Private Speech

Vygotsky and Socio-cultural Learning

The Basics

Now that we have covered the Vygotskian concepts of ZPD, MKO, and scaffolding, it is time to consider his perspective on what is known as private speech.

This topic can sometimes be confusing–especially when trying to differentiate between speech that is spoken (overt) and speech that is unspoken (covert). As the video primer shows, there are two types of overt speech: social and private. To gain a clearer understanding of the differences between those overt types–and also enjoy a good laugh or two–please watch the video primer and chat about it.

Agree or Disagree with the Narrative:

Watch these two videos and decide which is/are using Private Speech

Is this person using Private Speech?

No, because she is only thinking covertly to herself. This is actually “inner speech.”

Please note that the original content of this video is a small excerpt from a huge body of work and that it has been re-purposed for educational purposes. This is in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of standard copyright law.

Is this person using Private Speech?

Yes, because she is talking overtly to herself.

A More Scholarly Perspective

a digital 'white paper'

Scholarly Q&A

The following Q&A is based primarily on an excellent, well researched article by Saul McLeod of Because it’s so scholarly, we’ve used a white background (as in white paper). Just click on the toggles to read Mcleod’s answers to the questions.

What Did Vygotsky Really Believe About Language?

Vygotsky believed that language develops from social interactions, for communication purposes. Vygotsky viewed language as man’s greatest tool, a means for communicating with the outside world.

According to Vygotsky (1962) language plays 2 critical roles in cognitive development:

1: It is the main means by which adults transmit information to children.

2: Language itself becomes a very powerful tool of intellectual adaptation.

(McLeod, n.d.)

How Does Vygotsky Differentiate Among the Three Forms of Language?

Vygotsky (1987) differentiates between three forms of language: social speech which is external communication used to talk to others (typical from the age of two); private speech (typical from the age of three) which is directed to the self and serves an intellectual function; and finally private speech goes underground, diminishing in audibility as it takes on a self-regulating function and is transformed into silent inner speech (typical from the age of seven).

For Vygotsky, thought and language are initially separate systems from the beginning of life, merging at around three years of age. At this point speech and thought become interdependent: thought becomes verbal, speech becomes representational. When this happens, children’s monologues internalized to become inner speech. The internalization of language is important as it drives cognitive development.

“Inner speech is not the interior aspect of external speech – it is a function in itself. It still remains speech, i.e. thought connected with words. But while in external speech thought is embodied in words, in inner speech words dies as they bring forth thought. Inner speech is to a large extent thinking in pure meanings” (qtd. in McLeod, n.d.).

What are the Differences Between Piaget and Vygotsky?

Vygotsky (1987) was the first psychologist to document the importance of private speech. He considered private speech as the transition point between social and inner speech, the moment in development where language and thought unite to constitute verbal thinking. Thus private speech, in Vygotsky’s view, was the earliest manifestation of inner speech. Indeed, private speech is more similar (in its form and function) to inner speech than social speech.

Private speech is “typically defined, in contrast to social speech, as speech addressed to the self (not to others) for the purpose of self-regulation (rather than communication)” (Diaz, 1992, p.62). Unlike inner speech which is covert (i.e. hidden), private speech is overt.

In contrast to Piaget’s (1959) notion of private speech representing a developmental dead-end, Vygotsky (1934, 1987) viewed private speech as: “a revolution in development which is triggered when preverbal thought and preintellectual language come together to create fundamentally new forms of mental functioning” (Fernyhough & Fradley, 2005: p. 1).

In addition to disagreeing on the functional significance of private speech, Vygotsky and Piaget also offered opposing views on the developmental course of private speech and the environmental circumstances in which it occurs most often (Berk & Garvin, 1984).

Piaget's and Vygotsky's views on private speech

(McLeod, n.d.)

What are Some of Vygostky's Specific Views on Private Speech?

Through private speech, children begin to collaborate with themselves in the same way a more knowledgeable other (e.g. adults) collaborate with them in the achievement of a given function.

Vygotsky sees “private speech” as a means for children to plan activities and strategies and therefore aid their development. Private speech is the use of language for self-regulation of behavior. Language is therefore an accelerator to thinking/understanding (Jerome Bruneralso views language in this way). Vygotsky believed that children who engaged in large amounts of private speech are more socially competent than children who do not use it extensively.

Vygotsky (1987) notes that private speech does not merely accompany a child’s activity but acts as a tool used by the developing child to facilitate cognitive processes, such as overcoming task obstacles, enhancing imagination, thinking, and conscious awareness. Children use private speech most often during intermediate difficulty tasks because they are attempting to self-regulate by verbally planning and organizing their thoughts (Winsler et al., 2007).

The frequency and content of private speech are then correlated with behavior or performance. For example, private speech appears to be functionally related to cognitive performance: It appears at times of difficulty with a task. For example, tasks related to executive function (Fernyhough & Fradley, 2005), problem solving tasks (Behrend et al., 1992), schoolwork in both language (Berk & Landau, 1993), and mathematics (Ostad & Sorensen, 2007).

Berk (1986) provided empirical support for the notion of private speech. He found that most private speech exhibited by children serves to describe or guide the child’s actions.

Berk also discovered than child engaged in private speech more often when working alone on challenging tasks and also when their teacher was not immediately available to help them. Furthermore, Berk also found that private speech develops similarly in all children regardless of cultural background.

Vygotsky (1987) proposed that private speech is a product of an individual’s social environment. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that there exist high positive correlations between rates of social interaction and private speech in children.

Children raised in cognitively and linguistically stimulating environments (situations more frequently observed in higher socioeconomic status families) start using and internalizing private speech faster than children from less privileged backgrounds. Indeed, children raised in environments characterized by low verbal and social exchanges exhibit delays in private speech development.

Childrens’ use of private speech diminishes as they grow older and follows a curvilinear trend. This is due to changes in ontogenetic development whereby children are able to internalize language (through inner speech) in order to self-regulate their behavior (Vygotsky, 1987). For example, research has shown that childrens’ private speech usually peaks at 3–4 years of age, decreases at 6–7 years of age, and gradually fades out to be mostly internalized by age 10 (Diaz, 1992).

Vygotsky proposed that private speech diminishes and disappears with age not because it becomes socialized, as Piaget suggested, but rather because it goes underground to constitute inner speech or verbal thought” (Frauenglass & Diaz, 1985).

Is This Anything??

adapted from The Late Show with David Letterman (we're definitely in some gray area now)

Discussion 1

Please use the chat box (right) and discuss this adorable video. According to Vygotskian Theory, is it a type of speech? If so, what type is it? Social? Private? Inner? What purpose does it serve in child development? Feel free to post links to other examples of developmental utterances and tell us what you think about them. You can do that either in the chat box or in the comment section at the bottom of the page.

Is This Anything #1?

Discussion 2

Listen to the following conversation and decide if you agree with the psychologist who seems to be suggesting that there is a link between “inner speech” and the voice hallucinations that are common to people suffering from schizophrenia? Because the onset of this brain disorder can occur in high-school students, how would you relate and respond to a student who claims to be hearing voices?


 Thank you for your participation!

Is This Anything #2

1 Comment

  1. Gary B

    There’s some great comments on here from everyone–especially about the “Da da da” kids. Thank you! You have helped me to formulate an opinion about that video. (I really didn’t have one before.) And I also now think that it’s social speech–but in a “delayed” kind of way, perhaps. You see, my understanding of Vygotsky’s purpose for social speech includes the aspect of the child’s MKO using his/her speech to engage the LKO (Less Knowledgeable Other) and help him/her to attain higher levels of learning/knowledge. But in this video, we don’t hear or see the parent actively engaging the kids with intelligible speech and they are just imitating what they have heard from their MKOs in the past. The active engagement is between the two kids and, in their own way, they are both entertaining each other (which is a pleasure that most people derive from imitation) and connecting with each other in probably much more meaningful ways. It’s impossible to get inside their heads, though, unless one were to to a Vulcan Mind Meld.


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