3 Things I Learned from THE KING’S SPEECH

the king's speech

How “The King’s Speech” can help with your English fluency

Recently, I watched the film, “The King’s Speech” on DVD. If you don’t remember, this movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2011. The main character, King George VI, was played by Colin Firth who also won the Academy Award for Best Actor.

It is based on real events that occurred in the 1930’s and 1940’s where the Duke of York (George VI) suffered from a major speech problem. He had a terrible stammer. How he overcame this challenge taught me some things that I think can help students become more fluent speakers. I’d like to share 3 of these with you today.

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What is “The King’s Speech” About?

a scene from the king's speech

Here are 3 ways that Lionel helped King George VI

The film centers around George VI’s inability to speak fluently in public (and also in private for the most part). In other words, he had a stammer (also known as a stutter).

Since he obviously needed to address the public from time to time, he hired a speech therapist named Lionel Logue (expertly played by Geoffrey Rush) to help him overcome his stammer.

Some of the techniques that Lionel used to help George VI were quite interesting and definitely worth noting here. I hope to share a few of these techniques as well as one more important lesson I took away from the movie.

WARNING: Mild Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m going to talk about some details that you may or may not want to know about beforehand. None of these will spoil the whole story or the end of the movie.

So, here are the 3 Things I Learned from “The King’s Speech.”

1. Your Ears can Negatively Affect your Fluency

One of the first things that Lionel tries with George is to have him speak while listening to loud classical music. This was done to show him that his stammer was not with him at birth, but rather a problem he picked up as a child.

Because George was wearing headphones with loud music, he could not hear himself speak while reading a passage from Shakespeare. As a result, he spoke perfectly without stammering!

How was this possible? By not being able to hear his own voice, his mind could focus on speaking and delivering the sounds rather than focus on the sounds themselves!

If you find that you are having a hard time with fluency or smooth speaking pace, you might want to try listening to music while practicing a speech. Make sure to record yourself so that you can hear how you did.

NOTE: Although this technique worked for George, it may not be the answer for everyone. I think your ears are an incredibly powerful tool for helping your fluency as well. If you record yourself, your ears can be very helpful to listen and point out your trouble spots.

Here is the scene from the movie:

2. A Loose Jaw is Important for Fluency

One of the physical problems George had, was that his jaw was too tight. This is a very big issue if you want to be a fluent speaker!

Over the last year or so, I’ve started to notice this with a lot of my students here in Japan. I’m not sure if this is because of the way the Japanese language is spoken, or just a habit formed over time, but I’ve found a growing number of students have a very tight jaw which affects their pronunciation and fluency negatively.

In the movie, Lionel has George make his jaw loose by shaking his head from side to side while letting his lower jaw swing freely. Actually, I’ve had my acting students do similar exercises to make their jaws more loose and it has helped with their pronunciation and fluency.

Why is a loose jaw important? There are many reasons but one that has affected my students is that it prevents them from making certain important vowel sounds in English.

NOTE: Remember, the vowel sounds are “a, e, i, o, u”

Some of the major ones that I find are challenging for students with tight jaws are:

-Tall A (as in “father” or “car”)
-Flat U (as in “bus” or “duck”)

The tall A is a challenge because students cannot open their mouths wide enough to produce the sound clearly. The sound that results is more like a flat E. If they want to say “father”, it ends up sounding like “feather.”

The problem with the flat U (also known as the “schwa”) is that the sound does not exist in Japanese. For my students, the sound falls between the ‘a’ and ‘e’ sounds in Japanese. The result is that the try to position their mouths in the middle and their jaw tightens up. Again, the result is a strange combination somewhere in the middle, but not a flat U.

For native English speakers, the flat U is the most natural sound possible. It’s the sound that we make naturally without trying to produce any particular sound. That’s why native speakers, when thinking of what to say, will say, “Um, let’s see…” The “um” is the flat U and is just a natural sound that comes out without thinking.

In other words, the jaw is totally relaxed. In order to produce the flat U, your jaw must be completely relaxed. Therefore the students with tight jaws have trouble with this one.

Here is the scene from the movie:

3. Other Forms of Fluid Motion Help with Spoken Fluency

To help with George’s spoken fluency, Lionel helped him start speaking sentences by creating other fluid motions. For example, he had him rock back and forth from the heels of his feet to his toes. This motion helped George gain momentum in his body therefore helping him start speaking.

It also probably helped take his mind off of his speech like we noted with the loud music in the headphones. Since he was able to focus on his feet, he didn’t have to think about producing the sound he was having trouble with.

Another trick Lionel used was all with George’s mouth. One of the difficult sounds for George was the “m” sound. For example, he had trouble saying words like “mother” or “manufacturing” because he couldn’t produce the beginning “m” sound.

However, for George it was easier to produce a “hmm” sound. So instead of saying “mother”, Lionel had him say “hmm-mother.” In other words, he combined the two sounds (“hmm” and “m”) which helped him say the main word (“mother”). The first sound was used to start and build up momentum to help produce the troubling “m” sound.

Here is the scene from the movie:

Action Plan

If you find that you are having trouble with your spoken fluency or you can’t speak with an even pace, here is your action plan:

1. Try reading a script and record yourself. If there are points that you often find yourself stopping at or you can’t get through smoothly, try wearing headphones with music playing and try again. See if the results change!

2. Do physical exercises to help loosen your jaw. This could be shaking your head back and forth like in the movie. Or often what I have my students do is open their mouth very wide and say “Ahh” like at the doctor’s office. Hold that “Ahh” for about 5 seconds and try to project it in front of you. This will also help to loosen your throat, which is also very important.

3. Build other physical motion into your speech. If you get stuck saying a word (not THINKING of the word, but rather SPEAKING the word) try to add a physical action that “triggers” the sound. This could be rocking on your feet like in the movie or waving your arms up and down, or adding a “comfortable” sound like “hmm” or “ahh” before speaking the desired word or sentence.

Bottom Line

“The King’s Speech” was a very enjoyable movie and I recommend that everyone watch it if they have time. It is not mainly a movie about English or language fluency, but there are some valuable lessons to be learned from it. Follow my action plan if you get stuck in your fluency and let me know if these techniques help you out!

Question: What tips or tricks do you have to help with spoken fluency?

Share your ideas below!

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8 Responses to 3 Things I Learned from THE KING’S SPEECH

  1. Przemek at #

    “flat U” is “schwa”?

    • ALsensei at #

      Hi Przemek,

      Yes.
      “Schwa” is more of the grammatical or phonetic term that is widely used.
      “Flat U” is the term I use in my teaching.

      The reason I use “Flat U” is so that my students can see the relationship between all of the “flat” sounds (a, e, i, o, u) and also how they relate to the “true” sounds.

      Thanks for your question.

      Al

      • Przemek at #

        Hi,

        but isn’t schwa the vowel ə used in unstressed syllabes only? and ‘bus’ and ‘duck’ as lexical words are stressed in most cases, I guess…
        calling it ‘flat u’ to help your students seems to be a neat idea, but the vowel here is ʌ – a wedge, as they call it

        by “flat” sounds do you mean the shorter ones? and “tall” are the long vowels?

        and what do you mean by a “true sound” btw?

        best
        Przemek

        • ALsensei at #

          Przemek,

          Thank you for your great reply and thoughtful questions.

          You are right. What I have called “flat” sounds are perhaps typically taught as “short” sounds. Here is one such page:

          http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/word-lists/list-of-short-vowel-words.html

          Actually, you may be right about the schwa and wedge sounds from a phonetic and technical standpoint. I am not a major of linguistics so I cannot verify that without a little more research. These are very important things you are pointing out and I appreciate that.

          However, if I may again stress the reason I teach the way I do…it is to help students get from their current level to a high level of native pronunciation very quickly. In my opinion, learning the phonetic charts and symbols starts to train people to use their eyes for pronunciation rather than their ears and it is an unnecessary step for some students. I want students to try training their ears first so that they can produce the sounds on their own without relying on predetermined terms or symbols. Of course, I understand that visual cues are important. I hope that students make their own terms or symbols to relate to the sounds AFTER hearing them. It sounds like you are a bit further advanced than most of my students here in Japan so please don’t let my message impede your progress if you don’t find it helpful.

          To answer your other questions, I use the term “tall” particularly with the “A” sound in “father.” The reason for this is that for me, at least, it is intuitive to think of your mouth needing to open wide to produce the sound. The “true” sound is the sound that the vowel is spoken when you say the alphabet (a,b,c,d,e,etc.). For example, the “A” sound in “cake” or the “O” sound in “bowl.” According to this website, that is commonly referred to as the “long” vowel sound.

          http://www.englishhints.com/english-vowels.html

          Thank you so much for pointing out these points that I have overlooked. I really appreciate your attention to these details and helping other readers learn from sharing your knowledge. Take care and please feel free to comment anytime!

          Best,

          Al

  2. Alsensei,

    Your insight shows as much important is to think out of the box, independend teachers and studends are in this very moment creating the bases of a completly new world when it comes to learn. This level of detail and observation makes a huge difference during the learning process. Congratulation and keep up with your great job.

    • ALsensei at #

      Sergio,

      Thank you so much for your kind comments! It really makes my day!
      I am really glad that you are finding this type of post helpful to your learning.
      I will definitely continue to write similar posts in the future.

      All the best,

      Al

  3. Diako at #

    Hi Dear ALsensei

    Thank you for your useful and important tips.

    I’m a big fan of you and I wish the best for you.

    Diako.M from Iran,Mahabad

    • ALsensei at #

      Hi Diako!

      I’m so sorry for my late reply!
      Thank you so much for your kind message.
      I really appreciate hearing from you.
      I’m glad you are finding the information useful.
      Please let me know if you have any questions!

      Take care,

      Al

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