Why Do Children Talk To Themselves?

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Why Do Children Talk To Themselves?

Whether you are a parent, teacher, child care giver, or a child observer you may have noticed that many children talk to themselves. Laura Berk reports that, “private speech can account for 20-60 percent of the remarks a child younger than 10 years makes” (78). Why do children do this? Does it benefit the child as Vygotsky would say, or is it just that the child is making egocentric remarks that play no positive role in normal cognitive development as Piaget would claim? I am going to be looking at the differences between Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s points of view. Then, I will look at Laura Berk’s findings in her article, “Why Children Talk to Themselves.” I will also talk about other findings concerning this topic.

Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky were developmental psychologists interested in the origins and processes of cognitive development. These two psychologists disagreed sharply on the role that private speech played in one’s cognitive development. Vygotsky called this private speech while Piaget called it egocentric speech.

Piaget observed the activities of three to eight year old kindergarten children, and discovered such uses of speech as verbal repetitions of another individual, monologues during an activity, and non-reciprocal remarks in collective settings. In these instances their speech was not directed towards other individuals. In Piaget’s mind these patterns of speech showed evidence of egocentrism, a sign of cognitive immaturity, and an inability to share the perspective of another individual. However, he argued, as the children grow older they socialize increasingly more with others, and their speech becomes communicative. Their speech moves away from being self- to other-oriented, a sign that they are able to adopt the perspectives of others. A child overcomes egocentrism by beginning to think critically and logically, causing egocentric speech to fade away.

Vygotsky believes that a child’s cognitive development originates in socialization activities, and then goes through a process of increasing individuation. He argued that self-directed speech did not show any cognitive immaturity, but did show some form of development. He claims that private speech represents a functional differentiation in the speech of a child, or that a child begins to differentiate between speech that is directed towards the others and speech that is self-directed.

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The second statement assumes important cognitive functions, such as planning, monitoring, and guiding oneself while engaging in various activities. Vygotsky also sees that as a child grows older, this self-directed speech changes into silent inner speech. He explains that vocalization becomes unnecessary because the child “thinks” the words instead of pronouncing them. He also believes that older children, when faced with obstacles, examine the situation in silence and find a solution. When they describe their thoughts, they are similar to those of preschoolers when thinking aloud. Vygotsky sees that private speech is connected with children’s thinking because it helps them overcome difficulties.

As a future teacher I need to “recognize that private speech is an essential part of cognitive development for all children” (Berk 78). The development of private speech is important to understand. As a child gains mastery over his or her behavior, private speech need not occur in a fully expanded form. “Consequently, children omit words and phrases that refer to things they already know about a given situation. They state only those aspects that still seem puzzling” (Berk 78). The child, then, soon begins to say less words out loud, and begins to think their thoughts internally. This is saying that private speech soon becomes silent inner speech. This inner speech is defined by Berk as: “Those conscious dialogues we hold with ourselves while thinking and acting” (80).

Berk describes six varieties of private speech. Egocentric communication are “remarks directed to another that make no sense from the listener’s perspective.” An example of this is when a child says something to another child like, “It broke,” without explaining what or when. Fantasy play is when “a child role-plays and talks to objects or creates sound effects for them.” An example of this would be when a child yells “out of my way” at an object after they bump into it. Emotional release are “comments not directed to a listener that express feelings, or those that seem to be attempts to review feelings about past events or thoughts.” This would be described as “a child sitting at their desk with an anxious look on their face, repeating to themselves, “my mom’s sick, my mom’s sick’.” Self-direction is when “a child describes the task at hand and gives himself or herself directions out loud.” Reading aloud is when “a child reads written material aloud or sounds out words.” Finally, inaudible mutterings are “utterances so quiet that an observer cannot understand them” (Berk 80).

Laura Berk and Rafael Diaz both did research to build on Vygotsky’s findings. Berk did her research on children in the natural setting of school, and Diaz selected to do research in the laboratory. Berk found that “most of the comments she heard either described or served to direct a child’s actions, consistent with the assumption that self-guidance is the central function of private speech” (80). Children also talked to themselves more when they were faced with a difficult task, when working by themselves, or when a teacher was not available to help. They studied the private speech in Appalachian children as well as middle class children. They found that Appalachian children’s private speech developed at a slower pace than those who were middle-class. One reason that they found this to be true may come from the fact that middle-class parents talk to their children more often than Appalachian parents. This would also back up Vygotsky’s theory that private speech stems from social communication.

A problem they faced was with Diaz’s research. He observed that children who used more private speech did worse on the tasks set before them than those who did not use private speech. He came up with some explanations for this. He looked at Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (a range of various kinds of support and assistance provided by an expert who helps children to carry out activities they currently cannot complete but will later be able to accomplish independently). After looking at this he concluded, that perhaps the tasks typically given in the laboratory were not suitable for evoking private speech in all children. Some children may have been so familiar with solving puzzles and matching pictures that the cognitive operations they needed to succeed were already automatic. Other children may have found these tasks so difficult that they could not master them without help (81).

Diaz sees that private speech would not help in this case. Next Berk went into a laboratory school at Illinois State University. She and her team observed 75 1st through 3rd graders as they worked alone at their desks. Every child that they observed talked to themselves on an average of 60% of the time (Berk 81). Her team also found that students who made many self-guiding comments out loud or quietly did better at second-grade math. They found Vygotsky’s hypothesis to be true, that self-guiding comments help children direct their actions. Berk and her team also found that students who did use private speech were less fidgety in class, and were more attentive.

Berk also looked at children who had learning disorders. She found that “these children follow the same course of development as do their unaffected age mates, but impairment in their cognitive processing and ability to pay attention made academic tasks more difficult for them” (82).

Private speech is a problem-solving tool universally available to children who grow up in rich, socially interactive environments. Several interdependent factors--the demands of a task, its social context and individual characteristics of a child--govern the extent and ease with which any one child uses self-directed behavior (83).

Therefore the intervention would benefit a child with a learning disorder by creating an environment where he or she can learn to use private speech effectively.
Rubin and Fisher in their book Your Preschooler explain that children talk out loud to control their feelings and actions. “A preschooler often uses this ‘thinking out loud’ technique to help him manage situations that are beyond their immediate control, or that are emotionally painful” (46). A child may talk to himself after his parents have tucked them in for the night. They may say “bye-bye mommy, night-night” to comfort them as their parents leave to go to bed. A child may also talk himself through anger or other negative emotions. Instead of hitting another child they may call them names, or tell them that they are mad at them. This could also show why temper tantrums decrease as children’s language skills increase because they begin to internalize their emotions better. Rubin and Fisher also note that talking out loud could reinforce their own self-control.

Both children and adults use private speech. You may have noticed yourself talking out loud when you are under stress, have a lot to do, or are trying to figure out how to put something together. During Christmas break I observed my parent’s friend’s son who is 8 years old. During the time that he played with his toys he continuously talked to them. When he was frustrated at the game he was playing he would call the game stupid and vent his anger this way. I noticed that this is the way that he works through his difficult tasks.

As stated in Child Development, “Research has confirmed that children, like adults, use private speech when they find tasks difficult or when they made errors, and that when they use task-relevant private speech, their performance on a variety of tasks improves” (281). As future teachers and parents it is important to see how private speech helps children perform better in schools, and also how it is also beneficial to their development.

Works Cited;

Berk, Laura E. “Why Children Talk to Themselves.” Scientific American
November 1994: 78-83.

Bukatko, Danuta, and Marvin W. Daehler. Child Development: A
Thematic Approach. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.

Franklin, Margery B., and Sybil S. Barten. Child Language: A Reader.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

“Private Speech: A cognitive tool in verbal communication.”
February 28, 1998

Rubin, Richard, and John Fisher. Your Preschooler. New York:
Johnson and Johnson, 1982.

“Review and Analysis of Vygotsky’s Though and Language.” February 28,

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