On private and public language, inner speech and teaching writing

Reflections on Thought and Language, by Lev S. Vygotsky.

Vygotsky is best known now as the originator of the concept of the zone of proximal development. The following, however, is about how language works in the mind and perhaps most significantly, about what Vygotsky calls “inner speech.” To me, “inner speech” sounds a whole lot like a crucial piece of the process of writing. The quotations come from a translation of Thought and Language (1934) revised and edited by Alex Kozulin, published by MIT Press, 1986.


Thinking about private and public language can start, logically enough, at the single word. Vygotsky asserts, “Each word is . . . already a generalization.” (6)

Why must it be so? Here’s why:

Edward Sapir: “The world of our experience must be enormously simplified and generalized before it is possible to make a symbolic inventory of all our experiences of things and relations, and this inventory is imperative before we can convey ideas. The elements of language, the symbols that ticket off experience, must therefore be associated with whole groups, delimited classes, of experience rather than with the single experiences themselves. Only so is communication possible, for the single experience lodges in an individual consciousness and is, strictly speaking, incommunicable.” (Language, 1971, p. 12, qtd in Vygotsky p. 8) Does this remind anyone of Moffett’s “what happens”? It should. But it’s a different idea, because Sapir and Vygotsky point out that even a single word must be, in order to communicate, about a class of experiences.

Okay, that’s true when we’re talking about public, communicative use of language. But what about the individual consciousness, the single experience, the private use of language? Something different is going on there. Vygotsky points out that there are different private and public versions of a word. He makes a crucial distinction between sense, which is private, and meaning, which is public:

“The sense of a word, according to [Frederic Paulhan], is the sum of all the psychological events aroused in our consciousness by the word. It is a dynamic, fluid, compex whole, which has several zones of unequal stability. Meaning is only one of the zones of sense, the most stable and precise zone. A word acquires its sense from the context in which it appears; in different contexts, it changes its sense. Meaning remains stable throughout the changes of sense. The dictionary meaning of a word is no more than a stone in the edifice of sense, no more than a potentiality that finds diversified realization in speech.” (244-245)

The sense of a word is personal (each word arouses different psychological events in different people) and it is context-driven. Sense is not stable, shared, public – those attributes belong to meaning. Sense covers much more territory than meaning; in fact, it has no definite boundaries because it is always being influenced by context and the individual’s state of mind. Meaning has to remain narrower and more fixed than sense in order to serve as a relatively reliable means of communication.

Sense is a crucial aspect of artful writing. Because sense depends on context, in the context of a piece of art writing there can be a site-specific “influx of sense” (246) into a recurring word, name, or phrase. As it keeps occurring, it acquires more and more sense particular to the art work within which it lives. Just think of what the name “Bartleby” has come to mean by the time you reach the end of “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

The literary term “connotation” is an acknowledgement of the existence of sense as Vygotsky means it. Interestingly, when we talk with students about connotation of some word in a given context, we are trying to train them, as literary readers, to share a sense of the word as well as its meaning. So we are trying to make the private thing more public, more shared in common. Or another way to put it is, we’re trying to intervene in their private, subjective experience.

Words in their private version, emanating a personal sense for the individual, are the stuff of inner speech. Inner speech, in the words of Kozulin’s intro, is “the internalization of an originally communicative function, which becomes individualized inner mental function. . . . [Inner speech is a] submergence of communication-for-others into individualized reasoning-for-oneself: in inner speech, culturally prescribed forms of language and reasoning find their individualized realization. . . . While meaning [the public version of the word] stands for socialized discourse, sense [the private version] represents an interface between one’s individual (and thus incommunicable) thinking and verbal thought comprehensible to others. Inner speech is not an internal aspect of talking; it is a function in itself” (xxxvi-xxxvii).

So what, for the teaching of writing? Don’t worry, I’m getting there.

Here’s Vygotsky himself on inner speech: “inner speech is an autonomous speech function. We can confidently regard it as a distinct plane of verbal thought. It is evident that the transition from inner speech to external speech is not a simple translation from one language into another. It cannot be achieved by merely vocalizing silent speech.” (248)

Why? Partly because the sense of a word is a privately held experience, and partly because inner speech has a characteristic grammar: it omits the subject. The grammar of inner speech is condensed, abbreviated, and “inner speech is almost entirely predicative because the situation, the subject of thought, is always known to the thinker.” (182) “Predication is the natural form of inner speech; psychologically, it consists of predicates only. It is as much a law of inner speech to omit subjects as it is a law of written speech to contain both subjects and predicates.” (243) You can see this, by the way, in Ulysses, where Bloom’s stream of consciousness, his inner speech, often consists of sentences without subjects – one reason why it can be hard for the reader to follow.

Therefore the transition from inner speech to external speech “is a complex, dynamic process involving the transformation of the predicative idiomatic structure of inner speech into syntactically articulated speech intelligible to others.” (248-9)

Now we’ll start to get the payoff in terms of teaching writing. It seems to me we can say that the act of writing is the transformation of inner speech into “syntactically articulated speech intelligible to others.” So, if Vygotsky’s insights are worth something, they should be of some help in understanding what’s going on as people write.

Consider this in relation to free writing. The form we call “free writing” has unusual ground rules compared to other forms of writing. When I assign free writing I say things like “just follow your thoughts with your pen, go where they take you, it doesn’t have to have any particular form, you don’t have to finish a thought, don’t worry about correctness. The whole point is just to do it. It’s not a finished product, it just is what it is.” Thinking about it in Vygotsky’s terms, free writing seems to allow for both inner speech and external speech as part of what’s written on the page. Thus free writing is deliberately, explicitly positioned on the borderline between inner and outer. If I ask students to free write, they may know that at least one other person (me) will read what they produce, but intelligibility is not demanded (though it occurs far more often than one might predict). The student remains free to write using the idiosyncratic, personal, contextual sense of words rather than their stable and shared meaning. (In fact, most people do much more of the latter than the former.)

It seems to me this gets at why free writing works. If inner speech is the substrate of any writing, and if free writing legitimizes and validates inner speech, then it’s helping the writer have access to the crucial mental resource. It would seem to me that talking explicitly about the inner speech component of free writing might make it even more effective. I think that’s worth a try.

Vygotsky articulates the “unknown general audience” situation in writing by differentiating it from actual conversation. In dialogue with another person face to face, “The changing motives of the interlocutors determine at every moment the turn oral speech will take. It does not have to be consciously directed – the dynamic situation takes care of that. . . . In written speech, we are obliged to create the situation, to represent it to ourselves. . . . Written speech . . . must explain the situation fully in order to be intelligible. [The change from maximally compact inner speech to] maximally detailed written speech requires what might be called deliberate semantics – deliberate structuring of the web of meaning.” (181-182)

For those who happen to have read my piece called “Writing as a Second Language,” what Vygotsky’s saying here provides helpful elaboration of similar ideas.

Here is another insight that I believe gets us closer to understanding what’s happening in the mind as one writes.

“The relation of thought to word is not a thing but a process, a continual movement back and forth from thought to word and from word to thought.” (218)

“The structure of speech does not simply mirror the structure of thought; that is why words cannot be put on by thought like a ready-made garment. Thought undergoes many changes as it turns into speech. It does not merely find expression in speech; it finds its reality and form.” (219, my emphasis)

This is crucial: thought doesn’t “already exist” in some fixed, completed but unverbalized form in the mind; it only hardens into some definite form of existence as it is being put into words. And other forms still remain possible. We can’t accurately say that the thought “is” the words it’s put into; the thought is something other than those words, but we can’t say what the something other is, because it isn’t in words. And even when it starts to become words, it is at first words giving off a powerful vibration of private sense rather than words as public meanings. The words as meanings will always be compromises, always narrower than the sense.

It’s like what Annie Dillard says about writing memoir: a written verbal construct battens on your memories and replaces them. Having written, you might (if you’re lucky) look at the words and say “Yes, that was my experience.” But, of course, it wasn’t. Similarly, when you tell a dream, what’s left, what you continue to have, is the telling; the dream itself is lost. (Though when you write fiction, I believe you create a dream you can dream again.)

So here is what I think might be the key idea, in a sentence:

“while in external speech thought is embodied in words, in inner speech words die as they bring forth thought.” (249)

In external speech, thought is covered over, replaced, always to some extent misrepresented, as words are strung syntactically together; yet this is the only way it can come into being socially, for others. In inner speech, conversely, the external, stable, shared meaning of the word dies as it resonates within the mind into an interior sense. The word is allowed to float away, having set up reverberations of thought.

Think about how this operates as you write (writing being the “continual movement back and forth from thought to word and from word to thought”). Before you begin to write, before you put a word on the page, you are engaged in inner speech, a rehearsal of sorts, but a very peculiar one in which words float up in a completely dispensable, provisional way and bring forth thought, which causes more words to float up . . . for an indefinite time until some words start to be written down. While you choose those written-down words, construct sentences, make socially intelligible meanings, still at the same time the words are resonating within you and creating an interior sense that the words you have so far written have not yet expressed. What you’re hoping, of course, is that they will resonate similarly within the reader; but you can never know if they will for each new reader until they are read.

“Precisely because thought does not have its automatic counterpart in words, the transition from thought to word leads through meaning. In our speech, there is always the hidden thought, the subtext.” (251) Each person’s understanding of word meanings, including what Vygotsky calls sense, stands between the thought and the words used. Though the sound of a word can be a factor in choosing it, it must above all carry a meaning that feels as though it comes close to the thought. Note that this is totally a case of “feels right.” The thought is not some word or string of words that can be compared to what we’re trying to use to express it. The thought is a thought before it is any words. Therefore, we can only decide what the right words are on the basis of “feels right.”

Yet as someone pointed out recently, being wrong feels like being right. So how do you train “feels right” so that it becomes a trustworthy criterion? That must be a major thing education does. How? Tons of feedback. You have to be in a thousand situations where you feel like you’re right and then you are notified, like it or not, either that you’re demonstrably wrong, or that what feels right to you definitely doesn’t feel right to other people. It’s mortifying. But it’s education. People write things because those things feel right to them. They can’t be expected to enjoy finding out the same writing feels wrong to other people. But if they don’t get that feedback, they won’t learn anything they don’t already know.

And then, of course, even beyond the hidden thought there is motive:

“Thought is not begotten by thought; it is engendered by motivation, i.e., by our desires and needs, our interests and emotions. Behind every thought there is an attractive-volitional tendency, which holds the answer to the last ‘why’ in the analysis of thinking. A true and full understanding of another’s thought is possible only when we understand its affective-volitional basis.” (252)

“To understand another’s speech, it is not sufficient to understand his words – we must understand his thought. But even that is not enough – we must also know its motivation.” (253)

This takes us directly to the territory of writing narrative, especially fiction. But I can’t start philosophizing about motive in narrative here.

The book ends with this assertion about how consciousness is formed through the use of language:

“If perceptive consciousness and intellectual consciousness reflect reality differently, then we have two different forms of consciousness. Thought and speech turn out to be the key to the nature of human consciousness.

“If language is as old as consciousness itself, and if language is a practical consciousness-for-others and, consequently, consciousness-for-myself, then not only one particular thought but all consciousness is connected with the development of the word. . . . The word is a direct expression of the historical nature of human consciousness.” (256, my emphasis)

The underlined words state a powerful hypothesis in compressed form. If I understand them, the hypothesis is that pragmatically, language is our means of making the contents of our awareness present, existent, intelligible to others; and it says further that as we constantly use language in this way, we train ourselves to make the contents of awareness present to ourselves via this medium. Thus consciousness, or knowing our own knowing, becomes a language event that has a social history. If we identify the self with consciousness, and it’s hard not to since consciousness implies that someone is being aware, then this argument says that the self is created through a shared use of language.

Vygotsky’s book was published in 1934. This idea has been around for a long time.

Consider, then, a further consequence of this idea: it follows that when we teach writing, which is a turning of inner speech into external language, consciousness-for-others, we are doing something that affects the making of a self. I would submit that this is a very significant mission for teaching to have.



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