Open mic, ready for your voice

Voice in my head: developing polyglot personalities

If you learn more than one language, there is one question you hear more often than any other: how do you avoid getting mixed up? There are many answers to this. But one key strategy, for me, is developing a distinct voice for each language.

When you think about it, differentiating your languages by voice makes complete sense. Languages have patterns of pitch and tone quite distinct from one another. The voice you developed growing up with your native tongue adapted to fit the phonology of that language. It’s not surprising if the fit is a little less snug in French, Spanish, German and so on – at least without a little modification.

But changing your voice can feel intimidating. Our voice is a fundamental element of the self we project into the world; altering it can feel too bold, too cheeky. It’s no wonder that school students in the language classroom can feel reluctant to really get stuck into a foreign accent out. As adult learners, we face exactly the same fear. So how can we best approach a multiple voice approach to language learning?

Have fun with it

It’s important to remember that language learning regularly challenges us to act counter to our everyday inhibitions. Whether it’s speaking with strangers, supplementing our broken speech with frantic hand gestures, or trying to mimic how others sound, linguists are so often thrust out of reasonable, human comfort zones.

The best learners acknowledge this, and embrace the challenge head on. In short, it pays to be a clown!

It’s something we are naturals at as kids, chiefly because kids feel less embarrassment when they are playing around. For instance, this is one area where you needn’t feel guilty about wallowing in linguistic stereotypes. Have a hoot combining your French with dodgy Allo Allo accents. Watch back old episodes of Eldorado and have a go at your cheesiest Spanish. The important thing is to let go of your fear of sounding foolish through having fun.

It’s all very childish… So enjoy it!

Experiment with pitch

You can create instant results by simply experimenting with the pitch of your voice. Spanish and Russian feel more natural to speak when I lower my voice, for example – something my friends still find hilarious (even though I’m not deliberately trying to make them laugh!). (“Is that your Spanish voice again?” Yes. It is. I’m so glad you find it funny!)

On the other hand, I’m aware that the my voice is higher when I speak Norwegian – perhaps because this is easier with a tonal accent.

A lot of this is also to do with the voices you are exposed to as a learner. I listen to a lot of podcasts, for example. And through those, I hear all sorts of voices at all sorts of pitches. It has become a great, accessible way to ‘window shop’ for voices you are comfortable to use as a model. In fact, there are some well-documented techniques like shadowing, which use audio mimicry to drill your foreign language accent.

Exaggerate differences

Once you have a hook on the aural ‘feel’ of a language, you can focus on those differences as a means to differentiate. This is especially helpful if you study pairs, or sets of similar languages. These present a very particular set of advantages and challenges to learners.

I’ve studied both Polish and Russian on my language travels. As Slavic languages (albeit from different branches), they looked and sounded extremely similar to me as a beginner. But gradually, I found a way to mark the line between them through voice.

For instance, I sometimes find it easier to think of the sound of language in terms of shape. Through this lens, Russian is a language with quite sharp edges to my mind. On the other hand, the sound shapes of Polish seem much softer and curvier. When developing my Polish and Russian voices, I place a lot of weight on reflecting these demarcating characteristics.

(Disclaimer: after lots more study of both languages, I realise how different they can both be, now! Sorry for my previous ignorance, Polish and Russian natives! 🙂 )

Own your language

All this, of course, can greatly add to your sense of ownership over the foreign language. It’s vital to claim a language as your own, if you want a life-long relationship with it. And carving out a voice, even a personality, within it, will help you stake that claim.

It’s about feeling at home speaking it; saying “this is my German / Spanish / Uzbek” and being proud of the speaker you have created. Educational psychologists pore over methods to increase ownership in learning; as a language learner, voice work is a handy shortcut to do just that.

Voice in my head – split personality?

Finally, it’s interesting to see how this phenomenon plays out in bilinguals in the real world. Personally, I’ve found myself intrigued by polyglots who report a personality change when speaking another language. Through playing with voice and accent across my active languages, I think I can recognise that, too. Building up a distinct voice and personality in a language will inevitably create ‘another you’.

There is some research evidence to support this, too. However, the effect could be down to situational, rather than psychological factors (ie., bilinguals use different languages in different situations, and they would naturally act differently in those situations anyway – e.g., with colleagues rather than with family). Environmental or otherwise, though, it’s a fascinating thought, and one you can have a lot of fun with as a learner.

Developing a voice in your foreign languages goes hand in hand with perfecting an accent. Have fun playing around with it. And enjoy your polyglot personalities!

Describe It! Speaking drill game for fun practice prompts

I’m always looking new ways to make speaking practice fun. It was BBC’s Just A Minute that inspired me to put this basic drill activity together. From a bank of many random concepts – TV shows, celebrities, countries, landmarks – the program draws one each turn. You then have sixty seconds to describe and discuss it without pausing.

Describe It! Speaking dill game

Describe It! Speaking dill game

It’s perfect for adding into your pre-lesson warm-up routine. And you can tailor it to your own level and needs – simply make your descriptions / spontaneous monologues as simple or complex as you can handle. Try answering these questions about the topics that pop up if you’re stuck for words:

  • What is it?
  • What do you think about it? Do you like it?
  • Who does it involve?
  • What else is it connected to? And is it controversial in any way?

Click here to open the prompt applet in a new window. As an HTML5 widget, it should run across all sorts of platforms.

Help it grow!

I put this together originally for my own use, so some of the concepts might seem a bit UK-centric. However, if you have some good ideas for items to add to the data bank, please share them in the comments or tweet me! I’ll add good ones to the activity on an ongoing basis. I hope others find it useful (and appreciate the silly humour that drives it! 😄).

Dogs dressed as clowns

Be a clown! How playing the fool makes you a better linguist

Can I tell you my guilty secret? I love making a fool of myself.

Before any of my friends and family organise an intervention to curb these masochistic tendencies,  I should qualify that: I love playing the fool when it comes to foreign languages, and I think a touch of the clown is an essential part of being a successful linguist.

It wasn’t always like this. In the not-so-distant past, I’d agonise over enunciating my foreign phrases so perfectly, so seriously, that I’d reduce myself to a stuttering, gibbering wreck by the time I was standing in front of a native speaker. I’d convince myself that grammatical correctness was a deeply serious business, and I’d risk ridicule if I got just one of my endings wrong. I was passionate about languages – surely that meant they were a matter of extreme gravity!

In fact, the opposite was true – by hyper-focussing on being right, I was taking the whole business of communication – the ultimate goal of language learning – to a really unhelpful extreme. Needless to say, it turned me into that paradox of the linguist who was terrible at speaking.

The turning point

It took a pretty embarrassing incident to change all that (and I’m thankful for it!). Spending a year abroad in Austria as part of my degree, I had the chance to entertain neighbours at my place. It was all a bit short notice, and I’d barely had chance to tidy up when they knocked on the door. “Come in!” I started, in German, “but I’m really sorry about all the diarrhoea everywhere!

Yes, I honestly said that.

It wasn’t planned, of course, and – mortifyingly – nobody said a word, until a friend (stifling laughter) explained what I’d said after the event. It certainly explained the sidewards glances and smiles, which I’d put down to my not-so-Austrian accent. I felt such a fool!

Laugh at yourself

It could have gone both ways, that incident. On the one hand, I was horrified at my mistake (somehow, who knows how, mixing up Durcheinander – mess – and Durchfall – diarrhoea). I could have thrown in the towel there and then, and been put off the language for life. On the other hand, it was genuinely pretty funny – it certainly made my friend laugh, and me too, once the horror had subsided! And it underscored for me the importance of silliness in language learning.

For one thing, I will never forget those two words. Ever! I mean, how could I? The whole tragic story is etched, indelibly, excruciatingly, into my memory.  But it also makes me laugh, to this day, and those happy, daft feelings are more than just the warm fuzz of nostalgia. There is lots of evidence to suggest that happy memories are ones that last longer. A wealth of psychological studies attest this Fading Affect Bias (FAB – great acronym), which seems to be one of the core drivers behind fun and play-based learning. When you fool about and have a laugh with language, it simply sticks longer. It’s one of the reasons that techniques like Linkword work so well, too.

The name of the game

Language teachers know this only too well. As a former classroom teacher and friend to many more, I can honestly say that we’re the most open bunch to in-school silliness. The language classroom is perhaps the most game-based and fun of them all (I’m biased, I know!).

However, it’s something we could all carry into our own individual learning too, at whatever age. I work in a multilingual office for part of the week, and it would be a crime not to take advantage of that as a linguaphile. It would be too easy to approach that in a very straight-laced way, and try to engage colleagues in formalised chit-chat (poor them, I’m sure you’re thinking!).

But it’s much more fun – and a heap less stressful – to have a bit of a laugh, say some silly things to practise your latest vocab, and make people smile and laugh. It’s clowning around, but it’s creating those fuzzy feelings around language learning that will make you want to carry on. I don’t expect to ever say “I need a sheep” in Polish, like I did the other day (you had to be there, I think), but I’ll definitely not forget the Polish for “I need…” after having a chuckle over it!

(Don’t) pity the fool

The crux of all this is simple: bring some uninhibited joy back into your language learning. When the time comes, you can play it straight. While you’re learning, though, clown around with words. Make happy language memories. Be a big kid. Play. Be silly and make people laugh – after all, the world’s a better place for it.