How Do You Breathe In Your Language?

You may have to learn to breathe differently for different languages to achieve the sound you want to create.

Breathing

It’s much easier to focus on how speech sounds than what is required to produce the sounds - breath. Breathing is often overlooked as part of making changes to an accent because of course everyone knows how to breathe, but have you thought about how people may breath differently in different languages?

I have. I wrote my master’s thesis on “Speech Breathing Patterns in Spanish and English” and observed that during reading of a paragraph (in Spanish), Spanish speakers took more inspirations overall, took more inspirations within sentences, and produced more syllables per breath group than English speakers did when reading in English.

There’s so much more research that can be done in respiratory patterns across different languages. Most research of speech has focused on prosodic structure, stress and intonation patterns, articulation, registers, and energy features. Research on the role of second language learning is primarily focused on syntax, articulation, and prosody. My tiny study contributed to previous research that examined cross-linguistic respiratory patterns in Mandarin, Japanese, Vietnamese, and English.

Among these, English and Japanese speakers took the majority of inspirations between sentences and Mandarin speakers took less than half of their inspirations between sentences. Vietnamese speakers took more than half their inspirations between sentences but were more variable than the other languages.

How many breaths you take, where you take a breath (and how deeply), and how many syllables you produce between breaths differ among languages. These will have an impact on how a speaker uses those same breathing patterns when speaking a different language. 

Increasing awareness of how important breathing is for speaking should be part of second language instruction but rarely is.

Gaining control of your breathing has multiple positive effects.

Control of Airflow for Consonants

English has a lot of consonant sounds that require a lot of airflow. There are sounds that use consistent airflow: “s, z, sh, zh, f, v, th, TH, m, n, h, l, r, ng” and sounds that stop the airflow and release it with a burst of air: “p, b, t, d, k, g, ch, j.” Other languages that have the same or similar sounds may differ in how much airflow they use to produce them. 

Control of Pitch

You’ll have more control over the pitch of your voice. When you’re nervous and take short shallow breaths, you may cause tension in the vocal cords and that creates a high-pitched sound to your voice that may also be hard to control and start to waver (add a squeaky sound or a shake in your voice). When you take slow deep breaths, you release tension in the vocal cords and that enables you to use a lower-pitched sound as you speak using more airflow out.

Control of Pace

You’ll have more control over the pace of your speech. Both speaking too quickly and too slowly are a result not taking deep controlled breaths. You may not be taking pauses to breathe if you’re speaking too fast, or may not take a deep breath when you do pause if you’re speaking too slowly. Taking pauses to take breaths is a good way to take control over when you breath and the time to take deeper breaths.

Control of Meaning

In English, pauses should come between thought groups. It doesn’t have to be at boundaries marked by punctuation such as a comma or period. A thought group is a small group of words that expresses meaning, e.g., a thought group / is a small group of words / that expresses meaning. You wouldn’t need to take pauses or breaths between each of those groups, but when you need a breath, those would be good choices as opposed to something like this: a thought / group is a / small group of / words that expresses meaning.

Control of Volume

You’ll be able to project your voice and be heard. Only using more volume to be heard can make you sound angry or demanding. By controlling where your breath is resonating from, you can increase the overall volume with a lower pitch and be heard from a further distance while still sounding calm and confident. 

Breathing during speech is too important to overlook.

It’s difficult to pay attention to how you’re breathing while speaking and continue to breathe as you usually would. To compare how you may be using breathing differently in your different languages, record yourself talking about the same subject in both languages. It doesn’t have to be memorized or exactly the same, but when you go back and transcribe your speech (or use speech-to-text), listen for pauses and mark them, notice if they are between or within sentences.

You may have to learn to breathe differently for different languages to achieve the sound you want to create.