Vocal Tract Posture and Four-Year-Olds

A version of this post was previously published in The VASTA Voice.
Getting the vocal tract posture of a language or an accent right is a crucial part of successful accent acquisition. Vocal tract posture (also called oral posture), is the particular patterning of muscular engagement, release, and positioning characteristic of individuals and groups of speakers. It is, if you will, the ‘home base’ for an accent, and can be thought of as the position to which the vocal tract returns when at rest, or when preparing to speak or resume speaking. Phoneticians call it articulatory basis, or basis of articulation, which neatly suggests another useful way of thinking about it. It is the basis or foundation on which the edifice of the accent is built; it is the substrate of its sound system. As dialect coaches and accent teachers know, ‘hesitation sounds’—those little filler noises people make when thinking about what to say next—can be valuable clues to the posture of an accent. Think Scottish [eːm], Barack Obama’s [ɑ̽ː], or French [ɵː]. When you’re in the middle of a stream of speech, but not quite sure exactly what you’re going to say next, your articulators naturally assume a position of maximum mechanical efficiency for the speech actions they’re most likely to need to execute next. The nice thing about careful, conscious work on oral posture is that if an actor can really click into it, many of the sounds they’ll need to execute will fall naturally into place. It’s both a shortcut—potentially obviating the need for hours of painstaking work on every single sound in the inventory of the target accent, even those which might vary only subtly from the actor’s native accent; and also a way to come to grips with an accent through its shape and feel, rather than through the abstraction of studying tons of squiggly little symbols on paper. (Don’t get me wrong—I adore the squiggly little symbols. The more the merrier, and the squigglier the better! But not all actors feel the same way.)
One way or another, and whether they’ve done a lick of conscious work on it or not, when someone really, organically owns an accent, they have found its oral posture. People who are very gifted at accents may do this entirely unconsciously, but they are doing it, nonetheless. And whatever someone’s natural gifts, I have found that they can invariably be enhanced through deliberate and precise attention to oral posture. It confers some level of ability on those who lack it, or lack confidence, and it refines and deepens the skills of those who are already accomplished.
A few years ago I stumbled across a YouTube video of a little French girl telling a story about a magic hippopotamus. I was teaching speech and accents in an MFA program, and generally began our study of each new accent by examining the oral posture of native speakers in class with my students, leading them though the process of making specific observations and beginning to put them together. I thought the little girl was adorable (I think you’ll agree), and so brought her into class as we began to work on French accents. There was something quite wonderful about the exercise, and it went beyond the cuteness of the video and the standard excitement of decoding and adopting a new posture. There was something startlingly clear, we quickly realized, about the little girl’s oral posture. Go watch the video if you haven’t already. Notice the position her lip corners return to when she’s finished with one thought and readying herself to speak the next one. Watch her jaw, her cheek muscles, and her lips as she speaks, pauses, and thinks. You can’t see what her tongue, velum, and pharynx are doing, of course, but if you “listen” with your own vocal tract, you’ll find that you can intuit these shapes and actions, performing them along with her. You should feel, for instance, how arched the back of your tongue is in your mouth—how close to your uvular area (the very back of your velum) it likes to hang out.

I formed a hypothesis. I decided that four-year-olds might be the ideal subjects for studying oral posture. They’ve mastered their language, and speak it expertly, and yet it’s still new enough to them that you can see the muscular actions required very very clearly. They haven’t had time to own their language’s sound system so thoroughly and perfectly that they can be a bit subtler, a bit more fluid, about stitching the physical actions of speech together. Everything that is there in an adult French speaker—the lip corner advancement, the buccinator (cheek muscle) engagement, the high jaw, the high back of tongue, the overall shape and feel—they’re all just slightly exaggerated in the magic hippopotamus storyteller. Admittedly, she’s a very animated and expressive speaker, but then, that’s the thing about four-year-olds. When they’re telling you a story, they tend to be pretty animated and expressive.

Here’s three-year-old Millen Eve, a Yorkshire lass, telling a story about her [ˈdaˌdɛ].

Of course, it’s not just oral posture we can see and hear so clearly in these pint-sized accent teachers—it’s also rhythm and intonation. Just listen to this “cute Italian girl with a bad temper,”

or this funny 2 year old shouting at her mummy for laughing while she was singing Disney Frozen.

And I think the reason is the same—they are just beginning to master the inflection inventory and rhythmic patterning of their languages, but we can see the outlines of these things very starkly. And so they’re great subjects to listen to for these things.
I also like the fact that there’s a kind of mirroring going on when we use these kids to teach accents to actors. The actors, too, are uncertain and incomplete in their mastery of the new sounds. But if they can match the enthusiasm and expressiveness of their young native-speaker sources, and emulate the way they don’t seem to care too much about whether all the details are right—well, that’s a great start!
Lest you think I’m favoring the girls, by the way, here’s a boy reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Scottish Gaelic.

(Though it does seem there are more “cute little girls” out there to be found on YouTube.) YouTube being YouTube, however, there are surely tons more videos of small human beings of both genders out there for the finding. I have a small collection myself, but I’m sure you can find lots more!
Alright, one more. Here’s a Southern four-year-old telling his mom about how to find buried treasure.

Cute, right? But while being charmed and entertained, we can also learn a tremendous amount from these adorable tykes about the oral posture, prosody, and intonation of their native languages and accents.
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