Repeat after me: The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick. Try again. Now faster: The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick. Tongue twisters aren’t just hard on the eyes, they’re also an important tool in an actor’s diction arsenal, because speaking has a lot to do with learning how to move the tongue in the mouth. Keep reading to learn the importance of articulation and diction training and the best speech exercises for adults.
Articulation is the process of creating vocal expression with the right tone, volume, pitch, and quality. It is the way you formulate clear, distinct speech sounds.
Diction is the way you talk: your enunciation and the types of verbiage (words and phrases) you use.
Diction and articulation exercises help you:
- Train your lips and mouth: Tightly pursed lips and a closed-off mouth prevent clarity in your speech. Doing articulation exercises encourages your lips and mouth to physically function as best as possible for vocal expression.
- Speak clearly: Unless you’re acting in a silent film, speaking clearly is a necessary component to nearly any acting role. Diction exercises help you to articulate better and express yourself with greater expressiveness.
- Speak with more variety: Warming up your vocal cords allows you to create more variety in your speech and avoid the dreaded monotone—appropriate only when calling, “Bueller? Bueller?”
- Breathe right: Taking strong breaths with an open diaphragm provides better support for your voice and allows you to speak better for longer periods of time.
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The following speech exercises will take your articulation to the next level:
1. Yoga hum
Take a deep breath in, then hum while slowly releasing your breath. Do this 5–10 times.
2. Dragon’s breath
Stand with your hands on your stomach and take a deep breath in. Release the breath with a “hah!” on fast, sharp exhales.
3. Tongue twisters
Go through any catchy tongue twisters you know, such as:
- She sells seashells by the seashore.
- We surely shall see the sunshine soon.
- Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
Where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
- How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
He would chuck, he would, as much as he could, and chuck as much wood
As a woodchuck would if a woodchuck could chuck wood
- Can you can a can as a canner can can a can?
To practice, say the above tongue twisters slowly and deliberately five times in a row. If you’re able to say them without making a mistake, increase the speed. If you make a mistake, slow back down again. The key with tongue twisters as diction exercises is to only speed up once you’re in control of the words and to go faster and faster until you master them at all speeds.
4. Practice vowels and consonants
Practice saying and singing vowels using different consonant sounds at the front, in the middle, and at the end. For example, slowly and clearly say the words “poke,” “toll,” “boat,” “cope,” and “stone” back to back, focusing on keeping that long “o” exactly the same.
5. Warm up your mouth
Finally, close out your diction exercises with traditional vocal exercises like tongue trills and raspberries. You can even segue into doing vocal warmups from your diction exercises.
Personalize tongue twisters
Are there words in your everyday life that you always trip on? As a bilingual voice actor who speaks two languages professionally (French and English), I know first-hand about the challenges of articulating. For instance, I have trouble saying the word “digital” in English, which often comes up in voice narrations, so I’ve created my own tongue twister: “Digital digitization or digitalization is a way of digitally digitalizing digital digits.” It’s a mouthful, but it works.
Pencil it in
What about those times when you have to play a doctor or detective on TV who is investigating a murder involving fancy drug names? When my mouth won’t cooperate and there’s no time to play around, I put a pencil between my teeth horizontally (like a dog holding a bone) and say the troublesome word or group of words slowly, but precisely. The pencil creates an obstruction that forces my tongue to be clear about where it should be when I’m articulating that word. When I take the pencil out of my mouth, my tongue will know where to go, and I’ll usually pronounce the word perfectly.
Consider mouth mechanics
One of the reasons we often have a hard time sounding authentic (unless we learn certain words very young) is because of muscle memory. Since we learn to produce the same sounds over and over from birth, we have trouble later on moving our mouths in new ways. If your mouth has never contorted itself to make the French “u” sound, you won’t know how to do it. This is why most people, say from France, sound French when they speak English—they’re using the exact same mouth movements that enable them to create French sounds to speak English. The key is to learn to move in new ways versus trying to use old movements to make new sounds.
Study and practice
Pronouncing words correctly in any language is very similar to learning how to dance: It takes practice. Over the years, I’ve worked with French and English coaches who have taught me how to pronounce consonants and vowels in my two native languages correctly so I can avoid sounding French in English, and vice versa. Did you know that even though most consonants and vowels sound similar, they aren’t produced the same way in the two languages? Take the consonants T and D: In English, your tongue touches your palate. In French, your tongue touches the bottom of your top front teeth. The difference is subtle, but producing sounds correctly is precisely what will generate an authentic sound.
If you’re in a quest to learn a language, an accent, or a dialect, you’ll have to listen to the said language, accent, or dialect. In the era of podcasts, YouTube, and international Netflix, you’re spoiled with resources. There was no such thing when I had to learn an Italian accent for “Assassin’s Creed II.” Ignore the content if you understand it. Instead, pay attention to the emphasis of individual words. For example, in English, the emphasis is often on the first syllable. In French, the emphasis is often on the last syllable. Note that we all transpose the emphases of our own language onto the language, accent, or dialect we want to learn. This is part of our accent.
Now, say you’re interested in learning English with a German accent. Instead of trying to imitate an English-speaking German by listening to an audiobook, I invite you to listen to a German author narrating a book in German. Even if it sounds like gibberish, notice the sounds they make over and over. You’ll hear lots of “sch,” “r,” and “z” consonants, and many “ah-ee” and “oo” vowel sounds. Since those are the very sounds a German speaker will produce in English, practice reproducing those sounds as accurately as you can.
Here’s a fun exercise:
- Plug an English sentence into Google Translate (say, “the cat and the dog disappeared in the alley”).
- Translate that sentence into German and listen for signature sounds.
- Repeat the German sentence until you can say it perfectly.
- Then, say the original English sentence using the cadence of the German sentence, inserting the signature German sounds you’ve practiced.
After a while, you’ll sound German for all the right reasons.