Speak up – I can’t hear myself

OAXACA, Mexico

Thinking aloud is another simple but highly useful exercise.  Ours minds are constantly working on something, or holding imaginary conversations with someone.  We all do it.  So why not harness all that mental energy to push forward your Spanish fluency?  It’s free, ecologically friendly, one size fits all, and it’s highly effective!

Oh, but you may be suspicious of people who talk to themselves.  And you don’t want to be the object of suspicion.  Afterall, they must be losing their marbles.  Think again.   Aren’t we always muttering under our breath: “Let’s see, where did I put my keys?”  Or, “One of these days, I’m going to ….,” or “What does he take me for, an idiot?”  But you still say you don’t talk to yourself.  Well, they say there are only two groups of people who don’t talk to themselves: Those who are crazy, and those who are dead.   Which are you?

Whether we are aware of it or not, our minds generally operate in imaginary dialogues – posing questions and framing answers, making calls and giving responses.  The fact is, I talk to myself and so do you!  I give myself an affirmation (“That’s good,”) or I vent my frustration (“How stupid!”), or unload some annoyance (“What a piece of shit!”).

One evening while here in Oaxaca, counting out my pills, and putting them into the spaces of a plastic pill box, I caught myself counting out loud, under my breath – in Spanish.  So, enough of denials!  We all talk to ourselves.  Let’s put it to good use!

Lips moving, no sound

Before I retired, I had an easy morning commute with no traffic to speak of.  For years, I’ve talked to myself during morning commutes.  Completely alone for 35 or 40 minutes, I worked through or rehearsed the ideas for the day’s meetings.  It’s a habit.  After completing two immersions, and possessing enough working language, I held my private conversations in Spanish.  Because the topics were familiar onesI could concentrate on Spanish.  Practicing in the car (like singing in the shower) gave me a double benefit: Working through a practical problem while using my Spanish in a practical way.  

I didn’t worry about other commuters who might see me talking – lips moving.  Let them think I have a Bluetooth and I’m talking on my hands-free cell phone.  Who cares?

But, before you put your hands on the wheel and start the Spanish monologue, let me add a couple of cautions.

First: Don’t try this in heavy city traffic.  You may be concentrating too much to see the traffic signals.  Deep in monologue, I didn’t see a red light one morning and made a left turn against traffic.  Fortunately, no accident, but thereafter I confined my dialogues to the open highway.

Second:  Keep the topics fairly light.  That way you won’t be so absorbed in conversation while on the highway that you miss an exit, which I’ve done a couple of times.  (But I’ve also missed the same exits thinking quietly in English.)

Still, I think this is safer than driving while texting or talking on your cell phone.

Try this:

Spend a couple days being conscious of when and how you talk to yourself.  What kinds of conversations do you have?  And when?  Make a note of them and look for patterns in your particular way of talking to yourself.  How you talk to yourself is particular to you.  Knowing this may help overcome any reluctance to try it deliberately.  You will see this as a part of who you are.

A deliberate conversation with yourself will feel unnatural at first.  Like a kite without wind, you might not get it off the ground at first.  In that case, give yourself some “wind.”   Outline a situation that’s familiar to you, something about work, or vacation, or your children.  Remember, it’s an OUTLINE, and not a speech, a bulletpoint list.  Now, go to someplace where you can be alone – the basement, the garage or your office – close the door, and practice.  Don’t worry about correct grammar or syntax.  No one but you will hear anything.  And once you feel comfortable with your voice, and accept it, speaking Spanish may become easier.  Before you know it, you’ll be putting out the words with less effort.  Sooner or later, you’ll stop hemming and hawing as you paw through your memory for the right words. 

While we’re talking to ourselves, locked in the bathroom with the shower running, this is a good time to check in on our Spanish accent.  How do you sound?  Do you have an accent?  And how does it sound?

Try this: 

If you have access to a cassette recorder or a smart phone, you’re in business.  Find something easy to read in Spanish, even a children’s book will do.  The text doesn’t matter.  Or if you’re really confident, record your impromptu monologue.  Turn on the recorder and read or speak aloud your text and record it.

When you’re done recording, play it back and listen carefully.

Maybe you hear yourself pausing, um-ing and ur-ing between the words as you read.  From this you might conclude you need to work on self-confidence, or diction, or both.  One tends to influence and reinforce the other.

Or maybe your words aren’t wholly clear, or maybe the vowels are a little “flat.”  That is, the long “A” sound in Spanish (the English letter “E”) might sound too much like “uh.”  Or the long “E” sound (the English letter “I”) might sound too much like “ih.”  This suggests a simple exercise of consciously or deliberating practising the vowel sounds until they’re second nature.  I do the same to my adult English students in Tlacochahuaya.

Save this recording and then record yourself again a couple of weeks later.  Compare the two recordings.  You should hear the difference if you’ve noticed areas for focus or improvement.

You can also compare your accent and diction with Spanish speakers – either those you already know, or listen to tapes, movies, or TV programs for comparison.

Recording your voice and comparing to the sounds of fluent speakers can turn up the strong and weak spots in your spoken language.   This, in turn, will point the way to exercises and practices most likely to pay off.

In short:

Talking to yourself will strengthen and expand your capacity for thinking in Spanish.  In time, this will expand your confidence as well as your range of vocabulary and expression.  And don’t worry about what others might think.  Chances are they’re looking at their phones!

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