Rhymes and Reasons

St Martin’s, London (“You owe me five farthings….”)

Children have a fascination for rhymes. Many adults do too – that’s my theory. I developed a love of rhymes and tongue twisters at around eight years of age, when one of my primary school teachers had the entire class reciting “Red Lorry, Yellow Lorry and “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper with great gusto.

Clearly, this wasn’t just for entertainment value; rhymes of all sorts play a big part in language learning. Tongue twisters serve as great exercises for the speech muscles. Nursery rhymes and their distant relatives, folk songs, help us to learn vocabulary and improve memory.

This theory of mine was reinforced during a slightly surreal experience on public transport some years ago. Travelling back from a networking event on the last train home, I shared a carriage with a group of extremely lively Londoners with accents straight out of “The Only Way is Essex‟ aka TOWIE (although the train was Kent-bound). The decibels would have put any barrow-boy worth his salt to shame!

Out of the blue they began reciting tongue twisters, starting with “She Sells Sea Shells, continuing with “Red Lorry, Yellow Lorry  and then “Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers‟.  A bizarre and memorable journey.

The first tongue twister this motley crew reeled off, and probably one of the best known in English, isn’t simply a rhyme we’re taught in childhood to improve enunciation of difficult consonants. “She Sells Sea Shells  is about a real person: a 19th Century palaeontologist from Dorset named Mary Anning.

In fact, many rhymes we learn in childhood – perhaps less so for tongue twisters – are based on historical facts. Folklore suggests that “Ring a Ring of Roses  is about one of the visible symptoms of bubonic plague, although the rhyme actually came much later. “Oranges and Lemons” refers to many of the church bells in and around the City of London, and “London Bridge is falling down is based on a true event.

What’s my point? Well, as adults most of us take speech and the ability to produce well-formed sounds for granted. Certainly when it comes to our mother tongue. Or maybe it’s because by and large the physical act of producing sound isn’t a conscious one; indeed, it has a name: an “unconscious competence (from Gordon Training International, 1970s).

Another reason could be that most of us learn this at such a young age, we forget how difficult it was to master. Having spent time examining this ‘instrument’ in some depth, I’ve realised how remarkable the human voice – and speech production – are.

Some people have specific pronunciation challenges as a result of anatomical structure. For the rest of us, though, the way we pronounce words is largely due to where we were brought up, by whom and with whom, including those we were taught by at school.

As my primary school teacher showed, these rhymes can be brought to life, allowing us to learn new vocabulary and the tools of good speech production which prove invaluable in later life.

As an adult and a presentation coach, I now know these tools are: good modulation; altering volume and pitch for emphasis and finality, excellent articulation (my teacher was in a league of her own when it came to tongue twisters) and great timing. These all enhance the engaging content that has its own “natural rhythm.

It is quite possible that, as is the case with a number of my clients, English is not your mother tongue. So you don’t need to imagine the increased challenge a tongue twister like “She Sells Sea Shells poses for a non-native English speaker – adult or child. Your ear hasn’t had as much time to become attuned to these sounds and your speech musculature hasn’t practised it enough for it to become second nature. It’s also possible that the neural pathway is still in its infancy.

This challenge was illustrated brilliantly by a friend I met whilst living in Greece. She taught English as a foreign language in a school in Corfu. Recounting the story of one particular lesson in her classroom, she vividly described the delight and excitement of the entire class as they repeatedly shouted “fish” in unison at the end of the lesson!

Why was this so thrilling? Because the “sh sound doesn’t exist in the Greek language, and therefore a considerable accomplishment that they were right to be proud of – students and teacher both.

And so onto the thorny subject of practise. It is rarely something we relish. One might even call it a necessary evil, but it is really what mastery is all about. Doing something repeatedly, so that it becomes second nature – an unconscious competence. If you practise anything often enough, you will master it (physical impairment notwithstanding). It is amazing what you can achieve if you take the time to practise challenging words and sounds regularly and frequently.

Tongue twisters are a very effective way to do this. They help to exercise your pronunciation muscles and give yourself a “warm up before you speak. Whilst they aren’t able on their own to warm up the vocal chords (humming is a great way to do that), they work very well on the articulation of the tongue, jaw, lips, mouth and cheeks.

So whether you are a professional presenter, or you simply want to master the art of public speaking (in front of 5 or 5,000 people), you could do worse than start by taking a trip down memory lane. Revisit some of those tongue twisters and rhymes you were taught as a young child. You might have some fun during the process!