How we breathe when we speak
Even if speaking is a daily activity, this not precludes the possibility of speaking more fluently, in a more pleasant way, and why not, in a way that can optimize breathing for speech for decreasing the level of stress of both speaker and hearer.
When I was invited to test an equipment to measure how we breathe while speaking, I was so concentrated in checking the results on screen that the signal showing the movement of my chest was a constant. Thus, my Swedish colleague asked me: “Are you sure you are breathing?” And we laughed. That is probably the reason why an experimenter or an expert in a subject cannot be his/her own observer.
The device I was using for measuring the changes in the body during breathing was developed in the University of Stockholm by one of their engineers. It is called RespTrack and it records the changes in extension of two belts applied to the chest and the abdomen of a person who is speaking something, as it can be seen in the figure below.
Resptrack (Source: Personal archive)
Knowing how to combine periods of silence with periods of phonation should favor a person to know what to say and what not to say for a successful communication
Why such an interest for speech breathing patterns? Breathing is a vital activity and breathing well, by the way, is a fundamental practice in yoga (see figure of the prana technique of breathing), a condition for a better life. Knowing how to combine periods of silence with periods of phonation should favor a person to know what to say and what not to say for a successful communication because its excess may be no communication at all, as says Italian writer Moravia when he speaks about the excess of information in L’angello dell’informazione.
Yogue practicing the prana (Source: How an ancient breathing practice can add years to your life)
Speech scientists know that we take more air by inhaling more deeply before speaking, which ensures much longer expiration phases, a necessary condition for uttering the different sounds and the rhythmic aspects of a language. But what they still do not know well is the kind of changes we do in speech breathing when we change the way we speak. For instance, the differences in coordination between both activities when giving a class, when interviewing someone, when talking to a close friend, or when convincing someone to buy a product, among other activities. Taking the latter one, as an example, the ability to convincing someone involves aspects that can be referred to as charisma and persuasion.
Speech scientists know that we take more air by inhaling more deeply before speaking, which ensures much longer expiration phases, a necessary condition for uttering the different sounds and the rhythmic aspects of a language.
Persuasive and charismatic speech has been motivating my friend Oliver Niebuhr, from the University of Southern Denmark, and I to investigate how different speakers change the coordination between breathing and speaking from normal reading to persuasive reading.
From recording of 17 students, who learned from him how to sound charismatic or persuasive in selling a product, and himself, Oliver and I found differences in chest and abdomen extensions as well in the way coordination of breathing and speaking is done for both body parts (the figure shows Oliver during one of the sessions).
Oliver testing Fastrack (Source: personal archive)
Most speakers change much more the chest than the abdomen when start speaking in a persuasive manner. Both body parts are expanded more when the speaker is sit than on she/he is in a standing position. As expected, men expand more theirs chests and abdomens than women do. Among the 18 people who participated in the experiment who was the winner of chest expansion? Yes, the teacher, of course!
What was found interesting is that these expansions when speaking with persuasion contribute to a more resonant voice, which is certainly perceived as more pleasant, filling in the whole environment. What are the probable applications of these findings?
Compare the speech of two public figures, one with an attractive, persuasive voice, and the other with an unpleasant or ordinary voice. Who is the most popular one? Probably the person with the pleasant voice. And what if… we could teach how to breathe in a way that favors a charismatic speech? And if we could instruct people on how to coordinate this new way of breathing with their phonation activity? Imagine the consequences for product selling, election results, storytelling effect on the audience, and so on! Well, it is exactly what Oliver has tried to do recently by instructing investors in industries to sound more persuasive.
Even if speaking is a daily activity, this not precludes the possibility of speaking more fluently, in a more pleasant way, and why not, in a way that can optimize breathing for speech for decreasing the level of stress of both speaker and hearer. What an important contribution for a stressful, agitated society. Contributing to a society where people know how to communicate to make others happy and fulfilled is certainly an important human duty nowadays.
Recent technology then can allow us to achieve that goal in an effective way, and why not to say, in a pleasant manner. How important to our world is to manage well breathing-speech coordination for achieving any communicative goal. Next time, do not forget: breathe deeply!
Papers on the matter
Barbosa, P. A., Madureira, S. (2018) The Interplay between Speech and Breathing across three Brazilian Portuguese Speaking Styles. Proc. 9th International Conference on Speech Prosody 2018, 369-373, DOI: 10.21437/SpeechProsody.2018-75.
Włodarczak M, Heldner M (2016a): Respiratory belts and whistles: a preliminary study of breathing acoustics for turn-taking. Proceedings of the Interspeech 2016, San Francisco, USA, pp. 510-514.
Konno K, Mead J (1967): Measurement of the separate volume changes of rib cage and abdomen during breathing. J Appl Physiol 22: 407-422.
Hixon T, Mead J, Goldman M (1976): Dynamics of the chest wall during speech production: Function of the thorax, rib cage, diaphragm, and abdomen. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 19(2):297-356.
Grosjean F, Collins, M (1979): Breathing, pausing and reading. Phonetica 36(2):98-114.
Henderson A, Goldman-Eisler F, Skarbek A (1965): Temporal patterns of cognitive activity and breath control in speech. Language and Speech 8(4):236-242.
Denny M (2000): Periodic variation in inspiratory volume characterizes speech as well as quiet breathing. Journal of Voice 14 (1):34-46.