Volume VI - 2001

The Inner Voice: A Critical Factor in L2 Learning
by Brian Tomlinson

Dr. Brian Tomlinson has recently taken up the post of Reader in Language Teaching and Learning at Leeds Metropole University. Previously, he worked in Nigeria, Zambia, Vanuatu, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore and he was Course Manager of the MA in L2 Materials Development at the University of Luton. He is also President of MATSDA, the international materials development association which he founded in 1993. He has given presentations to teachers in over forty countries, and he has published numerous articles and books, including Discover English, Openings and Materials Development in Language Teaching.

Editor's Note: Tomlinson's comments on the inner voice will very likely be interesting but perhaps unfamiliar to many readers. This author does not claim that the notion is his and his alone, but he does elaborate it in a quite thorough, thoughtful and coherent fashion. As set forth below with its extensive bibliography, the inner voice seems to have found a primary international advocate and spokesman.

     In the method he calls the Silent Way, Gattegno makes provision for beginning students "to watch, listen and notice instead of producing" utterances (Gattegno, 1972; Stevick, 1990). However, he also focuses from the beginning on accuracy in the public voice. Similarly, Asher (1977) in his Total Physical Response (TPR) advocates a long silent period in which students are asked to respond physically and not verbally to spoken instructions from the teacher. Neither Gattegno nor Asher, however, provide activities that aim at the development and use of the "inner voice," which also involves an initial silent period. By considering the implications of the existing literature and of experiments I have conducted, we can make a strong argument that such a voice is crucial in the learning of a second language. In this article, I will, first, briefly define the inner voice. Second, I will explore the relation between the inner voice and language learning. Third, I will suggest several general approaches to developing an inner voice in the second language. And fourth, I will recommend specific activities for the classroom and as homework.

I. Definitions and Examples

     We use our inner voice to produce speech sounds in the mind when talking to ourselves or when repeating what we have heard or read. This phenomenon has been given many names by researchers and is commonly referred to as "inner speech" (e.g. Sokolov, 1972) or as silent speech (e.g. Edfelt, 1960). Klein (1982:1) gives a full account of the different labels given to the phenomenon of representing speech sounds in the mind. The inner voice is crucially different from the public voice, but it does use a variety of the same language. In this sense, it is different from the mentalese posited by some philosophers as a universal mental code and from Gattegno's "melodic integrative schemata" which provide a "more primitive experience of language than the words in heard speech, and are perceived much earlier than the words" (Gattegno, 1972: 11). The inner voice uses a restricted linguistic code to interact with sensory images and with affect in order to achieve a multi-dimensional self-communication code. It relies to a great extent on such non-verbal features as intonation and stress, and its pronunciation is similar to that of intimate, colloquial conversation.

     Examples of inner speech utterances are: "Not again!", "Poor guy.", "Allright, nothing very unusual.", "Why so much work?", "Why did I do that?", "What to do now?", "Weird. Doesn't make sense." These examples of inner speech are just a few of the many collected from an experiment I did at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Sixteen students who speak English as their first language were asked to write down anything they said with their inner voice, first of all whilst reading a number of poems and then during the course of a day. Obviously, such a corpus cannot be completely reliable, as once you write down inner speech utterances, they cease to be samples of inner speech. However, the utterances achieve sufficient consistency with each other and with what other researchers report for them to be at least indicative of some of the characteristics of inner speech.

II. Inner Voice and Language Learning

     Sokolov asserts that "external speech is functionally dependent on inner speech" (1972:65). Prior to speaking or writing to others we fix our thoughts in our minds "with the aid of inner speech, formulating a mental plan or a synopsis of some sort for our future statement. This takes on even more definite shape in writing when each contemplated phrase or even word to be written is preceded by its mental enunciation, followed by a selection of those most suitable" (65). In other words, the inner voice prepares for the public voice by formulating vague phrases, expanding upon them, trying out alternatives and monitoring draft expressions for accuracy, appropriacy and potential effect.

     It is very difficult to use an inner voice when learning an L2 from formal instruction. When we learned our L1 we did so in what was primarily a private and personal way. We talked to ourselves before we talked to others and even when we talked out loud we were often using a private voice which was self-directed (Vygotsky, 1986). However when we learn an L2 in the classroom we are usually required to use a public voice from the very beginning. We are not normally given time to talk to ourselves but are required to participate in public interaction. Our L1 inner voice is inhibited by the need to produce L2 utterances which will be subject to public scrutiny. So, instead of developing thoughts and ideas in our heads before speaking them aloud we put all our mental energy into finding the right L2 words in the right form and the right order. We use the L1 inner voice for translating from L1 to L2 and for monitoring the correctness of our utterances in the L2 (see Swain, 1998 for an example of learners of French using their private English voices to monitor what they are producing in French). And in most cases we do not develop an L2 inner voice for a very long time, mainly because most of the activities we participate in as beginners demand instant responses and ask us to report our experience rather than to process it. Other reasons are that we are afraid to be "ungrammatical" in our heads in case this interferes with what we say aloud and because the de-contextualized triviality and blandness of much of the language we are required to process and produce does not encourage thought.

University Experiments

     In experiments which I conducted at Kobe University and the University of Luton, I asked native speakers and L2 intermediate learners to read short texts (poems and extracts from novels) and then to reflect on their reading process. In all the experiments the native speakers reported speaking to themselves and seeing mental images but very few of the L2 learners reported either of these processes (Tomlinson 1996, 1997, 1998). A similar result was reported by Masuhara (1998) when she asked native speakers and L2 learners to think aloud as they were reading the beginning of a novel. The native speakers reported their inner speech and their sensory images whereas the L2 learners reported their attempts to decode and translate the words of the text. And if learners do develop an inner voice in the L2 and let it out as a private voice during classroom activities, they are monitored and corrected. For example, Frawley and Lantolf (1985) claim that what appears as erroneous L2 performance is often a reflection of the mental orientation of the speaker rather than a failure to use the L2 correctly. This is supported by McCafferty (1994b: 426) who reports an experiment in which a Low-intermediate subject and an adult native speaker narrate a series of six pictures. The L2 learner uses private speech to label the components of each frame in order to make the task known whereas the native speaker achieves a coherent and cohesive narrative. Frawley (1992) also investigated the use of private speech by L2 learners during communication tasks and concluded that, "The elements that tend to be maintained in private speech concentrate the speaker's attention in uniquely positioning the speaker in relation to the task" (as in an example of a learner who just said "green" aloud to himself whilst doing a jigsaw puzzle with other members of a group).

     Confronted with this use of private speech when learners are compelled to interact in English whilst performing a task, teachers often monitor (and even correct) it as though it was public speech and thus discourage the learners from using inner speech in case they "let it out". But without an effective inner voice we cannot produce meaningful public speech and without finding our own inner voice in the L2 we cannot achieve self-regulation ( di Pietro, 1987). Also, if the development of an L2 inner voice is retarded and the use of the L1 inner voice inhibited by tasks requiring the focusing of processing energy on low level linguistic de-coding then very little creative thought is possible and the learner is diminished. And, of course, if thinking is done in an attempted L2 public voice it will inevitably be conventional, superficial and very slow ("The process of external speech needs...much more time than does inner speech to express thoughts." (Sokolov, 1972)).

Inner Voice and Advanced L2 Learners

     It does seem though that advanced L2 learners make use of inner speech and private speech to help them to achieve mental representation. Appel and Lantolf (1994) report how advanced L2 English speakers trying to produce oral recalls of texts used private speech to try to understand as well as to recall the texts. de Guerro (1994) conducted a large-scale study of Puerto Rican college aged learners and concludes that inner speech plays a central role in rehearsing short term memory features (phonological, lexical and grammatical) so as to transfer to long term memory and that it helps L2 learners to gain confidence and lose anxiety about speaking the language as a result of internal rehearsal. Masuhara (1998) reports how advanced learners reported more inner speech and more visual images in their think aloud protocols of a reading activity than intermediate learners did. And in my experiments referred to above all the proficient L2 readers of English reported talking to themselves and visualizing whilst reading. The big question is do advanced learners only make use of their inner voice once they have become advanced or does their ability to use the inner voice help them to become advanced? I am certainly convinced that the inability to develop an effective L2 inner voice prevents many learners from achieving meaningful communication in the L2 and therefore prevents them from ever becoming advanced.

A Foundation for Future Language Learning

     Ushakova (1994) argues that the inner speech which we develop as children remains with us and provides a foundation by which all future language learning is supported. There is certainly evidence that in natural L2 language acquisition the learner first of all makes use of a silent period to develop an L2 inner voice. This inner voice is sometimes externally manifest as a whispered private voice which can be heard when the learner is listening to or reading the L2 in the presence of other people (just like the L1 child acquirer). Saville-Troike (1988) used wireless microphones to document the strategic learning functions in the private speech of L2 child learners during the prolonged silent period they went through prior to their willing production of public speech. She found that they used private speech to achieve repetition of other's utterances, creation of new forms, substitution and expansion of utterances, and rehearsal for overt social performance. I found similar uses of private speech amongst Indonesian beginner learners of English who were allowed a five week silent period during a large scale experiment in which some first year secondary school classes followed a TPR programme instead of doing the production drills featured in the textbook (Tomlinson, 1990). It does appear that allowing time for mental responses during L2 learning facilitates not only the ability to achieve meaningful mental representation but also the development of an inner voice which helps the learner to personalize the new language, to develop confidence in using it internally and ultimately to achieve fluency and effect in an external voice. But to achieve this in the classroom requires silence And many teachers are afraid of that.

III. Suggestions for Developing the Inner Voice

     In L1 the inner voice develops naturally at the same time as (or possibly even before) the external voice. In L2 the external voice is given primacy from the very beginning, and it is imposed on and inhibits the inner voice, thus slowing down thought and retarding creativity. Instead of demanding public performance in the L2 from the very beginning, we should encourage learners to talk to themselves in private, egocentric speech. But even before that we should allow them the privacy and silence to develop an inner voice by providing them with opportunities to listen to the L2. They can respond mentally, physically or even in the L1; but they must be given time to think, and they must not be forced to perform in a public voice without having an inner voice available to help them to prepare.

Listen and Don't Repeat

     One way of helping learners to develop an L2 inner voice is to offer beginners an initial silent period of experiencing the language in use without having to focus on the correct features of the L1 public voice or to produce any utterances publicly. Then the learners can be given problem solving tasks to do (in groups, in pairs, individually) and be encouraged to use a private voice to help them to articulate and solve the problems. The utterances they produce should not be monitored and must on no account be corrected. As McCafferty says (1994b: 199), private speech (provided it is not corrected) helps "students learn how to control anxiety about a task." Later in the course the learners can be asked to participate in tasks in which they use their private and/or inner voice to help them to prepare for production in their public voice.. de Guerro (1994) says that L2 learners gain confidence and lose anxiety about speaking the language as a result of internal rehearsal.

Expose Students to Colloquial, Unplanned Speech

     As Vygotsky (1956) says, inner speech is similar in many ways to colloquial speech. The L1 child learner is exposed to colloquial speech most of the time, but most L2 beginners are exposed only to planned and formal speech. It is very important therefore that L2 learners first experience the L2 in its colloquial, unplanned form so that they can acquire a variety of the language which can facilitate the development of an inner voice. Try talking to yourself in a voice which operates in a planned discourse mode with written grammar, cohesion and stylistic effects and you will see how difficult this is. This means that the teacher should chat to the learners naturally rather than delivering pre-planned sentences and that stories, descriptions, instructions etc. should be given informally and spontaneously rather than in the planned and often scripted form which characterizes many beginners classrooms today.

Limit Use of Drills

     Drills and controlled practice exercises by definition require instant and correct responses. They might have some value in developing a formulaic competence, but their overuse can prevent the development of inner and private voices in the L2 as they do not allow time for thought, do not offer any problems to think about, and they focus the learner's attention on correct forms of the public voice. Such exercises can be especially damaging if they present all their prompts in complete and overtly grammatical sentences and require learners to respond with such sentences too.

Avoid Premature Reading Activities

     Also damaging to the development of an L2 inner voice are premature reading activities in which the learners is forced to focus all their processing energy on the low level linguistic de-coding of a short and empty text because they have not yet achieved the lexical threshold level which allows beginning L1 readers to respond to the meaning as well as to the words, and because the discrete item comprehension questions force a focus on the linguistic code of the public voice. Postponing reading until a substantial vocabulary has been acquired can facilitate the development of an L2 inner voice because the voice-which has been developing during meaningful listening activities and problem solving tasks-can then be used to help achieve multi-dimensional representation of reading texts in which a lot of the language can be automatically processed. This is especially so if the reading activities involve mainly experiential rather than studial reading and if the teacher encourages intake responses (i.e. the learners' responses to their representation of the text) rather than imposes input response tasks (in which the learners are made to focus on what the writer says and how he/she says it).

Avoid Bland and Neutral ESL Readers

     However, there is not much point in encouraging learners to respond to reading texts with their inner voice if there is nothing in the texts worth responding to. In a recent analysis I did of nine popular elementary level EFL coursebooks, I found that all the texts were short, explicit, neutral, bland and non-provocative in a way that the texts we read in the real world never are. There was no need for the reader to make sensory or affective connections nor to think about issues or implications with the inner voice. Low level linguistic decoding was all that was necessary to comprehend the texts. Wajnryb (1996) also recently analyzed popular EFL coursebooks and concluded that they portrayed a world which was "safe, clean harmonious, benevolent, undisturbed and PG-rated", which lacked "jeopardy, face threat, negotiation implicature (or implied meaning)" and in which meaning was "explicit and context-independent" (291). Wajnryb quite rightly calls for the introduction of much more "jeopardy" in the world of the EFL coursebook. She does so in order that we can prepare learners for the real world and can empower them to operate effectively in real communication. I would do so also so that we can encourage L2 learners to develop an inner voice to use in responding to texts which make them think.

Encourage L1 in L2 Classes

     Learner use of the L1 in the L2 classroom has been discouraged by most methodologists for a long time on the grounds that the more practice the learners get in using the L1 the better. This apparently logical advice, however, has led to situations in which lower level learners are extremely restricted because they do not yet have the language to develop and express ideas and opinions nor to project themselves as intelligent, creative human beings. All they can do is to imitate models, to de-code simplistic texts and to manipulate the de-contextualised language of drills. Their representation of the L2 world is almost entirely linguistic and it lacks the multidimensional richness and variety of their L1 representation of the world. In some classrooms, learners who express themselves in the L1 are punished by teachers who have been told to insist on the L2 at all times. This narrow and negative experience of the L2 world diminishes many learners, demotivates them and prevents them from ever achieving communicative competence in the L2. However, many methodologists have begun to recognize the dangers of insisting on the exclusive use of the L2 and they are beginning to suggest greater tolerance of L1 use (e.g. Edge, 1993; Willis, 1996; Swain, 1998).

     I would go much further and suggest that in some activities, the use of the L1 should be positively encouraged so that the learners can respond intelligently to what they read and listen to and so that they can generate interesting content before they speak or write. If they are encouraged to use their L1 in response and preparation activities they are likely to use their L1 inner voices too and thus to make the connections which will achieve the multidimensional representation necessary for meaningful processing and production of the L2. If they are forced to only use the L2 they will devote all their processing energy to producing correct L2 public speech and they will be unlikely to achieve meaningful representation at all. Of course, ultimately the learners need to develop an inner voice in the L2 so, in addition to L1 thinking and discussion activities, they need activities in which they are encouraged to think in an L2 inner voice. The aim is to make sure that the learners always use an inner voice and to help them to progress from exclusive use of an L1 inner voice, an L1 private voice and an L1 public voice to a stage in which they are able and willing to code mix between L1 and L2 in their inner, private and public voices and eventually, for some of them, to a stage in which they are proficient users of L2 inner, private and public voices.

IV. Specific Activities to Promote Inner Voice

     In conclusion, I would like to suggest some activities which can be done in class or for homework to help learners to develop an inner L2 voice .

Stage 1
1. Learners listen to dramatic readings of stories by the teacher (e.g. with gestures, sound effects and visuals) and then do L1 inner voice activities (e.g. "Talk to yourself about why you think the old man knocked on all the doors.") before taking part in L1 discussions of the story.
2. Learners take part in TPR activities (Asher 1977, 1994; Tomlinson, 1990, 1994) in which they are given time to think in their inner voices before they follow simple L2 instructions given to them by their teacher.
3. Learners take part in TPR Plus activities (Tomlinson, 1990, 1994) in which they act out stories, events, processes etc. narrated to them by their teacher and then try to recall what happened mentally before re-telling it in the L1.

Stage 2
As for Stage 1, but the learners try to continue mentally the beginnings of L2 stories they have listened to, they report the TPR Plus activities in the L2 and the TPR instructions become more complicated. In addition:
1. They take part in what I call TMR (Total Mental Response) activities in which the teacher instructs them in the L2 to form mental images and to discuss issues and problems with their inner voices. Then they discuss their mental experiences with each other. The inner voice and the group discussions will be primarily in the L1 but the teacher can encourage the use of some L2 words.
2. The learners are encouraged to read along in their heads as the teacher reads emotive texts aloud. Then there are intake response activities in which the learners think about and then discuss their responses to what they have "read".
3. The learners take part in problem solving activities in which they are encouraged to use their L2 private voices aloud individually, then in pairs and then in groups.

Stage 3
As for Stage 2 but the learners take part in L2 group discussion and writing activities as follow ups to their mental continuation of stories they have listened to and to the TMR activities they have participated in. In addition:
1. The learners do extensive reading activities in which they read texts of their choice. There are no tasks but the learners are encouraged to talk to themselves as they read and to do visual/verbal mental summaries and predictions at the end of sections of the text
2. The learners do experiential reading activities in which pre-reading connection activities, whilst-reading think activities and post-reading intake response activities are used to stimulate the use of the inner voice.
3. Learners in groups prepare to perform readings of extracts from texts which they have already read silently and enjoyed. By doing such activities the learners can gain the confidence, the self-esteem and the communicative competence which can only come from effective use of the inner voice. Such activities are rarely advocated in TEFL methodology and are not used in coursebooks; but some inner voice activities are used in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and in Suggestopedia and examples of mental response activities can be found in Sion (1995), Underhill (1996) and Tuzi (1998).


     We need to try to find out much more about why and how we use the inner voice in the L1 and about the differences between inner voice use in the L1 and in an L2. In particular we need to find out more about how an L2 inner voice develops (or does not develop) in both natural and formal L2 language acquisition, how teachers, learning materials and fellow learners typically influence this process and how L1 and L2 inner voices interact with each other. We also need to find out how we can help learners of an L2 to make use of their L1 inner voice in L2 learning and communication and how we can help them to develop an effective L2 inner voice. However, our current lack of verifiable knowledge about the L2 inner voice should not prevent us from experimenting with ways of trying to influence its development. Helping learners to talk to themselves during L2 learning and communication can certainly help them to reduce anxiety and to gain confidence and control. And there is a very good chance that it can contribute to increased communicative competence too.


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