, having a bit of fun with facial expressions, gestures and voice. Language is a performance!

If you are really brave, and feel your videos might help other learners, perhaps even consider sharing them on YouTube. There are many linguists who vlog their progress for all to see – just search YouTube for ‘How I learnt X‘ and you get a whole raft of sharers!

Talking to yourself before talking to others

Talking to yourself is an excellent rehearsal method before real-life language encounters, too. For example, I attend a lot of one-to-one iTalki classes on Skype. They invariably involve some general conversation to warm up the lesson. And that always goes better when I have warmed up a little beforehand by running through, out loud, what I’ve done in my life since the last time I met the teacher.

Make auto-chatting a regular part of your pre-lesson warm-up techniques, and you will notice the difference.

Run through the basics

Speaking alone offers a good opportunity to run through the basics, too. You are unlikely to find a teacher or speaking partner who will relish listening to you recite numbers, days of the week and months, for example.

Instead, you can try working some of this repetitive speaking into your daily routine. Number practice, for example, pairs up brilliantly if you attend a gym and like the cardio machines. Likewise, you can quietly recite sequential vocab to the rhythm of your feet as you walk along the street. And, like working out, getting your mouth around these very common words may help build up a certain muscle memory for speaking your new language.

Inhibition-busting

Successful language learning involves breaking down many inhibitions at lots of points on the way to fluency. Just think of that end goal – communicating with strangers – and you realise that it requires a lot of self-confidence.

Talking to yourself is a good intermediary step on the way. For one thing, it is something that doesn’t come naturally to many of us. It also reminds us that a key outcome of language learning is getting those words out there, into the world, through speech.

The greatest thing is that you can be silly about it. It’s a safe testing ground to try out all sorts of language. Next time you shower, give a thankful awards acceptance speech in French. Reel off a victory speech on becoming German Kanzler. Explain the secrets of your phenomenal success in Spanish. Be larger than life, and have fun with it!

Talking to yourself in mindful moments

Once a week I go for a one-to-one session in the local park with my trainer. I like to go as unencumbered as possible, so I leave my phone at home. That simple act frees my mind up completely, as it would otherwise be occupied by checking texts, emails, doing my Anki cards or – something I hate in others, but still do myself – idly browsing whilst walking.

Instead, I have some mindful moments to walk, connect to the world around me, and talk to myself! OK, so maybe not out loud (all the time) when I’m on the street. But it’s a good ten to fifteen minutes when I can just prattle in the target language, at least in my head.

Even in the early days of learning, before the sentences flow, there are things you can do. Try naming the objects you see on a journey (another lovely mindfulness-inspired exercise that helps you to notice the world around you). Did you see something intriguing or beautiful, but didn’t know the word for it? Make a mental note and look it up for your vocab lists later.

Fake it ’til you make it

However, if you do have your phone on you, it can be the ultimate talk-to-yourself prop. Feeling brave? Then why not walk down the street, pretending to have a conversation in the target language with an imaginary interlocutor?

To the naturally shy (like, believe it or not, me), or generally faint-hearted, this may seem like an utterly crazy idea at first. 😅 Pretending to have a conversation on your mobile? In public? Who even does that?!

But, like talking to yourself in general, there is method in the madness. It is a fantastic way to get used to speaking your target language in front of unknown others. If it feels too odd at first, a word of advice: you’ll sound less silly if you really try to sound authentic, rather than speaking in your native accent. Try to be convincing – it’s easier than it sounds, as most passers-by won’t have a clue what you are talking about…

Speaking, speaking, speaking

The ideas above represent just a few of the ways self-talking techniques can boost your learning. Try talking to yourself – it’s free, easy, and could be the perfect halfway house on the way to real-world, person-to-person fluency.

The next time you pass somebody muttering to themselves, try not to think they are insane. Like you, they might be learning a language! 

A row of fitness bikes for physical engagement in the gym

Let’s get physical: Language learning through fitness

If you subscribe to one of the many theories of learning styles, traditional classroom or book-based language learning might seem a bit unimaginative. They hit all the familiar targets: visual, auditory – tactile, even, if you use devices or props like Talking Dice. But one kind of learning – kinaesthetic, or physical, movement-focussed – seems conspicuously absent.

Movement can be fun. And sometimes, it seems that kids get all that fun. There are already schemes that pair physical movement with language for young learners, like 5-a-day.tv. In the style of a fitness video, target language is inserted into the routine so the kids have fun moving, and learn at the same time. By all accounts, these techniques are really effective motivators in the primary language classroom. So why shouldn’t adults have a go, too?

Like a superset at the gym, you’re combining two activities here for maximum efficiency. Rather than body blitz and more body blitz, though, these technique engage your body and brain together. Two for the price of one – never a bad deal, and the very essence of hacking your learning!

Get physical with YouTube videos

One of the best things about YouTube fitness videos is that you can follow along even if you don’t grasp every word. Finding them is just a case of trawling YouTube search with some choice keywords in the target language. You could try ‘ejercicios en español’ or ‘Fitness auf Deutsch’, for example. Here are some of of the stand-out channels and playlists I’ve found:

French

German

Spanish

Some of them seem quite gender-specific, but there should be enough variety on YouTube to cater for every taste.

Videos too complex for a class you’re teaching? Maybe devise a simplified routine using parts of the body and direction words, for example – it could make a nice three-minute warm-up to a lesson.

Filling empty time at the gym

If you go to a gym regularly, you’ll be familiar with ’empty time’. It’s those minutes while you’re on a treadmill or machine, robotically repping out your exercises with the brain otherwise disengaged (or in daydream mode).

It’s easy to think of ways to fill this with language learning, and you most likely already do this if you gym – podcasts, foreign language music and such like. But there are other ways to push yourself too, not always necessitating headphones. Great if you find you’ve left them at home when you get to the gym!

Treadmill challenges

Last year, I realised to my horror that I knew loads of Norwegian vocab – but was rubbish at numbers. To be honest, it’s something I hear a lot from other linguaphiles – numbers are dull, boring, everyday kinds of words that just aren’t interesting to spend time learning.

Well, cue the treadmill and some creative gamifying! I find that the rhythm of a moderate jog – that regular thud-thud-thud of your shoes on each tread – is a great timer for some self-testing. I challenged myself to say (under my breath, I’m not an attention-seeker!) a certain number pattern to that rhythm.

For example, I’d start simple and practise 1 to 20 in order. Then I’d switch to recalling them backwards, from 20 to 1. After then, I’d do the tens, then I’d do even numbers up to 50 or so, then odd… There are myriad variations to keep your otherwise disengaged brain occupied.

And the great thing about it is its mindful nature; as you practise, recall becomes almost automatic, and the physical exercise almost easier as your focus is not on getting tired, but reciting your numbers. Very Zen.

More than just numbers

You can adapt this technique to any vocab item. Pick a topic – colours, say – and challenge yourself to say a new, non-repeated word on every footfall. Take it beyond single words – talk about yourself, or tell a story, with a word every tread. Great for practising connectives like ‘and’, ‘then’, ‘but’ and so on, as you form super-long sentences while you work out.

No gym? No worry!

You can take the principle of these ‘footfall challenges’ into any setting. Walking to the shops? Practise your numbers 1-20 as you go. Climbing the stairs? Count them in your target language. It’s a great way to make use of time when you’d otherwise be thinking about nothing in particular.

App coaches

There are hundreds of fitness apps available for mobile devices these days. Every aspect is covered, from nutrition to health monitoring and fitness coaching. Thanks to localisation – the inclusion of alternative languages into app interfaces – you can also enjoy some language practice every time you use these.

Most of the time, accessing foreign language interfaces in your fitness apps requires that you switch your phone’s operating language to the one you’re learning. Scary, I know – but it’s a brilliant technique to increase your immersion in a language generally. My phone has been speaking to me in Norwegian for the past year, and I’ve learnt a stack of vocab from it in that time.

I’ve found the following apps brilliant in ‘foreign language mode’:

  • MyFitnessPal: a food intake / exercise diary app – vocab like ‘saturated fat’, ‘carbohydrates’ and ‘remaining calories’ is now indelibly etched on my brain!
  • Runtastic Push-Ups: a great coaching programme that takes you from 2-3 push-ups to 250 over time. It will bark instructions at you, sergeant-style, in several languages, and provide Rocky-style inspirational quotes. Also check out runtastic’s other coaching apps here.
  • Apple Health / Activity and Samsung Health apps: these are bundled with recent versions of each operating system, and are the default steps / health trackers. Switching your phone language means all your data becomes a learning opportunity!

For sure, there are lots more ways to combine learning with other areas of your life like this. It’s both time-efficient and fun. And it can create a more rounded approach to learning by including physical, kinaesthetic aspects. And, by embedding languages into things you already love, you’re more likely to keep learning.