Has anyone experienced soreness when speaking a new language?
September 25, 2017 10:08 PM   Subscribe

In this case, the language is Mandarin. I've been studying pretty intensely for 2 and a half years (at least an hour of speaking every day), but now I'm in China and am speaking even more. My throat has begun to get sore after I speak... my current theory is that my pitch range is hitting too many low notes and that has strained my vocal cords. That said, I don't really know what to do! Normally, I'd try to find a specialist doctor to take a look, but I'm currently in Guilin, China and don't know how easily I could find a specialist, and beyond that, I don't have great insurance atm (my insurance is more of the "we cover you if you break your leg" variety). That said, if you know of any experts I can talk to, I do have some money I can use to pay for that if it's not too expensive...

There aren't many more details except the above. I don't really know how to diagnose or remedy the problem.

Beyond just being sore, it gives me a desire to cough, like I need to clear my throat regularly. Occasionally when I have done this there has been a little mucous that came out.

I've heard that prolonged vocal strain can cause permanent hoarseness and/or vocal nodes, both of which would suck. But more immediately I want to be able to speak mandarin in comfort! Millions of people learn mandarin as adults, so I really think this boils down to something I'm doing wrong.

I really don't think I am sick. I don't feel sick at all, and the air in Guilin is good. Plus, when I don't speak for a bit, it gets better. When I start speaking again, it gets worse. The causality feels pretty clear.

My native language is english and I can also speak spanish. I've spoken both for extended periods of time without any issue at all, so I really think this is related to how I'm producing mandarin sounds, but I'm not sure how to fix it.
posted by wooh to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Vocal fatigue in foreign languages is documented, and (luckily) you're not the only Mandarin learner who's experienced this (I did too during my semester class). The threads I've linked have some suggestions/commiserations from other learners, as well as links to more threads.

Including the paper* mentioned in the first link above, the consensus seems to be vocal training (I don't have at-home resources for Mandarin, sorry!), but I'm sure you can find some exercises online, or just make an effort to mimic native speakers on tape, etc.

In the meantime, maybe try upping your starting pitch so going into the lower tones don't kill your throat?

*Kati Järvinen, "Voice Characteristics in Speaking a Foreign Language: A study of voice in Finnish and English as L1 and L2"
posted by lesser weasel at 10:32 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: lesser weasel: thanks for the resources. For future respondents, I've seen the chinese-forum threads, and it's there and elsewhere that people seemed to recommend raising the general pitch of my voice. That said, I haven't seen any other concrete things one can do.

I'd be open to vocal training, but I'm not really sure what that entails, who I could find to do it, etc.

As far as exercises online, I have found none.

As far as making an effort to mimic native speakers... I've been doing that for 2 and a half years and it got me into this mess :) So I think I need something a bit more concrete, because clearly what I've been doing up to now is not working (for the record, I'm conversationally fluent so I'm a somewhat advanced student and speak a lot).

Thanks again!
posted by wooh at 10:38 PM on September 25, 2017

Not speaking a new language per se, but moving from Australia to the USA I had to move where I spoke from the back of my mouth throat area to the front to make my accent more understandable to the people here. This lead to jaw pain for the first few months I was here. So I can totally see a tonal language like Mandarin messing up vocal cords that are unused to it.

You mind find teas of the sort singers sip to protect their vocal cords might help with the symptoms as least. Throw in some honey & lemon for the antibacterial properties. I know they like licorice root tea as it coats the throat, but I'm sure some googling could find some Chinese teas that would suit the same purpose.

If you can't find a vocal coach you might want to look for a singing teacher & explain your situation. They may be able to suggest warmup exercises, breathing properly and ways to use your vocal cords in a less stressful manner.
posted by wwax at 6:12 AM on September 26, 2017

Make sure you sip some water or tea throughout the day, particularly in situations where you are talking a lot.
posted by w0mbat at 7:33 AM on September 26, 2017

Hi, I'm afraid I don't have much in the way of recommendations but your question reminded me of something. I was in a situation where I had to speak a language which I know but hadn't spoken for quite a while. There was also quite a lot of pressure not to sound la-de-da or have too different an accent. To my surprise almost every time I opened my mouth my voice would come out weak and strangled and end in dry coughing. I can only guess that the anxiety I was feeling about being judged by my speech was having this very precise negative effect. At the time I thought I had some sort of cough that only materialised in the presence of other people.

Oh, another thing: habitually voices are pitched lower and more open in this other language (which is also tonal, by the way.) But I've never before had any difficulty going lower, and in fact do it in English quite a lot when I want to emphasize something. That 'going lower' feels to me to be easier on the throat, whereas the drying up and strangulating feeling of losing your voice feels much more of a strain.

Since then I've read something that confirmed this is a thing and there's been research on it: being socially a bit nervous can effect the way your voice works. Unfortunately I can't find the link now, and googling hasn't been helpful. All I've got is this, from the Independent, which is not scientific at all, so apologies. But if I may suggest something: as well as physical causes and remedies, maybe try active psychological techniques to relax and reduce anxiety generally, when you are in a situation where you're ready to be speaking.
posted by glasseyes at 7:45 AM on September 26, 2017

You're tenser than normal when you're speaking because you're focusing on pronunciation/tones/new words. According to the Alexander Technique, your use is poor. F. M. Alexander himself lost his voice due to incorrect use of his body/vocal chords while acting. He developed the Alexander Technique to help with this.

I don't know if you could find a teacher in Guilin, but something to think about.
posted by chainsofreedom at 9:16 AM on September 26, 2017

I don't speak Mandarin so if this is off base, feel free to disregard it. In my college phonetics class I remember our professor mentioning that for the lowest tone, people would use breathy voice rather than actually changing their tone because it was easier on their vocal tract. Maybe listen to other native speakers and see if it checks out, it takes some practice but it's pretty easy once you get the hang of it.
posted by Bistyfrass at 9:55 AM on September 26, 2017

Yup, this is partly because you're tenser than you normally would be. A lot of people have the same sorts of problems after extended public speaking or instruction.

It could also be related to the specific ways non-native speakers often over-enunciate tonal languages.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:38 PM on September 26, 2017

Response by poster: Thank you all for the suggestions. I think that nervousness and tenseness could be an issue!

Having chatted with people elsewhere, I think I have a likely culprit: vocal fry. I know, I know. I feel like the bad guy in a This American Life piece. Regardless, in my third tone (and sometimes second), I've been frying pretty hard. When I make a conscious effort not to do this, I don't get the pain. So I think the combination of going low and going hard on the fry has hurt my throat.

Not 100% given, but an interesting avenue to explore. Time to retrain my voice...
posted by wooh at 5:05 PM on September 26, 2017

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