The Song Inside Language

My friend Lia was born in Korea and spent her early years in Thailand. Her father was in the diplomatic corps and their family lived in several other countries before landing back in the United States when Lia was a teenager.

I’ve listened to Lia’s voice now for nearly twenty years. When she first started voice coaching with me, she brought her firstborn son in his little car carrier. That son is now in his second year of college.

Lia and I have also become dear friends and singing sisters. I’ve learned uncountable songs from her huge mental catalogue and there is rarely a time when we are together that doesn’t include singing.

Some time ago, Lia was recounting some of her early experiences in Thailand and something clicked. It struck me that her voice still carries a remnant of the tonal sound of the Thai language. It’s a vaguely sing-song-y quality in her speech. It’s a resonance I don’t hear in people who were raised exclusively in the United States. I have a hunch that in the early years of language acquisition, Lia heard these sounds all around her and – baby brains being what they are – she incorporated them into her permanent speech pattern. Just the other day she sang a Thai song she remembered from childhood….and there was that tonal quality again, loud and clear.

It got me thinking more about how powerful sound is within various languages.

A few years ago, I was leading a voice workshop at an Indian Health Board retreat. Most of the dozen or so people in the room claimed Ojibway heritage.

I presented the Five Elements Framework, a tool I created to help open up the full power and flexibility in the voice. We sampled five distinct sounds – earth, fire, water, metal and air – and I described how each one could be put to use in everyday communication. Near the end of the session, the participants suggested that we listen to each person at the workshop to identify which elements were most prevalent in their voice.

As we listened to each person, a pattern became clear. Each of the Ojibway people carried a strong mix of earth and water sounds. I’ve heard enough of this language to recognize that those two sounds are prevalent in how it is spoken. I wondered if the sound I was hearing in these voices was related to their original language. Here’s the thing – not one of the people in that room spoke Ojibway.

As we continued our discussion, we came upon the idea that the song inside the language – the cadences, rhythms and sounds that make it up – persisted in the speech patterns of the Ojibway people even if they didn’t speak the language. We recalled the painful history of the boarding schools where Native American children were severely punished for speaking their mother tongue – and were touched by how stubbornly they held onto fragments of their language in the face of such cruelty.

I wonder how many of us carry signatures like this – of sounds and languages from long ago. From now on, I’ll be listening for them.


About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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