Learning Tongue Twisters
A Brief Study of Twisters
Tongue twisters are a lot of fun for folks of all ages and, sadly, are an unrecognized or underutilized learning tool for young children as well as those learning spoken English or English as a second Language (ESL). In addition to being excellent aids in teaching language, twisters can teach us many valuable life lessons. The subject matter is so fertile and vast, this article should be regarded as a tentative outline to a new field of study known as Vocal Twistology rather than anything grander.
I admit to not having thought too much about tongue twisters for rather along time until, recently, I wrote an online reply to a question asking how to say tongue twisters. It bought many memories to mind, most from my childhood; I used some of them answering the question.
Teaching someone how to effortlessly deliver tongue twisters is a question, uncharacteristically, I am able to answer with a great deal of confidence and brevity – the answer is simple – practice.
But the answer had given me enough pause to think and, as is sometimes the case, an invitation to dust off and examine memories. (A cue for my family to role their eyes, since “short memories” is something of an oxymoron where I’m concerned.) Further, the more I thought, the more I recognized that tongue twisters are much like small diamonds in the rough and not properly valued.
Tongue Twisters – A Win-Win Game
Like most, I first heard and quickly learned tongue twisters at an early age and, at first, they seemed like another minefield sown by crafty adults and more knowing kids. However, unlike most tasks, I was able to share in the enjoyment of actually failing at something.
In retrospect I now recognize just how precious tongue twisters are. There is no dishonor in failure and deep satisfaction in succeeding. It’s one of those wonderful games or activities where there are no winners and losers. In mathematical game theory, it’s known as a non-zero-sum game or, in every day parlance, a win-win game! Everyone profits – and, inevitably, there will be lots of laughter.
My First Tongue Twisters
The first tongue twister that I can remember is one from England; I learned it when my father’s Air Force career took my family there. The British say “lorry” rather than truck and that’s probably why the memory is still vivid. I can still hear an English child saying:
Red lorry, yellow lorry, red lorry, yellow lorry, red lorry, yellow lorry.
Later, I learned what must have been the US version:
Red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather
How to Issue a Challenge or Suckering Someone In
Issuing the challenge for a tongue twister is made by asking the unwitting suspect to say the tongue twister three times, quickly. The child or adult has demonstrated the ease that the tongue twister can be performed prior to issuing the challenge. The tongue twister has been delivered with speed and a gloating precision in both annunciation and clarity. Ease of performance is similarly demonstrated by hucksters at carnival games as they magically lasso items with hoops that defy many expensive tries by those tempted by giant animals and these side show charlatans.
Further it is one of those games that is as much fun played with other kids as it is with moms or grandfathers. Again, these are precious years for parents as there quickly comes a point when children’s riddles as well as much of their language and thoughts are secreted from parents, guardians and most members of the adult world.
Kids Can Win Without Adults Losing on Purpose – How Sweet That Is
Young kids reach an age when they sometimes suspect an adult isn’t trying as hard as they could or should. At some stage children want to play with an adult at the adult’s level and win feeling that the adult has been genuinely trying rather than throwing the game. If an adult can be tricked into saying something that’s a little, but not too, rude – so much the better. Again, an example from England that was just naughty enough to cause a kid even more satisfaction when an adult fails is:
The sinking steamer sank
(Again, the tongue twister is to be repeated in sets of three at an increasing speed or tempo until the inevitable mistakes are made to a child’s delight and laughter.)
Tongue Twisters for Younger Children – Educational Tool
Some teachers recognize the usefulness and fun of bringing tongue twisters into the classroom whether its full of English speaking children or those learning ESL. All students are introduced to sound, words, pronunciation and diction when acquiring language. Young children can be asked to repeat two or three words – they love to parrot or repeat words and it’s a really fun way to practice them and their pronunciation.
Toy Boat, Toy Boat, Toy Boat
That’s an old chestnut for Vocal Twistologists. Children are asked to repeat the two words slowly, at first. The tempo can be picked up making it more and more difficult and more and more of a challenge. It is a challenge that the children can overcome with practice.
Other common words that get the tongue twister treatment and delivery are:
Three free throws
Examples of more complex groupings are:
Kitty caught the kitten in the kitchen.
Give papa a cup of proper coffee in a copper coffee cup.
A tricky frisky snake with sixty super scaly stripes.
Sometimes one line tongue twisters are part of a longer rhyme that’s not usually quoted in its entirety.
A perennial favorite is:
She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore
But the line is from a longer verse:
She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore.
The shells she sells are sea-shells, I'm sure.
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore
Then I'm sure she sells sea-shore shells.
Just playing simple educational tongue twister teaches one of the most important life lessons – if I persevere, I will get better and, eventually, succeed. Students of spoken English, babyhudson's daughter shown with her classmates in one of the images, attest to the usefulness and fun that teasers played in their study of the language in the linked article.
There is intrinsic pleasure in persevering and succeeding
Most important of all, children should be encouraged to practice and see that effort usually leads to success or, great improvements, at the very least. There is intrinsic pleasure in persevering and succeeding; it is an important life-lesson to internalize early.
As children, we thought it amusing to try to trick adults or other small children to say the following three times, quickly:
I slid a sheet, a sheet I slid, oh how a slidding sheet was it!
In time, my own children would come home from school bursting with excitement and a new challenge of a riddle or tongue twister for me to attempt. Perhaps the role of a faltering father is more satisfying than any delighted child will ever guess.
The most important lesson of all – words and language are fun!!!
If you practice a tongue twister a lot, you will be able to say it more and more clearly. Further, it’s fun to make up your own tongue twister whether you’re acquiring a language for the first time or an old hand. My father had taught himself a difficult tongue twister and liked to think he was able to prove himself sober by saying the tongue twister perfectly three times and challenging someone who had not had a drink to say it. Of course they could not without making a mistake.
I decided to practice the tongue twister so I too could say it perfectly three or four times running both quickly and perfectly. I too found that a few drinks did not affect my delivery and was able to carry out the same trick in imitation of my father.
The tongue twister has a number of variations but my Dad’s version is rather unique and is short – which is advantageous when challenging alcohol challenged buddies to recite it as proof of their sobriety:
The Leith police conveneth and dissmisseth us.
Again, it should be said quickly, three times. (Leith is a district in Edinburgh, Scotland. The 'eith' sounds identical to the sound of 'eath' in the word 'beneath' – online dictionaries offering pronunciation are useful when a reader is unfamiliar with a word's pronunciation.)
Here's a more conventional version:
The Leith police dissmisseth us, I'm thankful sir to say, The Leith Police dismisseth us, They thought we sought to stay, The Leith Police dismisseth us, We both sighed sighs apiece, And the sighs we sighed as we waved goodbye, Was the size of the Leith Police.
Adult Tongue Twisters
Tongue twisters show another marvelous facet since they provide a problem for censors because there is nothing obscene in the language itself! However, if any unsuspecting reader has made it past the warning implicit in the notion of “Adult Tongue Twisters”, I’m posting the following:
WARNING – do not attempt the following tongue twisters if you’re sensitive to rude language.
One of the first tongue twisters adolescents learn that they shouldn’t practice in front of most adults is
I'm not a pheasant plucker, I'm a pheasant plucker's son
I'm only plucking pheasants 'till the pheasant plucker comes.
Again, I was surprised to learn that rather than learning a stand alone verse many years ago, I had merely learned a verse of a much longer poem! There are many, many more adult tongue twisters that can be easily found on other sites. I discovered that the above example is only one of many equally rude verses of a long poem when I went to the ‘Net to check my memory! However, a sole verse seems to meet one of my criteria of a good tongue twister: it should be short and easy enough to quickly remember. Once memorized, it can be practiced and memorized so that a challenge can be issued at the appropriate time. And it isn’t just English speakers who delight in tongue twisters as speakers of second languages well know.
The World’s Most Difficult One Line Tongue Twister
I should add that during my research I only have come across one tongue twister that I’ve yet to master. Here it is:
The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick
Later – my wife and I discovered independent confirmation of our view since this line had been adjudicated by the Guinness World Records as being the most difficult one line twister. I've also found many blogs that agree while others propose other worthy candidates. But I'm particularly interested in hearing testimonials from anyone who has found twisters useful in either the teaching or acquisition of spoken in English. (I spent some years teaching children with behavioral and emotional problems and used any number of tactics to make learning the pleasure it rarely is. A selfish tactic since the contact high from a classroom full of children happily learning is like no other!)
Would-be students of Vocal Twistology should note that tongue twisters seem to exist in all languages! Also, if you're reading this article, I'm certain that somewhere in your acquisition of language you experienced the challenge and fun of twisters; further, I'll bet they're still in your memory banks long after Math equations have been deleted and trashed. If you're around some kids or language loving adults, dust of some off those twisters and see who's up to the challenge. Remember practice makes perfect!