Hypermobility and multilingualism. What’s voice got to do with it?

If 100 is the answer, what is the question? 

100 is the top answer in a Google search for the question – how many muscles are used in speaking? I can’t comment on the medical accuracy of these claims but what I do know is that speaking involves the use of many more muscles than you’d think and many factors can affect how well they work. Why am I interested in this? Quite simply because my interest in learning more about hypermobility has – by accident rather than design – segued into my field of work – languages. 

In this blog post I want to set out questions around hypermobility and multilingualism (i.e. the ability to speak three or more languages). Specifically, I am interested to know whether hypermobile individuals can benefit physically from speaking other languages; after all we know that speaking other languages has a positive impact on neurology, helping stimulate both brain development and protect against degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s (https://www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/speaking-second-language-shows-benefits-alzheimers/ ). So if speaking other languages (and that doesn’t necessarily mean speaking them as fluently as if they were your first language) has neurological benefits can it also have physical ones? In particular can it help hypermobile individuals strengthen their bodies and thus aid living with and managing this condition? Can we look at languages from a new perspective as being directly beneficial to health? It is these and many other related questions that have been occupying my thoughts of late, but let us backtrack a bit – how did these questions come about?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am hypermobile and following a flare in the condition, a sublux of my lower jaw (i.e. a partial dislocation) late last year an occupational health assessment followed in which, amongst others findings, the report recommended I be considered disabled in accordance with the social model of disability. That notion takes some getting used to – and will do for some time, no doubt, but one of my ways of dealing with this is to reflect and to research. 

Unable to sleep one night, mulling over the assessment’s findings, I started looking into hypermobility even further – it might be a condition I’ve always had but it’s only one in recent years that I’ve come to recognize better and deal with differently, so it’s still very much a learning curve but one that is more insightful than anything else. Disability tends to be framed in negative terms, yet, I’m finding simply being told I should be considered disabled has had me looking at things anew and from a different perspective, embracing the non-normative and how it can – potentially – bring benefits for all. Stumbling around the internet in the early hours of the morning, I came across a study on hypermobility and voice. I was intrigued. I’d never thought about hypermobility affecting my voice but I have had numerous conversations where people have commented on the change in pitch in my voice for example – sometimes none too kindly – and I’ve noticed sometimes myself that my voice changes – it catches in my throat, or I sound particularly breathy as if I can’t get enough air into my lungs, or it comes out at a rapid pace. I’d not considered why until recently. 

The study, led by Dr. Tracy Jeffrey at Bishop Grosseteste University, was looking for participants, so I duly signed up… although I did wait until a reasonable hour and was refreshed before I actually participated. Participation was by means of a survey which included a set of speaking tasks, specifically measuring the time in which participants could maintain certain sounds. It was all going swimmingly until I came to the \z\ sound. For a few seconds I couldn’t fathom why I could only sustain this for a very brief time, especially when compared to the other sounds I’d been testing. Then the proverbial penny dropped. Without even thinking about it, I’d switched into German – that accounted for the difference in duration because the sound is different. Yet, it also set me thinking – does multilingualism help people who are hypermobile – because we use muscles differently when using another language just to get the words out, does that help strengthen our muscles and keep us more stable? Do hypermobile linguists benefit from their flexibility in some ways – can we wrap our mouths around words more easily than our normative peers? Would some degree of language training – not necessarily to any degree of conversational fluency – merely being able to recite vocabulary – benefit hypermobile individuals? 

A short while later I was attending physio. Lying on the table, head and neck being manipulated, I asked my physio, Louisa at Coach House Sports Physiotherapy, Leeds (https://www.cspc.co.uk/ ) whether this seemed like a plausible hypothesis from her point of view – it is something neither of us have a definitive answer to right now, but we’d really like to know more. What she did explain though is that cranial muscles have a highly significant role to play in speech. So I asked her to explain – and whilst it is more complex than the summary below, it serves the purpose of explaining for the non-physio/medical amongst us. So the muscles within the larynx (aka voice box to you and me) and many of the muscles of the pharynx (the bit that the nose and mouth to the larynx and esophagus (i.e. our feeding pipe) are supplied by the vagus nerve. So something like stress, for example, will have a massive impact on those and thus on our voice. In addition the position of mouth, face, various bones, muscles and nerves will also influence our voice. If ligaments and soft tissues are more lax – as they tend to be in hypermobile people – then there is less tension in them so they may have to work harder. Given that’s the case it does seem that something which targets those muscles could be beneficial and that could, in theory, simply be speaking but in a language other than the one (or ones) we usually use. 

There is a whole array of questions around this. I certainly didn’t expect my participation in this research project to have me asking questions that I’d then want to research myself but I’m very grateful first and foremost to Dr Jeffrey not only for her study helping me understand my voice better but for getting me thinking. Researchers are by nature curious people who look to research for answers to solve questions, challenges, issues. I’m by no means an expert in this area but that doesn’t make me want to find answers to these questions any the less. Besides I do live this condition and I am multilingual – with English as my first language, German my second and French – albeit quite dodgy French these days – being my third. In a sense then it seems only logical and natural that I should ask these questions and want to explore further. As I say I’m not an expert in the way a research manager would deem it (i.e. the likelihood of getting a big research grant), but neither would I want to do this project alone – it would require an interdisciplinary team from within and outside of the university sector – not least involving the physios – whose treatments and Pilates classes (thanks Louisa and Candice) help me be both less wonky and less wobbly. So this post is effectively an open call for anyone who is interested in having a speculative conversation about pursuing this area of research. If you’d like a chat please just get in touch. 

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