Rhyme or reason

By Lynda Russell-Whitaker

Children have a fascination for rhymes. In fact, I think many people have a fascination for rhymes. I have always loved them, since I was very young, and developed a love of tongue twisters at primary school when one of my teachers, who was particularly engaging, had the entire class reciting ‘Red Lorry, Yellow Lorry’ and ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper….with great gusto.

Clearly, this wasn’t just for entertainment value; rhymes of all sorts play a real part in language learning. Tongue twisters serve as great exercises for the speech muscles, where nursery rhymes and their distant cousins folk songs help us to learn vocabulary and improve memory.

My theory is that we (and I don’t only mean the English, but all human beings) have this fascination, even fondness for rhymes and tongue twisters. This theory was reinforced recently when I had an experience bordering on the surreal travelling home on the last train from a business networking event.

I shared a carriage with a group of extremely loud Londoners with accents straight out of ‘The Only Way is Essex’, although the train was Kent-bound, and the decibels would put any barrow boy worth his salt to shame.

Seemingly out of nowhere they began reciting tongue twisters, starting with ‘She sells Sea Shells?, continuing on to ‘Red Lorry, Yellow Lorry? through to ‘Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers?. It is an experience that I doubt I?ll ever forget!

One of the more well-known of the English tongue twisters (and it was indeed the first that this motley crew recited), ‘She Sells Sea Shells? isn?t simply a rhyme learnt in childhood to improve enunciation of difficult consonants, but in fact a reference to a real person, Mary Anning, who was a 19th Century palaeontologist from Dorset.

Many of the rhymes we learnt as children – though perhaps less so for tongue twisters -were based on events of historical relevance: folklore suggests that ‘Ring a Ring of Roses? was one of the visible symptoms of the bubonic plague, although the rhyme actually came much later; ‘Oranges and Lemons? refers to many of the church bells in and around the City of London, and ‘London Bridge is falling down? is based on a true event.

Why am I telling you this? Well, as adults most of us take speech and the ability to produce well-formed sounds for granted, certainly when it comes to our mother tongue. Or perhaps it’s that by and large the physical act of producing sound isn’t a conscious one; indeed, it has a name, ‘unconscious competence’ (from Gordon Training International, 1970s).

Perhaps it’s actually something that most of us learn at such a young age that we forget how difficult it was to master in those early years. Once you start examining in-depth what goes into voice production, as I started doing more than seven years ago, you realise how truly remarkable the human voice and speech production are.

Some people have particular or specific pronunciation challenges as a result of anatomical structure. For the rest of us, however, the way we pronounce words is largely due to where we were brought up, by whom and with whom, as well as who we were taught by at school.

Which brings me back to my primary school teacher; she made those rhymes come alive by skilfully employing a number of highly effective tools.

As an adult and as a presentation coach at GPB I now know these to be: excellent pitch modulation, changing volume for emphasis, fantastic articulation (clearly she walked her talk where tongue twisters were concerned), and great timing. These all enhance the wonderful content that has its own ‘natural’ rhythm.

It is quite possible that you, as is the case for many of our clients, don‟t have English as your mother tongue. So you don’t need to imagine how much more of a challenge a tongue twister like ‘She Sells Sea Shells’ is for a non-English native speaker to master, as an adult or as a child. Your ear hasn’t had the time to become attuned to these sounds and your speech musculature hasn‟t practised it often enough to master it to the point where it is second nature.

It’s also quite possible that the neural pathway is only in its early stages of development too.

This was illustrated brilliantly by Deborah Skeemer, a friend who I met whilst living in Greece. She taught English as a foreign language in a school in Corfu and was recounting a particular lesson in her classroom. She vividly described the sense of satisfaction she derived when her entire class were practically shouting ‘fish’ in unison at the end of the lesson!

By George, they’d got it, to paraphrase Mr Bernard Shaw. Why was this so satisfying? Because the ‘sh’ sound simply doesn’t exist in the Greek language, and therefore a considerable accomplishment that they were right to be proud of – students and teacher both.

And so to the thorny subject of practice. It isn’t always something we like to do. One might even call it a necessary evil, but it is really what ‘mastery’ is all about. Doing something repeatedly, so that it becomes second nature. If you practise anything often enough, you will master it (physical impairment notwithstanding). It is amazing what you can achieve if you take the time to practise challenging words and sounds regularly and frequently, and tongue twisters are a very effective tool for doing this.

Tongue-twisters help to exercise your pronunciation muscles and give yourself a ‘warm up’ before you speak. Whilst they aren’t able on their own to warm up the vocal chords (humming is a great way to do that), they work very well on the articulation of the tongue, jaw, lips, mouth and cheeks.

So whether you are a professional presenter, or someone who simply wants to master the art of public speaking (in front of 5 or even 5,000 people), you could do worse than start by taking a trip down memory lane. Revisit some of those tongue twisters and rhymes you were taught as a young child. You might have some fun during the process, and provide some good groundwork for singing over the festive season! If you’re interested in

"speak up" articles | , ,