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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

The Gift of Speech

Updated: Mar 31

Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat, Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best, Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.

-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

To speak is a gift. Typically, it takes babies a year or more to say their first words. During infancy, the brain undergoes profound structural change. Our infant brains are very malleable and wired for learning the complex skills we often take for granted as adults- like walking or speaking. When we took our first steps or uttered our first words, our parents celebrated. Then the forgetting comes.

Mindful living invites us not to forget and to celebrate the many gifts we were given. When we were born, wrote a poet, God gave us so many gifts we couldn't possibly open them all. Another teacher put it this way- to waste away your days not appreciating the preciousness of the gifts you were given until you lose them is not the way to live!

To communicate well took decades of study and practice. As infants, crying was the extent of our repertoire. We listened for sounds (phonemes) and tones. As young as 4 weeks, we could distinguish similar sounds or phonemes like /b/ and /d/ or consonant vowel pairs like ma and na. Around 2 months, we began associating certain sounds with certain lip movements. Soon we started using our tongue, lips, and palate to make gurgles, vowel sounds, and phonemes (discrete units of sound like the voiceless /f/ or the voiced /v/) to assemble syllables and words. This was no simple feat. Sounds ride on the exhalation.

Neurons in a part of the brainstem called the pre-Bötzinger complex generate inhalation rhythms automatically and continuosly. Another group of premotor neurons found in the hindbrain region called the retroambiguus nucleus mediates vocalization and ensures that you talk only when you breathe out, and stop talking when you breathe in (Jaehong & Fan, 2024).

This newly discovered circuit also controls two actions that are required for speech: narrowing of the larynx and exhaling air from the lungs. The vocalization process, called phonation, requires the vocal cords to close and exhalation of air. Further, before sounds pass the lips and surf acoustic waves on the vast ocean of air, they have to be parsed by the muscles of the larynx, tongue and lips.

Around 4 to 6 months, sighs gave way to babbling. Our babbling began to approximate actual words. At about 9 months, we started pointing and gesturing to communicate.

Around 6 to 9 months, we began acquiring our first words. Our caregivers assigned names to objects we could see and point to. The brain began mapping visual inputs to linguistic conceptual systems. We began to generalize four legged, furry creatures as "doggies" pacifiers we put in our mouths as "binkies." etc. We learned to recognize our name and to assign other sounds like mama and dada to our parents.

The viral video below not only highlights some of these developments, but underscores the importance of parent-child bonding, modeling, and communication.

Around 12 months, we began focusing on intonation, realizing that a sharp tone often meant "No!" or "Stop!"

Complex learning occurs at this stage. Several cortical regions send signals to laryngeal muscles to create greater vocal finesse- altering the volume, timing and pitch. A region called the dorsal precentral gyrus plays an essential role in how we use the sound of our voices to control how we want the words to sound. Neurons in the orofacial motor cortex engage in a process called temporal scaling. Instead of encoding absolute time like a clock, the neurons track relative time, slowing down or speeding up the intervals of speech (Banerjee, 2024).

As soon as we speak our first word, we soon begin adding more. Our vocabularies grow slowly at first- just a few words per month. We learn mostly nouns- the names of people, places, or things we can see like "Mommy," "Daddy," "cat," "doggie," "car," "cup," etc. Our word bank grows from 19-20 words per month to about 9-10 per day. At this stage, we can understand more than we can say. Before turning 6, we can understand about 14,000 words, but express with about 2,500.

The underlying neural architecture develops rapidly. Language-processing occurs mostly in regions found in the left hemisphere- including Broca's area as well as other parts of the left frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. These language networks are highly selective to language. Different networks encode different semantic categories (like animals, people, actions, or questions). These brain areas are implicated in higher-level cognition.

We began to experiment with one word questions and delighted in the power of "No!" We began to understand the rudiments of grammar, such as the difference between "The boy hit the ball" and "The ball hit the boy." We began to understand simple one-step instructions.

By the end of the second year, we could string two to four words together in sentences. We began to learn that language could be used to share  information, express and perceive emotion, tell jokes and stories, and connect with others.

Although speaking seems effortless, our brains perform many complex cognitive steps in subseconds (Khanna et al., 2024). Before words escape the barrier of the teeth, formless thoughts are dressed in speech. Neurons in the language dominant pre frontal cortex encode information about the arrangement, grammar, syntax and composition of words made from wisps of thought that somehow emerge from the firings of neurons. As the brain thinks thoughts, it as also planning the articulatory movements of the larynx, tongue, palate, lips, then parses each out- breath, producing the right phonemes, syllables and vocalizations that ride each exhalation.

Neurons in the language-dominant prefrontal cortex encode detailed information about the phonetic arrangement and composition of the words we want to say. These neurons represent the specific order and structure of the words we speak. They also predict the phonetic, syllabic and morphological components of upcoming words and showed a temporally ordered dynamic. It's impressive that we learned this much as infants- among other skills like crawling, walking, and sitting upright.

My appreciation for language did not end in childhood. Gratitude grows as I age. I write poetry, studied rhetoric in college, and speak multiple languages; in order of mastery they are: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese, French, German, Mandarin, Chinese, and Arabic.

I use the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) to gage my level of fluency. Levels are divided into three categories: Beginner (A1 & A2), Intermediate (B1 & B2), and Advanced (C1 & C2). Learning languages takes me back to basics. Although I am a middle aged man, I speak like a child in Mandarin and cave-man like Japanese. The brain is no longer as plastic and learning does not come as easily. I speak French, Arabic, and German with an accent as the critical period for auditory processing has long since passed. Adult brains learn differently, but I approach language learning with the same curiosity and playfulness as a child.

Although I am fluent in English and Spanish, my Spanish is not at par because most of my education was conducted in English. Spanish was sometimes spoken at home, at church, and at school (to meet language requirements, and taken as a minor), but practice was otherwise limited. My Spanish level is C2 (Proficient). I can "take part effortlessly in any conversation or discussion and have a good familiarity with idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms;" "present a clear, smoothly-flowing description or argument in a style appropriate to the context and with an effective logical structure;" "have no difficulty in understanding any kind of spoken language, whether live or broadcast, even when delivered at native speed;" "can write clear, smoothly-flowing text in an appropriate style; "can write complex letters, reports or articles which present a case with an effective logical structure;" "read with ease virtually all forms of the written language, including abstract, structurally or linguistically complex texts such as manuals, specialized articles and literary works."

Portuguese and Italian are similar to Spanish, so my fluency is roughly B2 (Portuguese) and B1/A2 (Italian). In 2000. I was living in Gifu Prefecture, Japan, but I was already planning my next adventure. After my teaching contract expired, I dreamed of cycling from Italy to Portugal. This was my motivation. The Gifu Prefectural Library had some books in Portuguese and Italian. I dove right in. I read the Harry Potter series in Portuguese and Italian- and used the English version to cross-reference unfamiliar words or sentences.

I cycled from Venice, Italy to Lisbon, Portugal in the summer of 2005.

My Japanese level is A2. It is functional. Although it's been over 20 years since my last visit, I resumed my studies last year. I can communicate simple phrases and sentences- but not enough to keep a conversation going. I can understand simple phrases and high frequency vocabulary words related to areas of most immediate personal relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local area, employment). Indeed, the first sentence I ever learned is still etched in memory: すみません、トイレはどこですか (Excuse me, where is the toilet?)

I moved to New Bedford Massachusetts in 2010. More than 55% of the population are of Portuguese ancestry and hail primarily from Portugal, the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde. Portuguese is the second most common language spoken in the city, followed closely by Spanish. When I moved to the city, I could read Portuguese and understand about half of what was spoken. Living in a diverse city was an opportunity to improve. So, I began back at square one- checking out mostly children's books in Portuguese from the public libraries.

Comprehensible input is critical to language learning and children's picture books do this well. Comprehensible input is content in the target language that is slightly above one's ability. An educator by profession, I pitch instruction to what psychologist Lev Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development. As in Goldilocks, lessons can neither be too hard nor too easy. Research suggests an 85:15 success to error ratio is most effective. Instruction is short and sequenced. The goals are to reframe the frustration that inevitably comes whenever we take up a new skill and to leverage that frustration so that we can drill deeper into learning.

Errors are gateways to plasticity. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with focus and attention. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with alertness. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with pursuing goals, motivation & reward. If all three neuromodulators are present, accelerated learning can occur. Interestingly, dopamine and acetylcholine follow "ebb and flow" cycles approximately twice every second, during which the levels of one hormone dip while the other surges (Krok, A. C., et al., 2023). These two hormones compete with one another, so that a boost in one causes a decline in the other. This hormonal imbalance is believed to open a window of opportunity for brain cells to adjust to new circumstances and form memories for later use. Our current understanding suggests that learning is promoted by simultaneously triggering an increase in dopamine and a decrease in acetylcholine. Additionally, by leveraging dopamine (whether by reframing, simply pushing through or other strategy), we can increase our frustration tolerance or, better, reframe frustration as a good signal that we are reaching our growing edge and push past it.

Language learning can be frustrating. To grow, I summon my inner child. My inner child was fearless, open, curious, and persistent. Like a child, I listen for comprehensible inputs, I babble, I make many mistakes, and I challenge my brain to grow. Complex, unfamiliar sentences make the brain's language network work harder (Tuckute et al., 2024). Indeed, learning languages is one way to arrest cognitive decline often associated with aging (Abutalebi et al., 2022). Multilingualism can induce neuroplasticity and modulate neural efficiency, resulting in greater resistance to neurologic disease (McDonald et al., 2023).

To learn, I often put myself in situations where I must speak. I taught English and Spanish as a second language and English as a foreign language for decades. When I teach English, many of my adult students are from around the world- Lebanon, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Central and South America, Nigeria, Kenya, Haiti, Cape Verde, Portugal, etc. To connect, I learn basics of their languages. It levels the field. They see me struggling with their language which helps me empathize and deliver more effective instruction. I also teach tech and meditation classes in Spanish and Portuguese.

I use repetition and spaced repetition. We start with high frequency words and expressions. For example, I may start with I am... then I introduce high frequency words we can use to create sentences they can use as soon as class ends. "I am Jonathan." "I am tired." "I am hungry." "I am here."

Last summer, I cycled from Montreal to New Bedford. I could not understand or speak rudimentary French. I was embarrassed and disappointed with myself. Like Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, French is a Romance language. I could read it better than I could speak or understand. Pronunciation is difficult. Phonetically, Spanish is similar to Italian and Portuguese, but speech sounds in French are very different. So, the learning curve has been steep.

I wanted to learn Chinese, Arabic, and German at an early age. I took a semester of Chinese when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. I loved the culture, the musicality of the tones, the calligraphy, the history. I was deep into the contemplative cultures of the world at the time- Chan Buddhism (China), Hinduism/Buddhism/Sikhism (India), Kabbalism (Israel) and Sufism (Islam). I loved Islamic calligraphy and architecture and had a deep appreciation for Islam's contributions to civilization. My favorite composers (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner) and theologians (especially mystics like Meister Ekhart) were German.

I was intimidated by these languages because many people said they were difficult. Then I dove in and realized that German was difficult for English speakers, but less so for Spanish speakers. The languages shared many similarities (conjugations, formal/informal forms, gender).

Chinese was logical, consistent and similar syntactically to English. It helped that I was a musician and could discriminate tones. And as an artist, I loved the calligraphy.

Arabic was definitely the most challenging, but I loved it precisely because of that. If I could learn Arabic, I could learn any language. I am at level A1 in French and approaching A1 in German, Chinese, and Arabic.

A1 is the ability to:

  • interact in a simple way provided the other person is prepared to repeat or rephrase things at a slower rate of speech

  • ask and answer simple questions in areas of immediate need or on very familiar topics

  • use simple phrases and sentences to describe where you live and people you know

  • recognize familiar words and very basic phrases concerning yourself, your family and immediate concrete surroundings when people speak slowly and clearly

  • write a short, simple postcard, for example sending holiday greetings

  • fill in forms with personal details, for example entering my name, nationality and address on a hotel registration form

  • understand familiar names, words and very simple sentences, for example on notices and posters or in catalogues.

I suspect I won't be at A1 for long because the motivation is there. I leverage the addictive quality of technology. I used gamified language learning apps like Duolingo, consume comprehensible input with YouTube videos and Lingopie, and force practice with partners on Tandem and with students.

I also leverage right motivation. Right motivation is a central concept in Buddhism and other contemplative traditions. My motivation is to connect with and learn from others. I am motivated by compassion- to help others- especially immigrants to succeed in this foreign land. I was a foreigner in Japan and appreciated all the support from friends. Being motivated also means cutting attachment to ego. Learning a new language is humbling. I must assume the posture of a child. I am motivated by universal friendliness, goodwill, care, respect, and the compassionate wish to work for the happiness, comfort, benefit, success and welfare of others. Gentle kindness is Right Motivation! Finally, I am motivated by love, and respect not hate. The languages of immigrants from developing countries and competitors like China, Russia, or the Middle East are scorned- as Japanese and German once were. Such giving of protective fearlessness to all is Right Motivation!

There is another dimension to speech I've hinted at- the voice as an instrument. I wrote a recent post on the benefits of music. The main points were:

  • Scientific studies, including MRI and PET scan research, show that music triggers neurotransmitters associated with positive feelings and impacts brain processes related to euphoria.

  • Music is a tool to train the mind and improve brain function.

  • Early musical training contributes to enhanced connectivity and neuroplasticity.

  • Music can be leveraged to learn languages and improve memory. The ability to predict and understand different music genres is linked to generalizable skills like language learning.

  • Music affects various brain lobes differently, influencing emotions, movement, attention, planning, and memory. Music positively affects the brain's reward/reinforcement system, memory systems, language learning and motor systems, and prediction-error systems.

  • Music integrates with meditation.

  • Different types of wind instruments are discussed, along with their impact on breathwork and meditation practices.

The voice as instrument is one of the most creative and beautiful embellishments of speech. There are singing voice types: soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass, treble, falsetto. And there are styles so different that a great singer in one genre must retrain to sing in another- Mongolian throat singing, Black gospel, Indian Carnatic saṃgīta, and Middle Eastern quarter tone and microtonal singing are very different from one another and require years of training to perform well.

Speech is also a tool for communication: negotiation, mediation, rhetoric, and persuasion. Today, we celebrate the life of one of the greatest American orators of the 20th Century- Dr. Martin Luther King- whose eloquence transformed a nation. Right Speech inspired Right Action.

Speech can also be divisive, toxic, violent, and harmful. Excessive criticism, complaining, or gossip can be detrimental to oneself and others. Do something positive over and over again, and you'll gain a useful skill and habit. Do something negative over and over again, and you'll build a destructive skill and habit. Both sculpt the brain.

Myelin is an insulating layer, or sheath that forms around nerves, including those in the brain and spinal cord. This myelin sheath allows electrical impulses to transmit quickly and efficiently along the nerve cells. Myelin strengthens neural pathways related to a particular skill- even the skill of unskillfulness.  

Neural networks are built on synapses, small gaps at the end of neurons that allow electrical or chemical signals to pass from one neuron to the next. That's how nerve cells connect. Every time a charge is triggered, the synapses move microscopically closer together to decrease the distance and therefore the lag time.

That adaptation helps build patterns of thought and behavior. The result is a virtuous cycle if you're trying to learn a helpful new skill, and a vicious cycle if you regularly do something less positive.

In contemplative traditions, great importance is placed on speech. Inner self-talk is as critical to our well being as right speech is to connection. Right Speech is one of the precepts for ethical living on the Noble Eightfold Path.

Jesus put it this way:

"Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things." Matthew 12:34-40

We dress words in thoughts. Purifying the thought stream is itself a practice. There are many techniques for handling intrusive thoughts and mental elaborations. In focused meditation, the instruction is to acknowledge, cut, and reorient attention. In open monitoring, we simply watch the flow of thoughts, like an observer standing on the bank of a river. If we are using a labeling technique, we can label thoughts as "thoughts," or we can be more specific. We may be storytelling, analyzing, imagining, or predicting, for example. We can go further by recognizing cognitive distortions, and habitual ways of thinking that are characterized by negativity and bias. They are often illogical and exaggerated. These thought patterns perpetuate psychopathological states such as depression and anxiety. These emotions seem involuntary, beyond our control, but it is at the level of thought that we can exercise choice. What we do is an extension of what and how we think. We cannot absolve ourselves from our work by giving autonomy to feelings or instincts.

Recognizing disabling patterns of mind is a first step in freeing ourselves from them.

It is difficult to deconstruct and unlearn the biases, fears, or lessons we were taught. There are many analytical techniques we can use to examine and deconstruct conditioned thought patterns. What follows is not exhaustive. We can label/identify distortions (see the list of the most common distortions and fallacies below). From here, we have choices. We can simply cut or ignore them. We can question them (demanding specificity or evidence). Byron Katie asks these questions when cognitive distortions arise: "Is it true? How do I know it's true? How do I react, what happens, when I believe the thought? Where would I be/How would I feel without this thought?" Another strategy is to identify the need behind the distortion. If, for example, I fail at a project and overgeneralize ("I'm a failure") and catastrophize ("I'll never succeed"), I can go deeper into the feeling (disappointment) and need (competence, to contribute). I may find other ways to satisfy this need (e.g. through volunteer service). Reattribution is another strategy. If a close friend or someone dear to you berated themselves, what would you say to them? Befriend yourself and direct that empathy inside. Semantics can also be used to dissect a cognitive distortion. "I'm a failure" and "I haven't succeeded yet" are two very different ways of seeing the same setback. The former can be characterized as low-performance self-talk, the latter suggests persistence. "I'll never succeed" and "This approach didn't work. Let me try another" yield different results both in affect/attitude and outcome (quitting vs persisting). The language we use to frame our perceptions matters. Bertrand Russell highlighted this in the oft-cited example: "I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool. I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing. I have reconsidered the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word."

In a previous post, we examined the Go/No-Go brain which mediates action and action suppression. This can apply to speech. There are skillful and unskillful ways to communicate. A mindfulness practitioner attends to speech by avoid those patterns that cause harm- like criticism, complaining, gossip, distortion, lying, and by promoting right speech.

I listed the most common distortions, fallacies, and heuristics (mental shortcuts for near-instantaneous processing):

An exercise for reducing negative patterns:

Communication frameworks and practices for promoting more pro-social connection and for promoting positive qualities:

I close with this prayer from the Judeo-Christian tradition:

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. Psalms 19:14

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