Tricky Tongue Twisters Can Teach Us to Speak More Memorably

Speaking slowly and with “clear speech” helps listeners remember what you said.

Posted Nov 05, 2018

Sandie Keerstock
Some conversations are forgotten as soon as they are over, while other exchanges may leave lasting imprints. Researchers want to understand why and how listeners remember some spoken utterances more clearly than others. They're specifically looking at ways in which clarity of speaking style can affect memory. They will describe their work at the Acoustical Society of America's 176th Meeting, Nov. 5-9. This image shows a sample of the sentences used to test listening and memory.
Source: Sandie Keerstock

My late father was a childhood stutterer. After years of phonetics practice, he mastered a clearly articulated speaking style. As an adult, he spoke with the clarity of a professional newscaster like Walter Cronkite. When I was a kid, even though I didn’t stutter, dad constantly nagged me to speak more slowly and to articulate my words.

Sometimes my dad would scold me, “Chris, you’re mumbling again! Remember to slooow down and e-nun-ci-ate every syllable when you speak.” Then he'd give me a little lecture about how people listen more closely to what you’re saying when you speak slowly and that clear speech elucidates the meaning of spoken words. My father was a high-pressured chief of neurosurgery. To drive home the real-world importance of using “clear speech” at work he'd say, “If I garbled my words while giving instructions to a surgical assistance during life-or-death situations in the O.R. patients could die.”

As an irreverent youngster, I probably rolled my eyes and dismissively said something slightly obnoxious like, “OK. Sure, dad. Whatever you say.” But later in life, whenever I had to “audition” for an important job or speak in public, I’d give myself a pep talk beforehand with my father’s voice echoing in my head. I’d say to myself in the third person, “Chris, remember to slow down and e-nun-ci-ate every syllable.”

Of course, during a natural conversation, your speaking voice should flow. If you think too much about over-enunciating every word, your voice can sound phony and robotic (e.g., Alexa or Siri). But there’s a sweet spot you can master by practicing the articulation of tongue twisters in which well-articulated “clear speech” will help your vocalizations be better heard. This will make it easier for listeners to understand and remember what you said.

How Many Times in a Row Can You Fluidly Say “The Thesaurus Has Synonyms” Without Stammering?

 Clipartlibrary
Source: Clipartlibrary

My 11-year-old daughter and I spend a fair amount of time talking about language. She lives in the United States but attends a French-speaking school called “Lycée Français.” Her Finland-born mom is a polyglot. On the flip side, I don’t speak French or Finnish and can’t even pronounce Lycée Français with an accent that isn’t laughably cringeworthy (or “cringy” as my daughter would say) to every francophiles’ ears. But when it comes to speaking English, my daughter and her mom know I love Latin and they’ll often ask me about the definition (or origin) of spoken words.

A few years ago, the three of us were in the car and the meaning of “caveat” came up in conversation. I said, “It must come from the Latin verb "cavēre" ("to be on guard")” and gave my layperson’s definition of the word along with an example of when you’d precede a dubious statement with a so-called “caveat.” But I wanted to double-check my interpretation of the term...As I was whipping out my smartphone, I simultaneously started to utter what seemed like a simple nine-word sentence: “Let’s check the dictionary and the thesaurus for synonyms.”

I was only a few words into this doozy of a sentence when part of my brain saw the writing on the wall and realized my tongue was inevitably going to get twisted up on the last four words. I knew that uttering, “the thesaurus” and “synonyms” close together presented articulatory problems and wasn’t going to roll off my tongue fluidly.

So, I paused for a millisecond and took a quick breath after the word “dictionary.” Then, I tried to say “the thesaurus” with very clear articulation. I failed. After a few more botched attempts of saying “the thesaurus” we all became hysterical with laughter. In between giggles my daughter repeatedly tried to ask, “What’s the thesaurus?” without getting tongue twisted. I stuttered a lame response: “The dictionary has definitions and the thesaurus has synonyms.” Understandably, this sentence was filled with lots of stammers and lisps. This whole scenario gave us a full-fledged laughing attack and the word combination has been the root of an ongoing family joke ever since.

Whenever my daughter or I want to laugh out loud, one of us will say “the thesaurus is for synonyms” inspired tongue twister with a purposeful lisp and challenge the other to say, “The thesaurus has synonyms,” 10-times fast, without making any mistakes.

Yes, it’s absurd. But tongue twisters can serve as a reminder of the latest evidence-based findings on the effectiveness of speaking more slowly and in a clearly articulated style. Phonetics matter. In fact, my dad’s hunch that “clear speech” encourages listeners to perk up their ears and remember what you said was recently confirmed in a laboratory by linguists from the University of Texas at Austin’s UTsoundLab.

Speaking with Clear Articulation Improves Listener's Memory of What You Said

This week (November 5-9) in Victoria, British Columbia, the 176th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America is being held in conjunction with the Canadian Acoustical Association’s “Acoustics Week in Canada 2018.”

Earlier today, University of Texas at Austin researchers Sandie Keerstock and Rajka Smiljanic presented a lecture, "Recall of Clearly Spoken Sentences," which reports their findings about how a hyper-articulated speaking style can enhance a listener’s ability to remember what was said verbatim.

The findings of this lecture evoke flashbacks to "The Rain in Spain" scene from My Fair Lady when the fictional phonetics professor, Henry Higgins (Sir Rex Harrison), has a “clear speech” breakthrough with Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) who is trying to get rid of her muttered Cockney style of speaking. After a lifetime of mumbling her words, one night during a 3 a.m. phonetics sessions, Doolittle finally enunciates “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain,” which causes Higgins to practically fall off his chair. He exclaims, “I think she’s got it!” Then, Eliza successfully enunciates a tongue twister filled with lots of alliteration, “In Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen.” To which Higgins proclaims, “Bravo! By George, she’s got it! By George, she’s got it!”

For their latest experiment, Keerstock and Smiljanic used similar phonetic phrases to measure how listeners remembered six-word sentences that were spoken with hyper-articulated “clear speech” vs. regular “conversational speech.” In the following audio clips, you can hear the same phrase, “The boy carried the heavy chair” using “clear speech” and “conversational speech.”

  1. “The boy carried the heavy chair.” (Clear Speech)
  2. “The boy carried the heavy chair.” (Conversational speech)

As you can probably decipher, during "clear" speech, the speaker talks more slowly and articulates with precision. During the more casual "conversational" manner of speaking, words are more speedily delivered and sound jumbled together. Can you hear the difference? Now try to say, “The boy carried the heavy chair” out loud with hyper-articulated diction and more conversationally. Another phrase the UTsoundLab used for this experiment was, “The grandfather drank the dark coffee.”

“Clearly produced speech could benefit students in the classroom and patients receiving instructions from their doctors,” Smiljanic said in a statement. "That appears to be an efficient way of conveying information, not only because we can hear the words better but also because we can retain them better."

For the next phase of these experiments, Keerstock and Smiljanic are planning to focus more on whether speakers can memorize declarative facts or the lines from a play if they slow down their speech while practicing. Keerstock speculates that if someone is rehearsing for a lecture and reads the material out loud in a hyper-articulated style that it may help him or her to remember the content better. Although the verdict is still out on the memory benefit of a speaker’s enunciation, why not try slowing the words you say as a way to have others remember what you have to say?

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