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Do Different Languages Use Different Facial Muscles?

Ever notice that your face may feel different depending on what language you are speaking?

Just as voicing multiple characters in quick succession can be challenging, switching from one language to another can also pose interesting muscular challenges.

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Does this happen to you?

What a Workout!

When I used to sing professionally, my repertory included music with lyrics in a number of languages ranging from the Romance languages through Germanic tongues.

Aside from some obvious differences in diction and phrasing, singing in different languages is a physical process that takes into account the shaping of vowels, emphasis on consonants and any glottal stops along the way.

Singing in any of the Romance languages was by far the least demanding on my facial muscles. The easiest language for me was French followed by Italian, however, singing in German was altogether a different experience that affected my facial musculature in more demanding ways.

Your facial musculature includes everything from your jaw to your tongue. There are also other elements to consider when speaking such as where your tongue touches your teeth or which palate you are employing when shaping vowels in conjunction with your tongue.

I’m not a doctor and don’t claim to know the entire geography of these muscles but know that there is more at work when you speak than meets the eye.

As a native speaker of a Germanic language, you’d think (at least in theory), that an English speaker would find German to be somewhat easy.

For me, German was a real effort, so much so that I can still feel how certain words and vowels sat in an almost unnatural state in my chin and jaw when compared to the flowing and decidedly graceful Romance languages.

The “E” vowel as in “See” is my favorite vowel to sing on in higher ranges of my voice. I also studied French for years. Perhaps this is why I excelled in French more than any other language but it could also be because it just felt right placement and phrasing wise.

What I find interesting is that your muscles carry memories and know what to do when you see a word.

Also, you may have noticed that not only do your muscles have memory (hence muscle memory) but you can also have breath memory. This is particularly true if you remember where you need to breathe from to set up a phrase or if you have perfected a song (or recitative).

What Have Your Experiences Been?

Are certain languages easier for you than others? Do you speak a couple or more languages in a given day and find it to be an interesting shift?

Looking forward to hearing from you,

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  • Avatar for David
    March 2, 2010, 6:06 pm

    Different languages do use different facial muscles – that’s for sure!
    For many years I lived and worked in Japan. My day job required me to speak Japanese (thus helping me become fluent in the language). Here’s what I learned:
    The Japanese language has only about 75 different phonetic sounds… English has more than twice as many. Sounds like ‘th’, ‘r’, ‘v’, strong ‘f’, and others do not exist in the language. So, when Japanese people try to learn English, they actually have to build up their unused facial muscles. For some, learning English is a kind of training to help keep their faces young looking. I kid you not. The faces of elderly Japanese people “sag” quite a bit. So speaking English is believed by some to help keep your youthful appearance.
    In contrast, there was only one new Japanese sound that I had to learn (a strange ‘lrd’ that’s not in English). But, the language itself has a very “machine gun” style of delivery that requires a different kind of muscle control in the throat. After the first few months of learning the language, my throat muscles often became tired from the exertion.
    Now, I’m working on learning Chinese. Why? Because it’s a very tonal language. I’m hoping it will help to strengthen the tonal variety in my native English speech.
    Best wishes,

  • Avatar for Joe J Thomas
    Joe J Thomas
    March 3, 2010, 10:11 am

    Good topic, Stephanie…
    Even accents (and characters) use different facial muscles. Some of the voices I do can be a real workout. It works just as well in reverse – adopting a particular face will change your speaking voice (I can hear you smiling, yes/no?)
    David: best of luck with Chinese. (I’m working on Japanese right now).
    I had read a study that indicated people who learned a tonal language when they were young had a higher percentage of singers with “Perfect Pitch”… Now they tell me!

  • Avatar for Herb Merriweather
    Herb Merriweather
    March 3, 2010, 11:05 am

    What an informative article! Although I barely speak ONE language in a semi-coherent manner, it made me more aware of what actually works in my mouth and how it works when I’m voicing whatever.
    Very cool, Stephanie!

  • Avatar for Stefania Lintonbon
    Stefania Lintonbon
    March 3, 2010, 11:09 am

    Seems to me, that Japanese uses more the middle and back of my mouth, whilst Italian uses more the front — with the rolling rrrrr’s etc.! This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but generally it feels this way.
    p.s. I agree with David, there is a machine-gun feel to some Japanese words. Takes practice to master. I rather like it!

  • Avatar for Carol Hahn
    Carol Hahn
    March 3, 2010, 11:19 am

    I would definitely agree with the different issues in singing in various languages since I also am a singer. However, I think that also holds true for the different accents in the English language such as, British, Irish, and southern USA. Whether it is just speaking or when singing we do use various facial muscles in those instances too. And, it seems to become automatic as was stated in the VOX Daily. Thanks for another informative article.
    Carol Hahn

  • Avatar for Arlene Kahn
    Arlene Kahn
    March 3, 2010, 11:37 am

    I don’t know if they use different facial muscles but they do use them in different combinations and ways. When I lived in Sweden many moons ago, it took me a long time to get my American mouth to make some of the sounds in the Swedish language that we don’t have in English.

  • Avatar for David Kersten
    David Kersten
    March 3, 2010, 11:38 am

    Yes, thus the difficulty in pronouncing a different language correctly and without an accent. Different languages focus on using different parts of the mouth and throat. English is very much at the front of the mouth with much of it involving the tongue behind the top front teeth. The “th” sound — the expulsion of air while holding the tongue lightly between the top and bottom front teeth — is, in my experience, unique to the English language. Most people from just about any language who are learning English have trouble with it.

  • Avatar for Morgan Barnhart
    Morgan Barnhart
    March 3, 2010, 11:44 am

    Most definitely. Just like certain languages speak more from their throat or how some use their tongue more.

  • Avatar for Andy Boyns
    Andy Boyns
    March 3, 2010, 12:42 pm

    We have fun with our Turkish friends, and challenge them to say “three free trees” – the results are sometimes hilarious!

  • Avatar for Amy Taylor
    Amy Taylor
    March 3, 2010, 3:01 pm

    We absolutely use different facial muscles when speaking other languages. I’d say we even use different muscles when we speak variations of our own language. I know my mouth hurts after doing certain accents!

  • Avatar for Pearl Hewitt
    Pearl Hewitt
    March 3, 2010, 4:36 pm

    I am stunned to be reading this article as we were just talking about the same subject during my singing lesson earlier this afternoon!! Weird!
    I have been preparing “Cabaret” from the show of the same name for a recital in May and I’m having a problem of emphasizing the ‘y’ too much at the end of the words ‘way’ and ‘holiday’. I’m closing my jaw and squeezing the sides of my mouth into almost a smile and producing an ‘ayyyyyuh’ sound. It’s driving my teacher mad. He told me to stop using my cheek muscles….sing the long ‘a’ vowel and just bring my bottom jaw up at the end of the word which will create a gentle ay sound. It worked!!
    As some of you already know, I’m British but live in Houston, Texas. I’ve been working on perfecting an American accent lately because local businesses want me to do their voicemail but have asked for me not to be British. I have found that the muscle memory thing is definitely apparent. The more I practice, the easier it is for me to produce a full sentence with lots of ‘aarrrrs’ in it without getting tongue-tied.
    The sentence at the bottom of this page… “Are You Meeting Your Prospective Client’s Needs” has lots of American aarrrrr sounds in it and at one time I would have found it almost impossible to get my mouth around the words without tripping all over them and ending up blowing a raspberry with frustration. It’s not perfect yet….but my muscles are definitely remembering what to do!!
    Riveting subject Stephanie. Love it!!

  • Avatar for dunja
    January 20, 2015, 2:59 am

    I am originally from Serbia but taught English using the British accent for four years. Moving to the U.S. to do a PhD was a difficult decision, as I felt that by adopting a new accent would mean losing a part of my identity. I am different now and when I try to switch to British, my mouth doesn’t listen to me, and words don’t come easily. It is as if access to my American experiences was denied to any accent other than American. I just cannot believe it is now hard to use the accent I lived for years!

  • Avatar for Malana Ganz
    Malana Ganz
    April 15, 2015, 12:32 pm

    Do you think that the language you speak, and thereby the muscles used, change the shape of your face? It seems to me that my Russian friends have stronger jaws based on the muscles used to pronounce the beautiful sounds.

  • Avatar for holly
    June 23, 2016, 5:44 am

    I am learning Russian and I think it’s one of the hardest transitions for me to make, as an English speaker. The sounds are distinct and my mouth gets dry when trying to rap (haha don’t ask, I love rap so I thought Russian rap would be fun), or even sing. It took me a few hours to learn the Cyrillic alphabet and a few weeks to apply what I knew, and I’m still not very good.
    I could listen to the music and follow along with what they are saying, but when I try to say it, I either read it slow or too fast and often mispronounce words. Those may just be signs of mediocracy, but I could rap the same tune a million times (correctly) and my mouth still gets dry.
    It’s not a problem reading Cyrillic. I could write out the pronunciation of each word with English letters, and still have trouble letting the words flow out of my mouth. When I read Polish though (I don’t speak Polish) it’s naturally easier for me, so that’s one thing I found kind of odd. (I bring up Polish because supposedly Russian and Polish are similar.)