The Power of Spoken Communication

Of all gifts to mankind, speech ranks at, or very near, the top. It costs us nothing, requires no special apparatus aside from that with which we are already equipped, and requires very little expenditure of energy. And its power is legendary. Speeches across the ages have shaped politics, religion, social values, wars.....the list goes on and on. The fire side chats of President Franklin D. Roosevelt comforted and cheered the American public during the great depression. The rhetoric of Winston Churchill gave courage to a besieged England during World War II. Martin Luther King helped bring about momentous social change by such phrases as "I have a dream..." and "We shall overcome." John F. Kennedy gave rise to a politically conscious generation with the words "...ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Political rallies, protest demonstrations, and church revivals are all events at which passions can be brought to the surface in response to fiery speakers.

Probably nowhere is the power of the spoken word more well recognized than in advertising. Over my generation phrases such as “where’s the beef?” “been there, done that,”, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” and “I love you, man” found there way into our everyday conversations from television advertising. Multi-million dollar advertising campaigns are built around such short, attention capturing phrases. What are some phrases from advertising that are currently in use?

Contribution of Communication to Cultural Identity

Speech, and the language it carries, is also the vehicle for transporting our culture from generation to generation. Stories are passed from one generation to the next through speech. Children learn about the family, and the world in general, by listening to people talk about it. Each succeeding generation teaches the next its values, attitudes, and biases through speech. All cultures have spoken language and through that language the history of the culture is preserved and enriched.

Language can be a unifying force between different cultures. Americans feel a kindred spirit for other "English speaking nations." Language can also be divisive. We do not generally feel the same camaraderie with people whose language we do not speak. Even differences within languages affect our perception of others. We feel more comfortable listening to those from 'our part of the country' than 'outsiders.'

I grew up in the lower mid-west, southern Illinois to be more exact. The speech of the area was distinctive, perhaps best described as rural mid-western. My home was in the country, five miles from the nearest small town, and most of my elementary school years were spent in a one-room school house. Consolidation of educational facilities began about the time I started junior high school. Effectively this meant the closing of the one-room country schools and busing children to schools in town. I quickly found that speech was indeed an identifying characteristic, even within a limited geographical area. My speech identified me as a 'country' kid, as differentiated from a 'town' kid. An example of a word that differentiated the 'town' kids from the 'country' kids was the word for a highway. Town kids called it a 'highway,' country kids called it the 'slab.' The basis for this was the fact that most country kids lived on dirt or gravel roads and differentiated the highway by the fact that it was a 'slab' of concrete. Perhaps the experience of making that change was one of the things that lead me to a life-long interest in communication differences.

Speech and language tells the world who we are, where we live, and what we are about. The person from the Bronx, Boston, the South, Minnesota, and Louisiana may be easily identified by the way they pronounce their words. Every geographical area has some identifiable words that are unique to that area. In addition to geographical identification, speech may project age, ethnicity, education background, and socio-economic status. We form impressions of persons we meet for the first time by listening to not only what they say, but the way they say it. Educational level can be calculated by attending to the vocabulary and grammatical structure a person uses. The more sophisticated the language, the higher the educational level. Ethnicity is often projected by vocabulary in that the individual uses words that are only used by that ethnic group. The way in which words are pronounced gives important clues in making decisions about the listener in all of the areas above.

Communication and the Individual

Speech also can tell the listener much about the individual characteristics of the speaker. It projects the individual's level of confidence and self-esteem, or lack of it, and general state of mind. Listening to the speech of individuals is one way in which we form our concept of those individuals. Are they happy or sad? Are they optimistic or pessimistic? Are they energetic or lethargic? We can usually tell when a person is not feeling well, or is having a bad day, by the way that person talks. Speech is a highly visible and personal part of the individual. To re-phrase an old saying, "...we are what we say."

Definitions of Communication, Language, and Speech

Let's discuss some definitions at this point. The three keys words with which to develop a familiarity for the purposes of this book are speech, language, and communication. Let's start with the broadest term, which is communication.

Communication has been formally defined as

  1. "The act of imparting, conferring, or delivering, from one to another; as the communication of knowledge, opinions,or facts.
  2. "Intercourse by words, letters, or messages; interchange of thoughts or opinions, by conference or other means" (Webster, 1983).

Speech has been defined as "the act of speaking" so we have to refer to the definition for the word "speak" which is,

  1. "to utter with the mouth; to pronounce" (Webster, 1983).

The last, language is defined as, "The expression or communication of thoughts and feelings by means of vocal sounds, and combinations of such sounds, to which meaning is attributed" (Webster, 1983). Let's try to put that in more clear terms. For the purposes of this book, we will define communication as "the act of sharing thoughts, attitudes, and feelings." We will define Language as "a system of symbols and rules, either spoken or written, through which communication takes place." And speech as "the production of sounds which transmit language from one individual to another."

The Miracle of Speech

I taught courses in "speech science" at the university level for over thirty years. Speech science includes such courses as anatomy and physiology (how the body parts act to produce the sounds of the language), acoustics (how sound is transmitted through the air), and phonetics (learning a system of writing sounds of the language using a one-symbol-for-one-sound approach by employing the International Phonetic Alphabet). Each time I taught the courses I found I was still in awe of the sheer complexity and sophistication of the process of communication.

Rate of Speech

Consider for a moment only the factor of the speed with which speech occurs. A normal speaker talks at the rate of about 166 words per minute (Darley, 1940), with acceptable rates ranging from 140-185 (Franke, 1939). This means words occur at the rate of 2-3 words per second. The number of sounds per word varies greatly. The shortest word in the first four sentences of this paragraph has one sound ("a") and the longest has seven ("consider") and the average is around four. A realistic estimate of the 'normal' rate, a 'normal' speaker is 10 to 15 sounds per second. Think about that for a minute. You produce speech at the rate of 10 to 15 times per second when speaking at a normal rate. What else can you do with your body at that rate? With the exception of some musicians, typists, and persons who engage in other endeavors that require extensive training, nothing we do with our bodies approaches the speed with which we produce speech.

Even more impressive is the fact that we learn it without having to do anything special. As children, we develop spoken language with no formal training. All we need is a complete mechanism (normal speech mechanism, normal hearing) and stimulation (people talking in our environment). Speech, as the most complex act of which most of us is capable, is as natural as walking.

What the Body has to do to Produce Speech

To further appreciate the complexity, consider how speech is produced. We normally divide the act of producing speech sounds into three major components physiologically; respiration (breathing), phonation (producing sound at the vocal folds), and articulation (making various constrictions of the vocal tract, i.e., throat, mouth, lips, etc. to produce specific sounds). Figure 2 is a rendering of the speech mechanism. When we produce words, we have to coordinate all three of these processes at one time. We must exhale with enough force to produce sound. Breathing is the source of power for all speech. Breathing for speech is very different than normal breathing for the purpose of exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide. Inhalation for speech is much faster, and exhalation must be prolonged. Breathing for speech is under the control of the voluntary nervous system, meaning we have to exert conscious control. Breathing for staying alive is involuntary.

Breathing must be coordinated with the production of voice at the vocal folds. The vocal folds are folds, or shelves, of tissue in the respiration tract that can be opened and closed voluntarily. By closing slightly and building air pressure through controlled exhalation, we make them vibrate. If the speed of speech sounded fast, consider the rate of vibration of the vocal folds. The rate of vibration of normal male vocal fold movement when talking is around 120 Hz (Hz-cycles per second). For females, the rate is almost double that at 220 Hz (Fitch & Holbrook, 1970; Zemlin, 1988, p. 150).

Intonation patterns are created by changing the frequency of vocal fold vibration, or pitch. An example would be the upward inflection of pitch used when asking a question. The pitches that occur in normal conversation take place over about an octave range, which means the highest pitch produced is twice as high in frequency as the lowest pitch produced. All of this requires a fine coordination between the processes of breathing and vocal fold control.

FIGURE 2. Sagittal section of speech mechanism

Breathing and vocalization are only the beginning of the process. What really shapes the sound into the discrete units of speech we call 'phonemes' is the position of the speech mechanism. Phonemes may be divided into two classes; consonants and vowels. Distinction between the two is based on the role they play in producing syllables. Consonants start and end syllables. Vowels serve to define the open part of the syllable.

Vowels are shaped from harmonics (overtones) that are produced by the vocal folds. Some of these harmonics reach 3000-4000 Hz. Consonants form the syllable boundaries by closing off the vocal tract to restrict air flow. Consonants and vowels will be described in more detail in chapter five Speech Differences.

Importance of the Nervous System in Communication

The intricacy of the act of speech can be seen in the amount of nervous system involvement. Figure 3 is what is commonly known as the motor homunculus. The parts of the body are drawn in proportion to the amount of brain tissue that is devoted to their control. You can see that the portion devoted to the speech mechanism is disproportionately large, indicating the greater degree to which the muscles in those structures can be controlled.

Figure 3. Motor homunculus

The miracle of speech is further enhanced by considering the processes of the nervous system that must occur before an utterance is produced. Before starting to produce a stream of sounds, a speaker must decide which thoughts to share with the listener (we will include ideas, feelings, knowledge, and experiences as 'thoughts'). Once the decision is made as to what will be shared, the speaker must choose the words to express the thought, then the sequence in which the words will be used in a sentence, and the sequence in which sentences will be used in the total speaking instance. Word sequence is important as “today is Wednesday” and “is today Wednesday” have the exact same words, but very different meanings.

Then the speaker chooses which sounds to use to form the words. And, as important as choosing the sounds themselves, is choosing the right sequence in which they occur. The words 'pots' and 'spot' include the same sounds, but in a different sequence, resulting in very different meanings.

To conclude the awesome task of speaking, consider the fact that all of the above; choosing the thought, selecting the words, selecting the sounds, and putting them into the appropriate sequence, is going on all at the same time. The production of any one sound involves the coordination of dozens of muscles. While speaking one sound in a word, we are preparing for the production of the next sound. At the same time we are selecting the next thought, word, and sentence that we will utter. It is an incredible feat, yet one which most children master before beginning their 'formal' education.

The Miracle of Hearing

The act of hearing is equally impressive. Consider what a listener must do to be able to understand a speaker. Remember, we defined communication as the act of sharing thoughts. That means we must have a speaker and a listener. (The speaker and listener can be one in the same-we all talk to ourselves on occasion.) The listener must first be able to differentiate the forty plus sounds of the language. Then the sounds have to be grouped and sequenced and associated with the listener's own vocabulary. (Using a word that is not in the listener's vocabulary really throws a monkey wrench into the listening act. Not only can they not decode the word, but the brain goes into a loop trying to find an equivalent, thereby slowing the whole communication process.) The listener must then group the words into sentences, and from that deduce the thought the speaker is trying to share.

Physical Properties of the Signal

The rate at which speech is being received is obviously the same at which it is being produced (10-15 sounds per second). The ear must be able to analyze such characteristics as the length of the sounds (in millisecond range, with a millisecond being one one-thousandth of a second), the type of sound, and identify the frequencies in the sound to differentiate sounds from one another. The ear must be able to perceive frequencies in the sound wave as high as 8,000 Hz for complete analysis (Northern & Lemme, 1986, p.420). Just think, the ear is sensitive enough to respond to vibrations in the air that are occurring at the rate of 8,000 times per second. The ears of young adults can actually perceive sounds as high as 20,000 Hz (Martin, 1991, p.52).

Sound is transmitted from the speaker to the listener though waves of movement, or vibrations, in the air. The sound created at the speaker's lips causes the air particles to vibrate. The air particles nearest the sound source cause the ones farther away to vibrate in a chain reaction, or domino effect.

Outer and Middle Ear Function

These 'sound waves' travel through the air and enter into the ear canal causing the air particles next to the eardrum to move. The eardrum is so sensitive that the movement of the air particles next to it will cause it to move. Figure 4 is a rendering of the ear.

As the eardrum moves, it transmits sound to the middle ear, so-called because it is between the outer ear (part on the side of the head and the ear canal) and the inner ear (which we will discuss in a moment). The middle ear contains bones, which are the smallest bones in the body, through which sound is transmitted from the outer ear to the inner ear. The transmission process of the middle ear includes an 'impedance matching' mechanism, which means matching the pressure of the movement of the easily moved air particles to the more resistant movement of fluid in the inner ear. Any kind of disruption to the middle ear chain of bones will obviously reduce the effectiveness of the sound transmission system.

Figure 4. Rendering of the ear

Inner Ear Function

The inner ear is where the sound is changed into neurological impulses that are sent to the brain. The middle ear mechanism causes fluid to move in the inner ear. The fluid in the inner ear is encased in bone and the only outlet for pressure are two openings from the middle ear; one where the sound wave, or changes in air pressure, enter (oval window), and one where they leave (round window).

The fluid in the inner ear is enclosed in a membranous sac that lines the walls of a bony cavity. A second membranous sac is located within the first. The second sac is surrounded by the fluid found in the first sac. The second sac contains fluid itself that surrounds the actual organ of hearing, which is known as the "cochlea." The cochlea contains sensory cells (called hair cells) that are sensitive to movement of the fluid. When the fluid in the inner ear moves, impulses are generated to the brain. However, the signal is refined along the pathway to the brain so the signal that gets to the brain is different from the one that was received at the ear. The brain must take the refined signal and change it into streams of sound, then words, sentences, and back to ideas. The incoming pathway of the auditory signal into the nervous system is as complex as the neurological processes which control the production of speech.

The process of communication is a thought-to-thought journey, starting with the thought in the mind of the speaker and ending with the thought in the mind of the listener. We tend to think of the speaker as being the 'active' part of the act of communication and the listener the 'passive' part. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Listening requires as much neurological activity as speaking. Listening is not simply a matter of receiving the auditory signal and passing it along through the nervous system.

Hearing and Listening

We should probably differentiate between 'hearing' and 'listening' at this point. Hearing implies reception of the signal, listening implies processing and understanding the signal. An example of the difference can be found in the everyday situation of one person trying to talk to another person who is engrossed in some other activity, such as reading a book. Usually a person deeply concentrating on reading a book will not respond the first time another person says something. If it is a really good book, the person reading may not respond after several repetitions. The frustrated speaker may ask "can you hear me?" If the speaker is close enough and speaking loudly enough, the listener can "hear" the words. However, the listener must actively process the message to capture the thought the speaker is trying to share. Instead of asking "can you hear me?" the speaker might more appropriately ask "would you please listen to me?" The act of listening defines a person just as much as the act of speaking. Listening, like speaking, is a part of your appearance. Good listeners are a treasure.

Speech and Language Development

Infants go through a complex sequence of learning how to use their bodies. First there is wiggling, then crawling, followed by walking and climbing. Learning to use the muscles that move the arms and legs occupies much of the attention of the infant. Speaking is a much faster act and requires much more fine motor control than walking. A common saying concerning the development of infants is that "when they start walking, they start talking." This is basically true. Most children take the first step and say the first word at somewhere around the first birthday. However, once the child takes that first step, locomotion becomes the preoccupying motivation. It is not until children master the art of movement that they begin to get serious about the act of speaking. This is why children don't generally start putting two words together until around age two. By age two they have established good control of locomotion and are ready to move on to bigger and better things.

Age two is generally when the language explosion begins in earnest. Anyone who has lived with a normally developing two year old can attest to the fact that they want to learn everything. They try to learn everything by asking questions. Why is the sky blue? Why are you raking the leaves? Why does daddy snore? Why does the dog lift his leg to ... ? Often the children will repeat questions several times. They do this to confirm what they have learned, just as we might double check an important phone number or address. If the answers don't fit with what they have already been learned, they will continue to ask questions until the information makes sense to them. It can be a challenging time for parents.

The questions are incessant until children acquire enough information to feel they understand their environment. It can be an annoying time for adults because they are always answering questions. However, the wise adult realizes that the answers to the questions will form the child's knowledge base for life. Likes, dislikes, attitudes, and biases are all susceptible to development at this age. And once instilled, they often stay with the individual for a lifetime.

Communication in adults

Communication skills are 90% complete by age six. Even the most complex language structures are learned by age eight. However, vocabulary and applications of language continue to develop throughout life. Most careers are dependent to a significant degree on the individual’s communication skills. The social interaction of the individual and the role of the individual when interacting with his community require a high level of communication skill to achieve feelings of achievement.

Think about your own situation. How much of a role does communication play in your own life? Are you continuing to develop your communication skills? And can you wonder what yourlife as an adult would be like if you did not have the communication skills you possess?