A voice in your head?

When I read, I hear a voice in my head. The voice is usually a pretty flat version of my own voice and it’s the same as the voice I hear when I think. Occasionally, when I receive an email from someone with a distinctive voice then I might hear their voice instead. And I sometimes hear characters’ voices when I am reading fiction.

In the past, it would never have occurred to me to mention this because I would have assumed that everyone has the same experience. But we do not. Recently a respected researcher commented in an email forum I follow that he hears no voice when he reads. I couldn’t imagine that but I did believe him so I looked into the issue and found two things; people do seem to have diverse experiences of reading ‘voices’ and yet there is little research on this phenomenon.

Let us accept that some people hear a voice when they read and some do not. If this is the case then it seems to me that there are three overlapping possibilities.

1. There are qualitative differences between people that mean that some of us hear a voice when reading and some do not.

2. There is a spectrum of experience where some are more likely to perceive a voice than others.

3. We all have fundamentally the same mental architecture but our subjective interpretation of our experience is different.

You may struggle to understand what I mean by the third possibility so here’s an attempt at trying to explain it with an analogy: Ever since I moved to Australia it has annoyed me that some Australians refer to certain people as having ‘an accent’. Everyone has an accent, I complain, especially Australians. Yet to these people, the Australian accent is so normal that they simply don’t hear it.

Perhaps some people are so familiar with the voice in their head that they don’t hear it. It’s there, but they don’t identify it as a voice because it is their own.

Whatever the case, this looks like a great phenomenon to investigate. I would speculate that people who hear a voice when reading might be relatively more inclined to accept the argument for systematic phonics teaching and those who don’t hear a voice might be relatively more inclined to be persuaded by whole language arguments about turning words directly into meaning.

Similarly, there might be a correlation between the presence of a reading voice and the way someone was taught to read. Teaching phonemic awareness and phonics might create an inner voice or it might raise awareness of a voice that would otherwise go unnoticed.

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14 Comments on “A voice in your head?”

  1. Jennifer says:

    No voice, strongly in favour of phonics – basically taught myself to read – once my mum realised what was happening she got onto the latest thing (late 40s) which were “whole language” type readers from the US with true false comprehension questions. No expicit phonics teaching that I recall, but I could sound out words and also used in beginning spelling.

  2. Janita says:

    How do you know what a piece of writing sounds like if you don’t hear a voice in your head when you read it?

  3. Michael pye says:

    Your hypothesis is unusual wild. It could be the other way as easily.

  4. Angie says:

    I’ve always had an inner reading voice. I was under the impression that it’s because I’m reading in a way that’s slowing me down (i.e., reading every word) so I’ve thought it was a weakness. But zooming through a work to catch to concepts does not sound enjoyable to me.

    This is an intriguing relationship you propose–I was taught to read with phonics:

    Whatever the case, this looks like a great phenomenon to investigate. I would speculate that people who hear a voice when reading might be relatively more inclined to accept the argument for systematic phonics teaching and those who don’t hear a voice might be relatively more inclined to be persuaded by whole language arguments about turning words directly into meaning.

    Similarly, there might be a correlation between the presence of a reading voice and the way someone was taught to read. Teaching phonemic awareness and phonics might create an inner voice or it might raise awareness of a voice that would otherwise go unnoticed.

  5. Chester Draws says:

    I have an internal voice, but I only notice it when I read something by someone whose voice I know. Then it registers because I actually “hear” their voice, and because it is different to mine.

    There are some memes on this – you see a picture of Yoda and a piece of text in his style and it is hard to read it without (internally) mimicking his voice. http://www.wordstream.com/images/explainer-videos-best.jpg

  6. patrickamon says:

    This is genuinely fascinating. When you say that you ‘hear’ your voice when reading or thinking, are you saying there is really no qualitative difference between your experience of thinking or reading and your experience of actually hearing another person’s voice? Do you find yourself unable to think or read, for example, in a very noisy bar, or beside a building site, in the way that we sometimes find ourselves unable to hear other people in very noisy environments like these? Personally, I certainly have the sense of the cadence of another person’s voice when I read what they’ve written. I wouldn’t call this ‘hearing’ though. Of course, we all talk of being able, or not, to ‘hear ourselves think’, just as we talk of ‘seeing in our mind’s eye.’ I’ve always taken these expressions to be metaphorical. I can, right now, see ‘in my mind’s eye’ the Eiffel Tower. This experience, though, is not remotely the same as actually being in front of the Eiffel Tower and looking at it.

    • Chester Draws says:

      Do you find yourself unable to think or read, for example, in a very noisy bar, or beside a building site,

      Read, yes, in the sense that reading is considerably more difficult.

      Which is why teachers insist on quiet when people are reading. Most people do not read very effectively if there is noise, and in particular talking.

      Think, not so much, because I can turn turn my sense of hearing, just as I defocus when I want to listen intently.

      But a lot of people seem to think badly in a noisy environment, which is why genuinely noisy classrooms are not a good idea.

  7. seonaid says:

    Could it correlate with reading speed? That is, the faster you read, the less likely you are to hear a voice?

  8. Robert says:

    It depends on what I read, and how I read it.

    I read a lot of mathematics, and clearly I do not have a voice in my head speaking out mathematical formulas.

    In the case of text, if I read slowly, word for word, I’ll have some kind of mental voice saying the words (although I’d say I think the words, not hear them.) This would, for example, be how I would spell/grammar check something I’m writing. However my regular reading speed is a lot faster than the speed at which I can (mentally) speak or hear. I usually don’t read word for word but phrase by phrase, if that makes sense. At this point the voice will fade. When I’m really immersed in a work of fiction, the words on the page translate to scenery, actions, images in my mind, and I only “hear” the words that are part of a character’s conversation.

    When I’m really quickly scanning a text for a word or phrase it becomes a purely visual exercise.

    I suspect there’s a similar thing going on in how people think. I’m bilingual Dutch and English, and I was always confused by people asking me in what language I think, until I figured out that some people actually do think in a language. I only think in words when I’m trying to figure out what to say or write, in which case I’ll be thinking those words in the language I’m preparing to speak or write.

  9. Janita says:

    In his book The Reading Mind, Daniel Willingham notes that all writing codes sound, not meaning. But the process of reading is complicated, and readers routinely use both the appearance of words (orthography) and their meaning (semantics) as well as decoding (phonology) in a rapid and largely unconscious system of checking and reinforcement. It should come as no surprise that they also use a knowledge of syntax (word order and other grammatical rules), morphemes (including prefixes, suffixes and etymological roots) and the conventions peculiar to written language, such as punctuation.
    However (he goes on to say), lots of technical experiments show that “even for the proficient readers, the sound-translation pathway continues to influence reading, even after the spelling pathway develops.”
    He cites three examples: “First, even skilled readers are slower to read irregular pronunciation . . . than words that follow translation rules. Second, people are slower to (silently) read tongue-twisters than [equivalent non-tongue-twisters]. Third, if you ask people to proofread text, they are less likely to flag errors that have the right sound . . . than errors that don’t. So sound matters, even for experienced readers, reading silently.”

  10. Janita says:

    If, as some have suggested, learning to read “visually” (by recognising whole words rather than decoding) mutes the inner voice, we have another very good argument in favour of phonics. The whole-language system bypasses the music of written language. The result could be a generation of tin ears.


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