Elixirs and Potions

Not long ago, a speech-recognition consultant sent me a sample packet of yellow salve with accompanying documents that proclaimed the salve to be an antidote for vocal strain. I accepted the packet of salve and the promotional literature as testimonials to the growing commercial success of speech recognition.

Long periods of talking—especially under conditions of noise or stress—can produce hoarseness, vocal fatigue, and even nodules on the vocal cords. However, when I was working as a certified speech pathologist I encountered cases of vocal strain, vocal fatigue, and vocal nodules and in none of those cases would the application of an emollient to the skin of the patient's neck have cured the problem or even offered much relief. The reason is that the "voice box" consists of cartilage, muscle and connective tissue buried deep within the larynx. The job of the vocal cords is to hit each other while air is pushing against them. When we are under stress or attempting to speak in noisy conditions, there is greater tension in the vocal tract causing the vocal cords to hit each other harder. This can result in damage that cannot be reached by a nonprescription salve applied to the skin.

If the potential source of vocal strain is environmental, such as high noise in the speaking environment, you may be attempting to speak over the noise -- even though the speech-recognition system would hear you if you spoke quietly. This response to noise is called the Lombard effect. The Lombard effect is so natural and automatic it has been known to the medical literature as a source of vocal fatigue for almost 100 years—long before computers were invented.

Lombard speech is characterized by deletion of some ward-final consonants and other distortions as well as by increased vocal effort. Consequently, is not only bad for the voice it usually results in poorer recognition accuracy. It may be possible to reconfigure your speech system with earphones or other equipment designed to reduce your perception of noise. This, in turn, is likely to reduce the stress and other effects of Lombard speech.

If the potential source of vocal strain is stress or your own speaking habits, there are behavior-modification techniques that can be used to protect against vocal fatigue or strain. One method is to develop better breath support for speech so that you do not talk "from the throat." There are also useful exercises for reducing stress in the neck, shoulders, and the face. Drinking a lot of water can help if you spend much of your speaking time in an artificially heated or cooled environment because excessively dry air can affect your vocal tract. These and other techniques can be instituted through a self-help program or through the aid of a speech-and-language pathologist.

If you find that you have persistent hoarseness or laryngitis that cannot be attributed to the flu or some other medical condition do not apply a salve to your neck. You may need to consult an otolaryngologist. That is a physician who specializes in problems associated with the ears, nose, and throat. The otolaryngologist can look directly at your vocal cords to determine if there is irritation or damage. As for the packet of salve, I tossed it into the garbage.

Judith Markowitz is a leading independent analyst in the speech-recognition and voice-biometrics industries. She recently completed a market analysis of speaker verification and identification. She can be reached at 773-769-9243 or JMarkowitz@PObox.com.

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