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Do as Dumbledore does: the benefits of private speech

Updated Wednesday 19th July 2017

In one of the Harry Potter films, Dumbledore claims he finds talking aloud to himself very useful - is this true? Dr. Carlos Montoro explores the research behind self-addressed talk.

In the 2009 film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (but not in the book), Dumbledore’s last conversation with Harry Potter (and I hope this is not a plot spoiler for anyone) is interrupted, minutes before dying, by Draco Malfoy’s entrance, just after Harry Potter manages to hide. The short conversation that follows between Draco and Dumbledore caught my attention:

Albus Dumbledore: Good evening, Draco. What brings you here on this fine, spring evening?

Draco Malfoy: Who else is here? I heard you talking.

Albus Dumbledore: I often talk aloud to myself. I find it extraordinarily useful.

The fact that Dumbledore was lying in this case does not mean that he did not think that talking to himself was truly useful. I do too; so may you.

At that time, as I watched the film, my head was almost constantly pondering on the issue of talking to oneself. I had just embarked on The Open University’s EdD programme, following a spark of curiosity that woke me up from my language teaching routine. One of my students in the language laboratory, as she engaged with an online task, started talking aloud to herself, even gesturing to the computer screen. I was fascinated. And I wanted to find out more about it.

I wanted to know why people talk aloud to themselves. Dumbledore’s ensuing words may shed some light:

Albus Dumbledore: Have you been whispering to you yourself, Draco? Draco, you are no assassin.

Dumbledore seemed to be suggesting that self-addressed talk may be a way of reflecting on past or future events, perhaps a way of bringing one’s attention (and intentions) under control to modify our behaviour.

via GIPHY

Self-talk, as I later found out in the works of Vygotsky, can be used as an external tool to aid our internal thought and decision-making processes. Something like tying a knot around your finger to remember something – well, I guess few of us do this anymore, but I like the old-fashioned example.

To my surprise, in the thesis that came out of my doctoral study I had to report that self-addressed talk (also known as private speech, as coined by Flavell in 1966) was more widespread than anticipated. In Mexico, where the study was conducted, six out of the 10 learners that participated in our experiment systematically talked aloud to themselves when they engaged in private study (of not just languages, but all subjects).

Their reasons for doing so ranged from wanting to concentrate more, to understand better, to memorise things and especially to give the text a voice, because they felt the need to hear the contents, as a way to establish a kind of dialogue with the learning materials, in an effort to link words and ideas.

At the time, I ventured the hypothesis that the prevalence of orality (as opposed to the written word) in Mexican society was the cause for this. But I have not been able to prove it and even I remain unconvinced.

An informal way to find out if private speech is widely spread is to ask a group of people (friends, colleagues, students…) how many of them talk to themselves. People tend to smile, because confessing to this is somehow amusing – talking aloud is often associated with mental health issues.

But far from it, at least in language learning, private speech has been identified as a means to mediate learning, because it is halfway between our thoughts and social speech, between internalising and externalising knowledge. Authors such as Lantolf and Ellis have argued that private speech contains language that learners have internalised from the environment and therefore acts as a proxy for social talk. As Ohta claims, this is where the individual’s inner and social worlds meet, audibly, and many insights live there, if we listen carefully. 

Learn how to make some great speeches like Dumbledore

This article is part of our Harry Potter collection - a series of academic insights exploring some of the themes, interests and general wizardry in the novels written by J.K. Rowling. 

You can view our Happy Birthday Harry Potter! hub here to read all the articles. Mischief managed!

 

 

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