The Discovery of the Throat Theory for the linguistics Science — by Non-Specialists
TED Conference Application (New YorkCompetition)
04 19 2012
At first, we thought we just invented a teaching method to help Japanese learners of English to improve pronunciation. It turns out that the same method helps deaf people to improve their speech, as the method helps both Japanese and deaf people to rely more on the throat to achieve deep resonation necessary to articulate sounds included in English or other European languages. Furthermore, the fundamental differences of sounds we discovered have social implications for how well East Asian language speakers and other peoples in the word can communicate. The body of knowledge we generated challenges the current scientific paradigm of phonology and speech therapy and its assumptions about sound production.
Both Japanese people and deaf people have been told that to speak English naturally you have to learn correct positions of the tongue and the lips. Originally theorized by phonologists who decided on the relationship between sounds and the tongue position without empirical proof, the emphasis of mouth position was appealing to Japanese speakers. This was because Japanese rely on the mouth to speak. Notice Japanese sounds are very choppy compared to western languages, as they resonate sounds in the mouth. Linguists have been completely blind to the fact that western language speakers can produce a lot of sounds without moving the mouth so drastically. The extreme example would be a ventriloquist. You can minimize the movement of the mouth, but still produce distinctively English sounds. The mouth does play a part, but one utilizes the throat more than scholars expected.
The English language has a lot of sounds that cannot be produced if the bottom of the neck area is kept tense. For example, R accompanies the vibration of the bottom area of the neck, just as a dog growls. Other sounds, such as Y and W, require resonation in the same area. If you are a native speaker of American English, say SHEEP and SHIP and notice how ‘I’ as in SHIP requires a deeper resonation area than SHEEP. If you are male, study how your Adam’s apple goes down to pronounce deep area sounds. Japanese people are oblivious to the fact that westerners’ voices are fundamentally different in quality.
Our discoveries about the role of the throat explain why East Asian language speakers have difficulty pronouncing Rs. The role of the throat also explains many phonological phenomena. For example, we discovered that the sounds produced at the bottom of the neck tend to sound lower in pitch than other sounds resonated at the shallow area of the neck. This makes a close-to-perfection prediction model of speech intonation. For example:
This is a rat.
I taught English in Japan.
Sheep are in the ship.
I’m leaving the town I lived in.
The underlined sounds are resonated at the bottom area of the neck (we call this the “burp area” as it resonates when people burp. Other sounds are resonated at the shallow area of the neck (we call this the “yawn area,” as it expands when people yawn). The burp area is situated below the vocal cords. The yawn area is situated above the vocal cords. Because of the locations of these two areas, the sounds have a distinct tonality such that the burp area sounds feel lower in pitch than sounds produced by the yawn area.
Of course, the intonation of speech is affected by the speaker’s emotions. However, the basic ups and downs of intonation are largely determined by where they originate. We’ve discovered that deaf people can drastically improve their speech intonations by remembering the one-to-one correspondence of these two areas and specific vocal sounds.
Our discovery has social implications for Japanese people (or other East Asians who tend to speak choppy English). I moved to theUSto attend graduate school inChicagoin 1994. For about ten years, I continued to speak choppy English. Without knowing the reason, I felt invisible and alienated in social settings in theUS. During meetings, I often had trouble getting people to make eye contact with me or listen to what I had to say. It is painful to recall, but once I went out with about ten colleagues for lunch. Two groups began talking on my left and right, creating a blind spot where I sat invisibly. In 2005, I asked Jeana for help speaking more like Americans. She told me to speak from the throat using a more resonant voice. Everything changed from that point onwards. People began paying more attention to me when I interjected resonant “uhs,” “ums,” or even simple breathing-in sounds (which I never made when I was speaking choppy English in the mouth). Since then, I’ve been able to speak English in a relaxed, resonant voice. As a result, I’ve noticed more friendly social interactions with American people. It makes sense. No one wakes up in the morning thinking, “today I am going to alienate an Asian guy.”
Japanese people express sincerity and kindness by speaking in a high pitch with a choppy voice quality. In Western languages, on the other hand, choppiness is associated with distance or coldness. For over a decade, I was responsible for my own alienation in social situations due to fundamental language and culture differences. I still fight my inclination to sound choppy when I speak with people of higher social status, since Japanese is a hierarchy-based language.
Today, living near the Iwojima memorial inArlington,Virginia, I wonder whether this miscommunication impeded the pre-war diplomatic efforts between Japanese and Americans in the 1940s.
In 2011, Jeana and I moved into a new apartment building. One of our neighbors was a 12 year old deaf girl who had moved with her family fromFloridatemporarily, so she could attend a famous deaf program in a local school district. One day I offered to try our method, which worked well with Japanese people. As I explained to her parents, “Japanese people have difficulty with L and R.” Her father said she had the same problem, confirming what we had already observed about how both Japanese people and deaf people speak in a similar mouth-based way.
One weekend, we went to the girl’s apartment and started working with her. She was deaf by birth but had an implant that gave her a limited hearing ability. Jeana showed her how to make sounds resonate in the throat and neck by letting the girl touch her throat and feel the sounds vibrating. The girl’s speech therapists, of course, emphasized proper tongue position. The girl’s mother said they tried the tongue position method for four years, but it didn’t work well. Jeana taught the girl how to make her Ws resonate at the bottom of her neck and how to change Ws to Rs by making the same area vibrate. When the girl articulated vowel sounds, her remarked, “that was the clearest one I’ve ever heard.” We helped the girl significantly Improve her articulation in a matter of four hours.
A few months later, we went back and taught her the concept of a “life cycle of sounds.” For example, M sounds start with an open mouth. The lips meet at the midpoint of the M sound, and the sound ends when the lips slowly part. The concept and practice of a sustained sound life cycle improved her fluency. We visited the girl again with a Japanese newspaper reporter later that year. Her story was published in the Sankei Newspaper, when Japanese people needed to hear a story of hope and inspiration after the tsunami and earthquake. At the end of the session, the Japanese reporter asked, “What do you want to be in the future?” The girl replied, “I wanted to be a vet, but blood freaks me out.” Without her mother’s interpretation, we all immediately understood what she said and laughed together.
Jeana is a graphic designer, and I am a statistical analyst. Not being university-based researchers, we don’t have time to conduct scientific experiments and write journal articles. But because we are outsiders to the speech science and speech therapy communities, we were able to be completely creative in our approach. We have since helped another deaf woman improve her articulation using the same two-hour instruction method we use for Japanese learners of English.
To help Japanese learners of English, we published two books in Japan over the past five years. Many people have benefited from our method, but they are still a minority. We volunteer in Washington, D.C., helping Japanese-born residents improve their English and—as a result—their quality of life.
In the process of applying our methods and learning about the quirks of human speech, we also discovered some interesting dynamics in the nature of scientific beliefs. The more knowledge people have about linguistics and speech therapy, the harder it is for them to believe the throat plays such an important role. When non-specialists point out that there is no empirical evidence for the well-known map of the tongue position and vowels (See International Phonetic Association’s resource), linguists choose to ignore them. Still, we believe Japanese and other East Asian English learners can benefit greatly by being able to speak in a way that is clearer to native English speakers.
Our finding also has implication for learners of East Asian languages. In order to speak naturally in East Asian languages, they should try increasing the tension in their articulations to sound more natural. Especially in Japan, Westerners can improve benefit in social situations by controlling the tonality or tension in their voices to express sincerity and kindness.
Based on our experiences, we believe our method can help people with many different types of speech issues. Some don’t have hearing ability by birth. Some might have lost the ability to speak as a result of traumatic experiences or injuries to their brains. We believe our method can be applied to help with a larger number of people.
Our theory and practice will prove that a new idea can come from non-specialists. It poses a challenge to the current scientific paradigm of speech production and provides new ways to strengthen communications between people of different cultural groups.