Speaking may seem as easy as opening your mouth to allow the sounds to come out, once you have in your mind what to say, of course. However, when it comes to improving fluency, reducing speaking pace, modifying accent and increasing overall intelligibility, speech-language pathologists are challenged to return to the four subsystems of speech. These four are respiration, phonation, resonance, and articulation, or in simpler terms, breathing, voicing, vibration, and pronunciation.
Breathing is the foundation for speech. Inhaled air into the lungs make its way up and out through the passage way of our vocal tract, mouth and nose to create the sounds that we do. In other words, our breath is the flow that is voiced, vibrated and shaped to construct our spoken words. With insufficient air, our volume may be compromised and our voice may trail off at the end of sentences.
The most efficient pattern of breathing is diaphragmatic—or deep— breathing. This process is so named because our diaphragm, the muscle underneath our lungs, expands and contracts to allow air out and in, respectively. As it is the negative pressure in our lungs that causes the air to flow in, rather than our efforts of sucking it into our nose, we consider deep breathing to be a passive process. This is true because we engage in deep breathing in our sleep!
The slight rise and fall of our stomach reveal that we are breathing diaphragmatically. The rising of shoulders and puffing up of the chest during inhales reveal that the breathing pattern has room for improvement.
To create our voice, the breath from our lungs must pass through two muscles at the level of our Adam’s apple (yes—both male and females have it, though it is more prominent in the former). The thyroid cartilage making up what we identify as the Adam’s apple houses these two muscles—the vocal folds or vocal cords— which come apart when we breathe in or out, come together when we hold our breath, and vibrate to create our voice. These muscles are approximately the diameter of a nickel in males and that of a dime in females. The larger size of the male vocal folds contributes to their lower pitch, just as the strings of a bass guitar are thicker than those on an acoustic guitar.
While the density of our vocal folds can directly impact our pitch of our voice, the way we use these muscles determine the quality of our voice. If we frequently raise our voice without much breath to support it, we may damage the surface of the folds and cause calluses, also known as nodules. As the nodules add extra density to the muscles, our voice may have a quality of irregularity and hoarseness as a result. Moreover, if we are holding onto our breath while speaking and applying unnecessary tension in our throat, our voice may seem higher-pitched and difficult to sustain. With training, it is possible to achieve a voice that is produced with greatest ease and least effort.
Resonance (vibration) and articulation (pronunciation)
The voice created in our vocal folds continues on to the interior of our mouth and nose where it vibrates and then shaped before it exits. The process of resonance in an acoustic and electric guitar can be a useful analogy. The hallow cavity of the acoustic guitar allows the sound to bounce around inside it before exiting as a loud vibration, whereas an electric guitar makes a noise barely audible without connection to an amplifier. Our mouth and nose act in a similar fashion: when our mouth or nose cavity is reduced, the volume and resulting clarity is reduced. Listeners often recognize this phenomenon as mumbling. To combat this, it is important for speakers to open their jaw during speech to allow the sound out with least resistance.
Finally, articulation is the movement of and contact between our tongue, interior mouth, teeth and lips to shape sounds. With reduced accuracy in any of these combinations, a speaker’s speech may sound lisped, slurred, or have qualities of a non-native accent. Pronunciation modifications can be made to improve clarity and intelligibility.
Overall, the speech we produce is the result of interaction between our breathing, voicing, vibration and pronunciation. When these components are working in harmony, we begin to speak efficiently, effectively and clearly.
To speak with one of the speech-language pathologists at Well Said: Toronto Speech Therapy, schedule an initial consultation by clicking the link below or calling (647) 795-5277.