In the opening moments of The King’s Speech, you see a 1920’s era BBC broadcaster preparing to go on air. In an elaborate pretentious ritual, he gargles, sprays his throat, measures the distance between his mouth and the mic and executes a series of P’s, T’s and K’s with blazing speed and immaculate precision. The only thing missing is a flashy tongue twister.
When people ask me if they should include tongue twisters in their voice and speech practice, I always respond by saying, “Not now. You’ve got more important skills to learn before you tackle tongue twisters.”
Conventional wisdom holds that tongue twisters improve pronunciation and fluency by strengthening the muscles of your mouth, enhancing agility and promoting precise placement of the articulators, all the while making the practice of diction more playful, amusing and fun. That all sounds good, right?
I can think of two reasons why tongue twisters might be counterproductive, especially for beginners. They make you focus on results rather than fundamental skills, and they lead you to work too hard, creating tense articulators. Let’s examine those two problems more closely.
Tongue twisters get you focused on the result rather than developing skills that make the result possible. How can you practice She Sells Sea Shells if you don’t know your alveolar ridge from the back of your teeth?
If you don’t know which specific part of your tongue is supposed to contact which specific part of your mouth, and you haven’t practiced that precise action, then trying to say it as fast as you can without making a mistake is skipping over a whole lot of intermediate steps. You’re trying to force a result without the basic skills that make it possible.
Once you’re caught up in getting the right result, tongue twisters get you working too hard at articulation. You end up using a hammer when you should be using a feather, adding more tension to the tension that’s already there. Clear precise pronunciation requires relaxed and agile articulators.
If your jaw is busy helping your tongue and your tongue is busy helping your soft palate there’s no way to articulate a complex phrase with ease and precision no matter how often you repeat it. Only when your articulators are relaxed and agile do you have a fighting chance at delivering tricky phrases with speed and accuracy, not before.
If you want to play with tongue twisters to amuse yourself and get some laughs, have fun. Knock yourself out. But if you’re serious about developing clear precise pronunciation skills, spend some time learning the characteristics of each sound and which articulators are involved.
Practice each movement in isolation until you can execute it with ease and precision, like that BBC broadcaster. Then incorporate it into words, phrases and sentences. When you can do that accurately and without tension then maybe you’re ready to use tongue twisters effectively.
Thanks for watching. Leave a comment and let me know if practicing tongue twisters has actually improved your everyday speech, or, what’s the hardest tongue twister you’ve ever encountered?