In case you haven’t noticed, my publishing course has been giving me a lot to think about lately.
Surprisingly, subvocalization was one of them.
Before today, I had never heard of the term subvocalization. Not even within the class that brought it up, which makes me wonder how common of a term it is.
I hadn’t even thought about the subject before, until my professor happened to mention, “Some people hear the words they read in their heads. And if they don’t know how to pronounce a word, they stumble over it, even when they’re reading silently!”
She said this as if it were a funny factoid, as if no one in the class would have ever heard of something as silly as that before.
Except, I had. Because I do it myself, every time I read.
Today out of curiosity, I looked up people’s reading habits and came across the term. As Merriam-Webster, my favorite online dictionary, puts it: “Subvocalization – the act or process of inaudibly articulating speech with the speech organs.”
Essentially, it means that you say words with your tongue and larynx as you read or think them, even though technically you don’t need to in order to comprehend the information.
And by many, in fact by almost all of the top hits on Google, it’s considered a bad habit.
They call it a step backwards, an infantile process that we all should have outgrown after we stopped reading phonetically in elementary school.
They say that it slows your reading to only as fast as you can talk, and that we would all be much more efficient readers if we only let the eyes and brain do their things and leave the mouth out of the equation.
That may be true – If I consciously stop pronouncing words as I read them, I can absolutely fly through text, and still get the meaning.
But I’m going to advocate very strongly for subvocalization (on the sole basis of my own experiences and absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever, because this is my blog and it isn’t exactly science-y), because I have gotten dozens of compliments on both my ability to write and to read aloud over the years, all of which I now suspect I can attribute, at least in part, to my ridiculous level of subvocalization.
First of all, when I write, as when I read, I say the words quite strongly in my head. It’s not so much a whisper as a full-out voice, my voice, saying the things I then proceed to type.
Which makes it much easier for me to create flowing sentences.
Half my professors have urged their students to read their pieces aloud, to feel on their tongues how awkwardly phrased a sentence is, how much in need of a comma a long one can be.
I never understood that, or needed it, because for me, my mind already does that. I’m making my sentences as fluid as can be read already, because I feel the awkwardness of an awkward phrase before I type. I lace poems with rhymes without even thinking about them, because my tongue is already on a kick of a certain vowel and instantly brings to mind words that use the same.
Second of all, I read aloud with as much ease as I read silently.
While over half the class struggles over words, skips sentences, pronounces things wrong, adds the wrong inflection, says the wrong word, or simply limps through the long paragraphs as their mouths struggle to keep up with the pace of their reading minds, mine flows along the same way it always has – because I already am used to physically forming the words on the page, every time I read them.
As an English major who has had to read aloud sections of novels in numerous classes, who has had to stand in front of several audiences and read her work, I can’t tell you how valuable that skill is.
So, as far as I can tell, subvocalization has helped me immensely in my chosen area of study. It likely won’t help a science major, with her thick textbooks, or a law student with the dense legal print of contracts. At least, not in the same way. But for those of us of the writerly and readerly bent, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the process of reading aloud in your head.
It might do you some good.