Where Does Your Tongue Sit?

Have you ever wondered why you pronounce certain letters and words different to those in other countries?

The way your tongue rests is probably different to French, German and Russian speakers. 

Not surprisingly the language, or languages, you speak can change the way you interact with people. But it can also change the way you think, and the way you solve problems. And now we know it can also change the way your voice organs rest.

In an experiment carried out by the Department of Linguistics at the University of British Columbia, it was discovered that the resting position of your tongue depends on what language you speak.

The study used X-ray data to look at the way five English and five French people speak, whilst looking at the different muscles and organs involved, as well as how much each was used. They then used the data to link the tongue’s resting position to the language spoken.

Speech organs include your lips, tongue and voice box, and speech rest position is the position of these organs before you start to speak. Speech rest position is different in most languages, and these differences can be seen at 5 different locations in the mouth and throat.

In English speakers, the tongue rests on the roof, whereas in French speakers it rests on the floor of the mouth. Also, in English speakers the tongue tip is tapered, and in French - you guessed it - the tongue is untapered. The paper even goes on to mention that in English the lips are in a more neutral position and slightly active, but in French the lips are rounded and ‘vigorously active’. So generally speaking, the tongues of native German and Russian speakers rests naturally on the bottom of their mouths, whilst English speakers rests on the top.

This difference in speech rest position changes the sound of vowels and impacts the ways we can learn a second language. To simplify, where the tongue rests in a mouth plays a large part in the overall sound of a language, and how easily you can pick up a language when you really try.

Previously we knew there was a ‘pre-speech posture’, which is just the positions the speech organs make before we speak. However, there was no evidence to suggest that speech rest position may be shared across speakers of a given language, different in each language, or if it impacted speech at all.

There is also a thing called intra-speech posture. This is the position the speech organs are in as you’re making speech, and now we know that these are language specific and influence the way different languages can pronounce neutral vowels. And if that wasn’t enough, the research also suggested that the resting positions of speech in language today may have changed and developed throughout history.

It is this language-specific resting speech position that can have a big impact on how languages sound and maybe even how easy it is to master a particular language. So, think of all those times you couldn’t quite pronounce those French ‘R’ sounds. Now you know that it’s not just your extreme lack of practice, sometimes it’s a lot more complex than that.

Keep reading. Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.

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