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Special Education & Communication Disorders

College of Education & Human Sciences

How do People Talk?

E. Charles Healey, Ph.D.


Talking is something we do a lot during any day.  Being able to say what we want seems simple and doesn't take a lot of work or thought.  But, in order to speak well enough for people to understand us and hear what we have to say takes the control of air from our lungs, voice, tongue and lip movements.  So, the three main parts of our body that we use for talking are our lungs (for the air supply), our vocal folds, (to make vocal sounds), and our tongue, lips and jaw, (to shape speech sounds). On the diagram, find the 3 main parts of our speech system.
diagram of upper body diagram of anatomy of speech processes

 

Lungs (respiration) 
First, the lungs provide the air needed to turn the voice on and to make sounds in the mouth.  Air comes out of the lungs when we talk and is the first thing that needs to happen to talk correctly.  Try to turn your voice on while holding your breath.  You can't do it because the air is blocked by the voice.  Now, let the air come out of your lungs, say, "ah" and feel your voice buzz by placing your fingers on your neck over the voice box.  The air coming out of your lungs makes the voice buzz or vibrate.  You can also let air come out of your lungs and make sounds like the /s/ or /sh/ with your voice turned off.  Sometimes, people don't take enough air into their lungs before they start talking.  If this happens, the person will need to push hard to get the air to come out and that causes the voice box to tense up and not buzz easily.  So to talk well, we need to get a good full flow of air out of our lungs before and during the time we talk.

Vocal Folds (phonation)
The second system important for speech is the voice.  As we have said, air from the lungs helps cause the voice to buzz or vibrate  But, for this to happen, we need to keep the muscles of the voice relaxed. If we try to start our voice when our vocal muscles are tight and tense, the voice may not vibrate or it will turn on suddenly, with force.  If you have a hard time turning voice on or keeping it on, it probably means that your vocal muscles are too stiff and tense.

Tongue, Lips and Jaw (articulation)
The third part of the speech system is the mouth and is made up of the tongue, lips and jaw.  When we make movements and contacts with these parts of our mouth, they form different speech sounds.  Make /t/ sound for the word "time" and feel your tongue touch the roof of your mouth behind your front teeth.  Note too that your air and voice turn off during the /t/ sound but turn on to finish the rest of the sounds in the word.  Other sounds like /s/, /sh/, k/, /p/ and /f/ are made with some stoppage of the air or the air has to go through a tiny opening in the mouth.  Feel the air hit your hand when you make a /f/ sound.  Now, make a /v/ sound and feel the difference in the amount of air that hits your hand.  Less air hits your hand on /v/ because the voice is turned on.  Remember the voice needs air to work too.
Making sounds with our lips and tongue can be easy if we make the contacts light and smooth.  But, sometimes the tension and tightness in the muscles of our lips, tongue or jaw make it hard to move from one sound to another.  When this happens, it could make airflow and voicing hard too.  So, keeping the lips, tongue, and jaw relaxed and moving freely will help to talk smoothly without a lot of effort.  Talking easily isn't hard if you remember to keep your air and voice going and move the tongue, lips and jaw smoothly for one sound to another.