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Why are Tongue Twisters so Difficult to Pronounce?

Tongue twisters are words, phrases or sentences composed of similar consonantal sounds that make it difficult to articulate. For example, try reading some of these out loud three times as fast as you can:

Freshly fried fresh flesh.

A bloke’s back bike brake block broke.

The soldiers shouldered shooters on their shoulders.

Fred fed Ted bread, and Ted fed Fred bread.


You might remember doing some of these as a child as fun little games for kids to do at parties or in the lunchroom. However, from the perspective of a language researcher tongue twisters can actually help us understand how we produce language.

As we know, language is composed of words produced by sounds, thus the difficulties in accurately voicing tongue twisters shows how particular producing sound can be. Have you ever stopped to think about how you say a word or simply just a letter? Take the letter P for example, you might say “PA,” realize how pronouncing things actually entails multiple components. In order to produce sound your mouth needs to be in a very specific shape and there has to be a specific moment where sound is being released.

Take for instance the difference of saying the letters P and B. Both of these letters are pronounced from movements coming from the lips and are followed by a release of air after being fully articulated. B and P are therefore basically this same sound except for a tiny difference in voice onset time, the instant the vibrations of articulating sound begins.

These components can be found in any letter. With letters D and T the only difference between these two sounds are a couple of milliseconds when the vocal cords are vibrating. However, you may notice that when pronouncing the letters D or T you are not using your lips to make the sound, rather the pressure of your tongue to the ceiling of your mouth. Other letters like G and K have sounds that are formed by movement occurring in the back of the throat. Hence we can see how the components of producing sound – place of articulation and time of voicing— allow us to articulate and differentiate different sounds when spoken.

The more similar things that are being pronounced are, the more likely you are to mix them up and make mistakes. Consequently, tongue twisters contain very similar sounds because that is what you’re going to make mistakes on. Take for example, the tongue twister Sally Sells Sea Shells By The Sea Shore, you’re switching between “sa,” “se,” “si” and “she,” very similar sounds. The similarity of the consonants sound’s impairs our ability to quickly adjust our production system to make all these similar sounds, especially when asked to pronounce repeatedly at a very fast pace.

Therefore, the big question is whether errors people make in tongue twisters or even in normal speech, are driven by errors at the level of words (lexical) or at the smaller assembly parts, like sound and syllables (sub-lexical).

To look at this, the authors Gollan and Goldrick tested participants with different degrees of experience, monolinguals and bilinguals who have more or less experience with a given language. On average bilinguals have less experience with one language because they are splitting their language usage across two, assuming people talk for the same amount of time. For example, bilinguals will be using English and Spanish 50% of the time where monolinguals will use English 100% of the time. The study included non-word tongue twisters because they don’t have lexical information in order to determine if errors are made at lexical or sub-lexical level. Errors with non-word tongue twisters would suggest that it is because of the sub-lexical processes.

Try reading the following examples of tongue twisters that were presented in the study as fast as you can three times:

koss pait bod marn

moss knife noose muff

pem noke neam pake

palm neck name pack

Did you make any mistakes? Did you make more mistakes on the non-word or word tongue twisters? Well, if you made more mistakes with non-words, then you were consistent with what they found.

tongue t

First of all, all speakers were shown to have trouble and mistakes because tongue twisters are hard. Nonetheless, bilinguals made more errors then monolinguals overall, especially on non-word tongue twisters which suggest that tongue twisters are driven by sub-lexical processes, which as you may remember are the individual sounds or syllables involved.

When a bilingual verses a monolingual tries to say a tongue twister like this one, Peter Piper Picked A Peck Of Pickled Peppers, the individual sounds and syllables of this phrase can get mixed up but monolinguals have additional experience to tie things together more tightly. Monolinguals are at an advantage in this case because they have additional practice producing the sounds. In addition, when we produce speech we are not producing whole words or putting them together as we are talking and when we are trying to produce a word we do have some memory for having done it before. As a result, when putting together non-words you are putting it together piece-by-piece which will make you more error prone.

So, although you might think tongue twisters are just a pick up line, party trick or an activity for little kids they are actually used diagnostically, to test for brain damage or language impairments. In situations where you might have a bilingual person coming in with a stroke knowing if bilinguals and monolinguals have different patterns on these is good knowledge to have in order to be able to accurately diagnose their language processing.



Bilingual speech and kids. Digital image. Greenberg Art. Ventura County Star, n.d. Web.

Gollan, T., & Goldrick, M. (2012). Does bilingualism twist your tongue? Cognition, 491-497.

Tongue Twisters. Digital image. ASAP. Weebly, 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.


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  1. December 2nd, 2014 at 13:38 | #1

    I think that this is a really interesting article, especially because we just read an article about bilinguals for class. In the new article was about whether or not bilinguals have a cognitive advantage over monolingual speakers. The conclusion was that in linguistic tasks, monolinguals performed better than bilinguals but bilinguals performed better on executive functioning tasks. This article supports this blog post because tongue twisters are linguistic tasks and these researchers found tongue twisters to be especially difficult for bilinguals. Personally, I feel that tongue twisters can be extremely difficult and are a perfect opportunity for speech errors to take place. Considering how much cognitive ability speaking takes, its amazing that people ever speak at all, much less tongue twisters. Speaking requires memory, attention, semantic memory, and lexical decision making, and it all happens subconsciously, which is pretty amazing if you ask me.

  2. December 3rd, 2014 at 10:44 | #2

    I found this post to be very interesting, especially when paired with the Bialystok and Craik (2010) article we just read for class regarding bilinguals versus monolinguals. I found this explanation for tongue twisters extremely expansive and necessary–I’ve always thought tongue twisters as just tripping over words, however this in-depth explanation has truly clarified the specifics. Although we previously looked at how sounds are produced in humans in class, we didn’t necessarily look at failures or mistakes in the production of sounds. These introductory paragraphs showed great application of the knowledge that we learned in class to the present study and issue at hand. A few things about this study, however, led me to certain questions. Were the tongue twisters that were presented in the study common ones (i.e. Sammy sells sea shells by the sea shore)? If so, wouldn’t that give those who are more familiar with these common tongue twisters an advantage? Further, I’m curious as to what if lexical support were varied? Is there a certain threshold that needs to be reached in order for bilinguals to be successful in reciting the tongue twister? Overall, great post with excellent explanations as to the root of tongue twisters.

  3. October 21st, 2015 at 21:12 | #3

    Language is a very interesting and difficult area of study because it is based upon learned call and response and is hard to interpret errors based off decay or interference both proactive and retroactive. Rules are developed over time until the language is considered mature but new vocabulary is often added indicating that the language is very much alive and growing. Tongue twisters reveal a layer of speech that is often overlooked even as humans operate with fluent ability in a particular language. In addition, bilinguals often produce errors blending two or more words which maybe a response to having a large mental database of words and sounds stored in their brains. I wonder if the bilingual responses are similarly to the memory test of a list of numbers in which the participant is asked to recall one number because the subject will scan the entire list until they see the number.

    A further test could build off the concept of identifying tongue twisters as a result of self-examination of correct or incorrect pronunciation. Test administrator’s hearing abilities and background may influence the perceived accuracy of the person speaking. While this test may show more about peer-pressure and the need for social justification, it can still be beneficial in understanding the lexical aspect of word pronunciation. If an individual was tone deaf or unfamiliar with a particular language/dialect, he or she may not believe that any of the words are jumbled in speech, therefore no delay in response time. I would also test the subject further by having them preform another task such as completing a table of math problems and comparing the speed and accuracy of the results to a recording of response times to tongue twisters. Overall, the post was influential and can provide insight into many other aspect of language and cognitive processing.

  4. ruhe
    December 10th, 2015 at 00:19 | #4

    As a bilingual, I found this article pretty useful and interesting. I usually switch between English and Chinese. While Chinese, as my first language, has more phonemes than English (and covered all the English phonemes), I still have problems with my pronunciations of English words sometimes. In other words, I am able to pronounce every single letter and word I know in English but sometimes when some words are put together, I feel awkward speaking them out due to the combination sounding of words. This fact correspond with the study, which shows that bilinguals have more difficulty with tongue twisters and with speaking those non-words. In class we talked about how speaking real words is a top-down process while speaking non-words is a bottom-up processing. It’s basically because the real words are used more frequently and when we speak them we can actually retrieve them from our memory instead of looking at the spelling of the word and figure out how to pronounce. We also discussed that new words for people actually can be seen as non-words as well.

    I am curious with people who started to speak multiple languages right after they were born. We talked in class that infants have the ability to learn every language they hear. As a result, how will the multilingual process their language system when making lexical decisions? Will they have inborn advantage of figuring out sounds of a word compared to those who learned a second language in later periods of their life? I would imagine that people who started speaking several languages when they were still infants still have a priority on the language they know because the environment is usually sticking with only one language. I think this is a really interesting topic that can be put further research on.

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