Thoughts on “tongue calisthenics” and pronunciation 

While changing one’s accent is partly psychological, there’s no doubt that learning a new accent also involves vocal mechanics. We need to place the tongue, lips and/or jaw in different positions in order to produce certain sounds.

Coaches and teachers will often say to a client/student “Relax your tongue.” But what does a relaxed tongue really mean?

That’s why I like to do an exercise I call “tongue calisthenics.” The mouth is slightly open and the tip of the tongue is dropped behind the bottom front teeth. These exercises are done without sound. They are physical exercises only.

  1. Spread the sides of the tongue to push out the bottom side teeth. Then release. This released feeling will become the neutral or “relaxed” position on the bottom of the mouth.
  2. Feel the width of the tongue and lift the front of the tongue (not the tip) ever so slightly (The tip of the tongue will push slightly against the bottom front teeth). Then release.
  3. Feel the width of the tongue and raise the back of the tongue up toward the bony part of the roof of the mouth. Then release.
  4. With the tip of the tongue dropped, arch the rest of the tongue up until the top sides are touching inside the top side teeth. Then release.
  5. With the tip of the tongue still dropped, spread the tongue so that it’s lightly touching the sides of the bottom teeth, as the middle part reaches up toward the roof of the mouth. Then release.

Now I don’t necessarily ask that all the exercises be done in the same class. The tongue is a collection of muscles and gets tired. But like athletes and dancers, we can isolate and strengthen muscles with practice.

I work in increments, choosing the exercises that reflect the position of the tongue for whatever vowels represent the greatest challenge at the time. Sometimes I even have clients practise quiet “ululating,” with the very tip of the tongue rapidly moving up and down, touching just behind the top and bottom front teeth.

“Tongue calisthenics” teach learners to place different parts of the tongue in various positions without sound to create a physical awareness of various shapes and a sensation of space for consonants and vowels. Visualizing, isolating and practising these subtle changes create an awareness of tongue positions that can lay the groundwork for dealing with pronunciation challenges.

Have you ever tried this technique with your students? Have you ever had instructors who have tried this technique with you?

Don’t forget to check out The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube Channel for my latest weekly video, One-Minute Words, and videos on English pronunciation.


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