What exactly is the soft palate? It is the soft part of the roof of your mouth. When it’s lowered, it makes sounds nasal, like the NG sound in American English. English has no nasal vowels, so having a lowered soft palate can affect the placement and sound of your speech.
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As part of our series on relaxation and placement, this video talks about the soft palate.
An overall nasal sound can be caused either by tension in the throat, or by a lowered soft palate. When the soft palate is lowered, it allows some air to come through here, into the nasal cavity. That makes the voice live more in the face than in the body. Luckily there is a very easy way to tell if this is a problem for you. If you put your fingers on the bridge of your nose, you will feel it vibrate if your soft palate is lowered. Try it. Put your fingers here and say NN-AH. I feel a vibration for the N, which has a lowered soft palate, but not for the AH, which has a raised soft palate.
There are only three sounds in English that are nasal, with a lowered soft palate. They are N, M, and NG. Many other languages have nasal vowels, where the soft palate is down, including Mandarin, Polish, Hindi, French, and Portuguese. If your native language has nasal vowels, you’ll really want to pay attention to this.
First, test yourself. Let’s take the word ON. It has the AH as in FATHER vowel and the N consonant. Say it slowly, holding your nose. ON. Were you able to make the vowel with no vibration? Another word, SONG, has the AW as in LAW vowel followed by the NG consonant, song. Were you able to make the vowel with no vibration?
A lot of my students get concerned with the idea of raising and lowering the soft palate. It’s sort of hard to feel, and hard see. So I’ve told them just to focus on keeping it lifted. Somehow this does not interfere with the nasal consonants. I’ve never had a student fix their overall sound by keeping the soft palate raised, but then mess up their nasal consonants. So just focus on keeping it lifted.
How do you lift it. There are a few ways to get used to the feeling and the idea. One way to get used to feeling your soft palate is to suck through a straw. When you suck through a straw, your soft palate automatically closes to prevent the liquid from going up into your nasal cavity. So, see if you can feel it close. And if you can’t then try sucking up through the straw and holding it there. If you hold it, that might make you more aware of the feeling here, especially when you let go. See if you feel anything release. So go ahead, open a can of soda, treat yourself to that, and practice feeling your soft palate.
Another method that may help you lift your soft palate is to just think of creating more space back here. If you’re creating more space, you may automatically lift your soft palate to accommodate that. So you can focus on creating space in the back of your mouth or throat as you talk.
Another way to feel your soft palate is to watch yourself raising and lowering it. Switch back and forth between AH and NG. When you make the NG, of course, you’re lowering your palate. So switch back and forth between the two, and try to keep your tongue in the same position. That means it’s your soft palate that has to move. Watch yourself in a mirror. I’ll demonstrate now, so you should see what that looks like.
So, the soft palate: it’s hard to see and hard to feel, but it does play an important role in the placement of the voice in American English. Play around with these exercises, especially the last one, and see if you can get used to the idea of keeping your soft palate raised in all vowel sounds and most consonant sounds in American English.
This video is part of a series on relaxation and placement. If you liked the video, check out the previous one on the relaxation of the throat. Please put any questions you have in the comments section.
That’s it, and thanks so much for using Rachel’s English.