Tongue Twisters

Tongue twisters were always something fun to do when growing up. Who can say it the fastest? Who can say it the most times? Who is the best? It was something fun to do with friends and would always take up some time when you started getting into it.

To figure out if it was the brain mixing up the syllables or if it was coming from the mouth, in 1982 researchers Ralph and Lyn Haber conducted a study asking participants to read two types of sentences, one containing a tongue twister, and one that was complex but did not contain a twister. They found that participants slowed down in sentences with tongue twisters even if their tongue wasn’t in use, this would be sounds like “p” and “b”. This says that the brain is confusing the sounds before they even get to your mouth.

To further this research, in 2013 a team from the University of California put electrodes in the skull of epilepsy patients to record electrical activity in the brain. They found that the neural patterns that lit up when they pronounced consonants were different from when they pronounced vowels, even though they are using the same tract. They also found that the brain split phonemes into 3 groups- front of tongue, back of tongue, and vowels. Sounds formed in the same area are easier to switch up, which is why twisters like “sally sells seashells” are harder to say.

Another group of researchers from MIT had participants say a combination of words in two categories- one of them was simple words like, “Top Cop” and the other one was a sentence of words like, “The Top Cop Saw a Cop Top.” After some trials, here was one set of words that they found most participants had a struggle with, and when asked to say it multiple times they gave up, this list was, “Pad Kid Poured Curd Pulled Cod” and it might be the hardest tongue twister to say.

So why are tongue twisters so hard so say, and what makes this one especially difficult? They said that tongue twisters have qualities that the brain tends to reject, a string of quick but distinct phonemes. They analyzed the participants saying the twisters and found that the most common mistakes came from double onsets, like ‘Top Cop’ becoming ‘tkop’ or ‘toy boat’ becoming ‘tuh boyt’. This suggests that there is an overlap in brain processes used in speech. The research at MIT hasnt been finished, but they hope to to find more connections in the use of double onsets and the types of speech.

4 thoughts on “Tongue Twisters

  1. ccallowa

    Growing up I was AWFUL at tongue twisters and did not fully understand them. Especially when we were asked to say toy boat several times over and over again, I was not the biggest fan of that. It is interesting that different neural areas in the brain light up when pronouncing vowels and consonants are different from one another. It is also cool to find out that are brain rejects that string of phonemes when reading or pronouncing tongue twisters! Overall great post!!

  2. jackkirschner

    I always wondered how young twisters worked in the mind. To see that in the brain there is an overlap that could cause this is increadable. This is a great post and awesome work.

  3. mlbrody

    This blog post was super interesting and relatable. Growing up, I also did tongue twisters with my family especially on car trips, and I was always so curious as to why it was so difficult for us to pronounce certain words in order over and over again. As I got older, I came to the realization that it had to do with the phenology of the words, but come to find out, the words get twisted in our brains before we even attempt to do it, is awesome. Overall, super informative and easy to read.

  4. evaalexis422

    One of the best posts I’ve read. Love it because it’s simple and to the point, yet very intriguing. This also resonates with me because I have epilepsy. It is sort of blowing my mind that my brain might be interpreting b and p in an irregular way. I chuckled at the childhood reference, everyone enjoys a good tongue twister. Makes total sense that tongue twisters which have words that sound similar back to back get jumbled in the mind and speech gets faulty.

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