The Language Teacher
July 2003

Innervoice and Language Planning

Marc Helgesen

Miyagi Gakuin Women's University, Sendai, Teachers College, Columbia University, Tokyo

Every time we have a conversation, we are actually having two: one with the person we're talking to and one with ourselves. The conversation with ourselves is our innervoice.1 Everyone has one, at least in their native language. In the pre-conference workshop Innervoice, time, language planning and practice, we'll explore ways to help Japanese students develop an innervoice in English, an act that allows them to develop a depth of language use as well as a way to provide extra, personalized practice. We will also consider language planning, a series of techniques ranging from task preview and mental rehearsal to mind-mapping and task recycling.


How does the innervoice work? It is fairly easy to notice your own innervoice. Imagine that you are at a party. You meet someone for the first time. (Alternatively, imagine that you are teaching a conversation class. It is the start of the school year. Your text begins with a "getting to know you" conversation—at a party, meeting someone). Look at the conversation below. What would you (or the characters) actually be thinking?

Man: Nice party, isn't it?
Woman: Yes, it is. By the way, I'm Naomi.
Man: Nice to meet you. I'm Peter.

As they speak, your—or their—innervoice might well be saying different things. Here's one possibility:

Man's innervoice: Hey, who's this? I'd like to meet her. I wonder if she's here alone.
Woman's innervoice: Hmm. He's kind of cute.

The conversation continues:

Woman: How do you know Pat? (Pat = the party's host)
Man: We play tennis together. Do you play?
Woman: I love tennis.

Again, what are they really thinking?

Man's innervoice: Hmm. Let her know right away that I'm an athletic type.
Woman's innervoice: Oh, something we have in common.

The dialog goes on:

Man: So how do you know Pat?
Woman: We go out together.
Man: Oh.

What are their innervoices saying now?

Woman's innervoice: Pat is so nice.
Man's innervoice: Ummmmm. Busted.

In class, "imagine the innervoice" can become a task. Students, alone or in pairs, look through the dialog and imagine what the speakers are thinking. They write it in the margins and, perhaps, share their ideas with other students. This simple technique can lead to real depth in the classroom. They go beyond the words to think about the real meaning and intention. Dialogs and other texts can be a source for far more than read and repeat. They can be stimuli for thinking, speculation and personalization, even at beginning levels. Students can, often in pairs or small groups, go through a textbook dialog and decide on the characters' innervoice conversation. This means, of course, that they are working on the dialog—but at a deeper level than is usually achieved with "practice the dialog" activities.

Language Planning

Innervoice can be a part of language planning, a series of techniques that address the very real drawbacks of demanding instant language production. As "communicative" has become the standard, we as teachers have accepted certain truths:

We often take that to a not necessarily logical extreme:

So we walk into the classroom, hand out a pairwork activity, say, "Here's the task. You're student A. You're student B. TALK!" 2. In essence, we are asking them to create the meaning (think of what they want to say) and create the form (think of how to say it), simultaneously and in a foreign language. As a result, students say whatever they can say instantly. This demand for instant production means we lock them into surface level conversations (What do you like music?). As Sandy (2003) points out, learners need "mental preparation time, on their own, not only to think about how to answer a question or respond to a text, but more to work out what they want to say or how they feel."

What Sandy is describing is a form of language planning—giving students time and often a task that allows them to think through the items they will talk about. Forster and Skehan (1999) report several clear benefits:

Classroom Application

What, specifically, does one do in the classroom to encourage language planning? In it's simplest and most direct form, it can be a matter of assigning a task and giving the learners time to look over the material and think about what they will say. Sandy (2003) reports, "I started by offering 10-30 seconds of silence before asking for responses, and worked up to giving them a couple of minutes, making sure everyone had scrap paper and dictionaries handy. From there, I even began encouraging students to work out their responses in their native language and to try those ideas out on a partner first in that language before doing it again in English. Just these small changes over the years have drastically changed the way I teach and the way people in my classes learn, while doing much to promote deeper thought. Everyone has a chance to be vocal, and more, everyone has a chance to think."

With some classroom tasks, especially when learners will be talking about longer items such as narratives or personal stories, it can be useful to have them engage in specific mental rehearsal. They think first about what they want to say. Then they go back again and mentally prepare to say it. In a related technique, the teacher may "mentally lead the learners through the story" through a guided visualization. The learners close their eyes and the teacher asks questions or gives information as learners imagine the situation. Although the term "guided visualization" refers to the sense of sight, the actual classroom practice usually involves the auditory and haptic (tactile-kinesthetic [touch]) sensory modalities as well. At times, the other senses, gustatory (taste) and olfactory (smell) are part of the activity. I need to acknowledge, perhaps, that terms like guided visualization can be off-putting, especially before people have tried them. This is not some strange, New Age technique. It is something many of use do all the time: It is taking a minute to think through want we want to say. It is just that in this case, the teacher guides the mental rehearsal in a way that makes it available to everyone.

Drawing pictures or constructing mind-maps are excellent ways of preparing to tell stories or talk about personal experiences. In many ways, they are superior to tradition written notes because they are not in sentence form, therefore they avoid committing the student to a particular grammatical form too early.

Another very useful tool is task recycling, that is, simply asking students to do a task a second time, usually with new partners. Bygate (2001) reports that task recycling results in marked improvements in vocabulary selection and use, grammar and the ability to self-correct. Lynch and Maclean (2001) suggest that "immediate task repetition leads these learners to change and improve their spoken English." It should be pointed out that, as long as the learners are dealing with real information and new partners, the experience is not the same as "just do this again." They are engaging in new conversation with new people. It is as if the first time they did the task was the preparation for the subsequent task.

In this article, I have suggested ways the learners can use and develop their innervoice to practice English at a depth often not reached. I have also argued that language planning can lead to improvements in fluency, complexity and, at times, accuracy. Language planning can be implemented in many ways, usually easily. These are ideas we will explore more deeply in the JALT pre-conference workshop, Innervoice, time, language planning and practice.


1.Brian Tomlinson presented on Innervoice at JALT 2002. My session builds on his work as well as on the language planning ideas of Peter Skehan, Paula Foster, Martin Bygate and others. Tomlinson's article, The Inner Voice: A Critical Factor in L2 Learning, is available on-line in the Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning and Teaching, 2001 at 2. I learned this "You're A. You're B. TALK!" example from William Kumai.


Thanks to Yumi Suda, Michelle Milner, and Steve Brown for feedback on earlier versions of this article.


Bygate, M. (2001). Effects of task repetition on the structure and control of oral language. In M. Bygate, P. Skehan and M. Swain (Eds.) Researching pedagogic tasks: Second language learning, teaching and testing. Harlow: Longman.
Foster, P., & Skehan, P. (1999). The influence of source of planning and focus of planning on task-based performance. Language Teaching Research. 3(3), 215-247.
Lynch, T., & Maclean, J. (2001). 'A case of exercising': Effects of immediate task repetition on learners' performance. In M. Bygate, P. Skehan and M. Swain (Eds.) Researching pedagogic tasks: Second Language learning, teaching and testing. Harlow: Longman.
Sandy, C. (2003). Think Tank: How can I encourage my students to use higher level thinking skills? [Online] Available: March 19, 2003 from

Marc Helgesen is a professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women's University, Sendai. He also teaches listening methodology in the Teachers College, Columbia University MA-TESOL program in Tokyo. He is an author of many books including English Firsthand and Workplace English (Longman), and Active Listening (Cambridge). He has taught in Japan for over 20 years.

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