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Why developing positive self-talk is so important for learning English (or anything!)

What is self talk? Self-talk can mean different things to different people so let's start with a definition:

By self-talk, I mean the things we say to ourselves internally as we move through our day; it's our running commentary on our actions and behaviour.

Self-talk is the way we talk about ourselves to ourselves. It is the thoughts and words we have that are connected to us, our abilities and our behaviours.

See if you recognise any of these:

  • "I never get my assignments done on time, why I am such a mess?"

  • "I never get the results I deserve."

  • "I can't cope with this job / exam / course."

  • "I suck at this."

  • "I'm an idiot."

  • "I'm stupid."

  • "My pronunciation is awful."

  • "I'm a terrible English speaker."

  • "I can't cope in meetings with native speaker colleagues."

As you can see, most of these are negative! This is the problem - we learn negative stories when we are young and then repeat them to ourselves for the rest of our lives, mostly without noticing. But surely this self-talk can't really have a strong effect on us? It's just words in our heads, right? A Chinese Proverb A long time ago in China, there lived a wise man known as Lao Tzu. This is what he said about our thoughts:

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

In other words, the way we think and talk to ourselves will, over time, determine our actions and our outcomes. If you want positive, successful outcomes, you need positive, successful thoughts and self-talk. Many of us, however, try to get positive results against a constant backdrop of negative thoughts.

An anxious student

I've worked with many learners who had very negative self-talk. Imagine a student who is working for IELTS. This student needs to get a high band score in order to go abroad to study. They are under pressure from their boss to work hard and 'pass IELTS' (the company is going to sponsor the student to go abroad), but their English is not ready for the score they need. They are also working super long hours at work. Unsurprisingly, the student is stressed, anxious and not doing very well. None of this is the student's fault. Learning a language takes time, effort and patience and cannot happen overnight. Yet this student believes it is her fault, that she is stupid for not being able to write good essays or answer the complex discussion questions. She tells herself she will be nervous on the day, that she won't get the score that she needs. She tells herself she is too stupid to succeed and in the lesson she cries with frustration and tiredness (that's a true story, by the way).

A happy student

On the other hand, imagine a lower-level student who has successfully moved from A1 to A2. During that journey, they have experienced several benefits from having higher-level English. Work is easier, and they can organise things for their kids at school. They can even deal with moving house and applying for visas in English, both highly complex tasks. Although this student is 'only' at A2, they are in fact very successful. They are also extremely positive about their abilities. They are motivated to learn and willing to experiment and take risks with their language. They don't worry about making mistakes, they just get what they need to do done. By the way, this student knows he has work to do. He doesn't ignore his mistakes. But he does accept them and is proud of his achievements. (before you ask, this is another true story!).

Which student is more like you? What effect is that having on your language progress?

How to notice your self-talk

You can use this technique any time you do a speaking task. By 'speaking task' I mean any occasion when you have to speak English, whether that's at home, at work or in class.

  1. During the speaking task, keep some of your attention on your inner talk; what are you saying to yourself? In particular, look out for phrases starting with 'I', 'my' or 'you' as these will often be directed at your self. If you notice positive thoughts such as 'you nailed that presentation!' then that's great. However, you may also notice less positive thoughts.

  2. As soon as possible after the speaking task is over, write as many of these thoughts down as you can. Don't censor them. No-one else needs to see them except you. How do the thoughts make you feel? What do they make you think of?

  • Finally, think about how you could neutralise any negative thoughts. This does not mean that you should make everything wonderful and perfect. For example, if you think "my pronunciation is awful" then changing it to "I have perfect pronunciation like a native speaker" is not really going to help. Instead, how about "my pronunciation needs some work, but it is acceptable and good enough for today". See the difference?

For more help with dealing with negative self-talk, check out my Mindset Reset Mini-Course

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