Talking to Oneself Productively

As an English teacher in Hangzhou, China, one of the questions Chinese college students most often asked me was, “how can I improve my spoken English?” As a member of the ChinesePod team and student of applied linguistics, learners frequently ask me, “how can I improve my spoken Chinese?” Unfortunately, the are no easy answers or “secrets.” If you’re working hard learning Mandarin on ChinesePod and you’ve found a way to practice speaking, then you’re doing the right thing. But surely there might be an extra trick or two out there?

Actually, there are a few tricks out there, but their effectiveness tends to vary widely from person to person. The one I hear most often is “find a Chinese girlfriend,” but this one clearly has limited application, and it sometimes doesn’t even work for those with Chinese girlfriends/wives. This “trick” is a subset of a larger idea, which is just spend as much time with Chinese speakers as you can. But that one is obvious, and probably not useful for most learners.

One method I have found useful is to talk to myself in Chinese. Now before you stop reading, let me explain. I’m not talking about “How are you? Fine, thank you” type conversation. I mean all day long, as I think about different things, I ask myself, how would I say that in Chinese? If I said that in Chinese, how would the Chinese person respond? If the Chinese person responded X, what would I say then?

“Wéi? Nǐhǎo, shì wǒ.”

Let me provide an example of such a train of thought.

OK, I need to buy a lightbulb. How do I say lightbulb?

It’s “dēngpào.” So I want to say, “Wŏ xiăng măi dēngpào.” How will they react to that?

Well, they might say, “méi yŏu.” If they say that, I’ll just say, “hăo de, xièxie.”

But they should have them, so they’ll probably just say something like, “zài zhèli” or “yŏu de, zài nàbiān” and then I can just say “xièxie” and buy them.

Obviously, this is a rather simple example, but the method can be applied to much more complicated situations. The better your imagination, the more extensive and “branched” the “conversation.”

You might be thinking that this method has a major flaw… if you don’t know how to say these things in Chinese, then your every internalized “conversation” deadends rather abruptly. It’s true that the method works better once you get to the advanced beginner or intermediate stage, but the true value in the mental exercise is in identifying what you don’t know. It’s in identifying what you’re unsure of, before you actually have to use it. Then you can take these questions you come up with and either look them up somewhere (if possible) or ask your teacher.

Soon after I came to China and my Chinese was at the elementary level I would run through this exercise every time I needed to go do something that involved communicating in Chinese. I’d think of what I needed to say, how the other person might respond, and how I’d respond to that. I’d look up every word I didn’t know and write it down (making sure to get the tones right), then go and use it.

Talking to myself: it worked for me.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. It’s golden for sure, but is there actually anyone who DOESN’T do that? I mean… I would never even notice I do that if the topic wasn’t specifically mentioned by someone else, it’s just that natural

  2. This is a natural extension of language learning. I’ve talked to my cat in Chinese for years now, and anyone who has spent significant time learning will eventually end up thinking and dreaming in the target language.

    But it’s still good advice to encourage yourself to think and talk to yourself ever more in the target language. Until you forget how to speak English or find yourself talking to yourself out loud in the wrong places

    Not that I’ve ever done that =)

  3. Similarly, I’ve always thought of it as ‘thinking about Chinese (or whatever language) a lot.’ Whether it’s to myself or with a friend.
    If you like learning the language and you think about it a lot, you’re bound to, like you say, realize the things you don’t know and the things you need to work on. Also, even if you do know the vocab, it’ll definitely solidify things.

  4. I tried that, but kept getting into arguments with myself. Lol sounds stupid saying it that way, but I found it useful.

  5. justin,

    I think that it’s probably a pretty natural habit for good language learners, but a lot of people out there just aren’t good language learners. Also, I think it’s a habit that’s a lot easier to form when you’re immersed in the environment.

  6. I’ve done this on occasion, both with Chinese and Spanish. I also do a sort of cultural thing dealing with Chinese, since I’ve found that so many thing that I encounter every day would be unfamiliar to the average Chinese person — I’ll see some aspect of American culture that a Chinese friend might not understand and thing “How would I explain that?”. Of course, the explainations I come up with are usually in a mix of Chinese and English, since my Chinese is still very limited but I have friends who don’t necessarily know certain of the English terms I would use.

  7. John
    I do this same thing when I’m in other countries. Unfortunately, my conversations are very limited. In fact, while here in Cologne, Germany, I just had a similar experience with a store teller. I realized he was Turkish, so I said “Good Evening” in Turkish, but I had forgotten all of my Turkish. So when he responded and then asked me a question, I mentally froze. “Oops!” I didn’t know the response. It was a result of poor planning on my part. Fortunately, he realized my weakness and he switched to English.

    I guess this is an experience I can add to my BLOG as well.

    Take care
    Greg Pasden
    World Traveler

  8. I agree that is certain value and effectiveness to this method, which we find it natural at a certain stage learning a language. However we should be cautious of overusing this method. If one is too actively involving in this it is hard to avoid a tendency to make up answers of one’s own, which may not always be right. It may reinforce the mistakes, which become a stumbling block for one to learn idiomatic stuff…

  9. I also do a lot of talking to myself in Chinese as well. The scenario I usually find myself in is figuring out what I SHOULD have said in an earlier conversation with a chinese person, trying to come up with a statement that more accurately reflects my thoughts than whatever I blurted out at the time. It is unfortunate that before you reach a true comfort level in a language, you often find yourself making due with whatever you can come up with on the spot. This is why my chinese-speaking persona is a bit of a buffoon.

  10. Sorry – I’m going to get picky:

    1) ‘As an English teacher […] one of the questions […] was […]’

    2) ‘As a member of the ChinesePod team […] learners frequently ask […]’

    Dangling modifiers! Hope you know what I’m talking about…

  11. i do this pretty often and have found it really helpful. the only problem with the method is that talking to myself in arabic on the shanghai subway gets me about as many strange looks as chinese in the grocery store while in michigan.

  12. John,
    I am in England now. I feel like I have to use your conversation tips here because I have difficulty understanding the British English. Therefore, I have to consider what they might say before I talk to them.

    Take care always

    Greg Pasden World Traveler

  13. […] and no negotiation of meaning going on. Still, it’s a nice intermediary step between talking to oneself and actually speaking with a human […]

  14. I`ll try this to improve my spoken English~

  15. It’s funny you mentioned this. When I first came to the U.S. I do the exact opposite and now I no longer need to think in Chinese first before I speak. One of the biggest flaw tho is when you do first think in a different language then translate and then say it, it may come out very dumb or engrish. After Chinese and English are so different, you really cannot coerce translation without knowing the tradition.

  16. […] I talk to myself, however, I push like mad, probing and finding holes in my vocabulary and faults in my grammar. […]

  17. […] is a follow-up to an older post of mine called Talking to Oneself Productively, and the advice this time comes from JP Villanueva. I recommend that you read the full post, but […]

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