21 January 2011

The internal dialogue.

A lot of successful language learners talk about having an "internal dialogue" or "internal monologue", where they're constantly practising their languages in their head, whether by providing a running commentary or imagining talking to peopl.  (This is slightly different from the "din in the head".)

I've always done something like that, even before I started learning languages.  It was part of a general tendency to overanalyse everything, and while I'm getting rid of that tendency, I have found the continuing internal monologue and/or dialogue quite useful in learning languages.

But I have found it increasingly difficult to employ consciously, as I keep finding that my internal monologue/dialogue keeps switching on in a different language from what I intended.

Of all people, it was Wikileaks' Julian Assange who gave me an insight into what's going on here.  I read an article on him on the New Yorker's website several weeks ago -- here's the relevant passage:

He lived and hiked among dense eucalyptus forests in the Dandenong Ranges National Park, which were thick with mosquitoes whose bites scarred his face. “Your inner voice quiets down,” he told me. “Internal dialogue is stimulated by a preparatory desire to speak, but it is not actually useful if there are no other people around.” He added, “I don’t want to sound too Buddhist. But your vision of yourself disappears.”


And there's my problem -- if I have no anticipation of needing a particular language, my brain won't pick the right one.  When I was going to Barcelona for a holiday, my brain went into overdrive, rehearsing everything in Catalan, because I knew it would be useful.

In fact, a lot of my ability in Spanish can be credited to a lovely Spanish woman I had a massive crush on.  I looked forward to seeing her and I anticipated conversations, and my brain was always rehearsing new language as I was picking it up with the goal of impressing her.  I even picked up a bit of her accent and ways of speaking.

The upshot

If you want to learn a language, you've got to practise it, and the internal mono/dialogue is a very efficient way of doing that - in fact it's hard to learn without some kind of subconscious practice.  So in order to learn, you've got to keep your brain anticipating a need for the language.

Many courses aim to do this by having imaginable situations - at the airport, in the restaurant, etc - but these don't really work for me.  Why not?  Because while I can imagine the situation, I don't anticipate a need for language.  I already know that airport staff in all major international terminals havea good level of English.  In most cities I've visited, the menu's written in two or three languages, including English, and the bill comes with numerals, so I don't need to know the numbers to know how much things cost.  (In fact, when I moved to Spain, I didn't know my numbers and relied on the display on the till when I went to the supermarket!)

So when you're trying to learn, you need to have something in your future to anticipate -- whether it's a holiday in the language, a lovers' tryst or simply just telling a language exchange partner about the film you saw last week.  Your brain will practise once it knows it needs to.

But going back to these situations, actually, it's far easier to anticipate universals.  Things like "I don't know" and "I want to..." come up all the time.  In your native language you say these things several times a day.  how often do you present your passport?  How often do you buy spaghetti carbonara?  If you provide your internal dialogue with the language it can anticipate for everyday use, it can rehearse that language every day.


Fasulye said...

Thanks for this article. It's a very interesting topic! I have this kind of internal dialogues in different languages. That means that in my thoughts I am conversing with people. For example after multilingual Skype conversations I continue thinking in my foreign languages about what else I could say to my Skype partners. During the normal day my thinking language constantly changes. This comes automatically and is very natural. The difficulty is to get into such thinking habits, when you have languages on a beginner level because then your vocabulary and grammar is still limited. I am learning this with Danish at the moment. After my Danish lessons and Skype chats in Danish I have some "easy level thoughts" in Danish. Partly I can now already think in Danish without having real Danish communication in advance. When you use foreign languages in a foreign country there are more triggers available which force you to think in the foreign language. So that's the easier way. But from my personal experience internal foreign language dialogues can also be achieved without any travelling at all. For example I can think in Italian and Spanish, but I have never spoken these languages in Italy or Spain.


Alexandre said...

Very interesting insight.

Personally, watching TV shows or movies, or listening to podcasts, etc., is enough to send my imagination into those worlds and create internal dialogues.

I didn't expect to hear that this is not the case for other language learners, even if they otherwise have the instinct to do internal monologues. This would imply that having a language partner is as important as actually meeting them!