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Study: Speaking foreign languages strains vocal cords

A new doctoral dissertation has found that speaking different languages causes changes in the voice. For example, Finns speaking English tend to speak in a higher pitch, which causes vocal fatigue.

Image: Yle Uutisgrafiikka

Regular use of different languages affects the voice, says new research on multilingual communication from Finland's University of Tampere.

Kati Järvinen’s PhD study "Voice Characteristics in Speaking a Foreign Language: A study of voice in Finnish and English as L1 and L2" found that pitch rises when speakers articulate a foreign language, causing more strain to the voice cords.

"It appears to be the case that when you speak a foreign language, you speak it in a different way than your native tongue. Vocal cords close more tightly, and produce a more pressed sound. The tenser muscles then increase the vocal load," says Järvinen.

Voice changes

Twenty Finnish and 23 English speakers were asked to read a text in their native language and then in other foreign language.

The samples were then perceptually and acoustically analyzed for sound pressure levels. The speakers in the test were also asked to fill out a questionnaire about their own views of the changes that happen when they speak different languages.

"Finns tend to raise the pitch of their voices when they speak English. English speakers in the study didn’t exhibit such a pronounced change when they spoke Finnish," says Järvinen.

Hoarseness and nodules

Järvinen says that sound production changes that take place when a person speaks a foreign language can have long-term consequences due to the strain. Problems producing certain sounds and other kinds of disturbances can result.

"Voice issues crop up when people start having problems producing sounds. Voice fatigue and hoarseness are common,” she says. ”If there’s a lot of strain, the vocal folds can experience tissue damage. Pressed sound production can easily lead to nodules and polyps, when the tissue tries to cope with the strain," Järvinen says.

Multicultural life

Speaking different languages has become a part of our daily lives, and people who work as interpreters or language teachers use several languages intensively.

Research shows that people in these occupations have more incidents of voice problems from challenging work conditions, strained and prolonged periods of speaking and the mental load caused by their work.

Learning optimal voice use

Kati Järvinen estimates that sound production changes associated with speaking a foreign language can have many implications, so foreign language students should learn to take good care of their voices early on in their study careers. For example, interpreters or teachers do not currently have compulsory voice usages courses.

"It would be important to do voice exercises in a foreign language, after first learning how to produce sounds correctly in your native language and getting to know your own voice-making anatomy," says Järvinen.

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