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  • Writer's pictureShelley Purchon

Be understood despite your face mask.

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

Face masks make it harder for your English Additional Language clients and patients to understand you. How can you help them? Which masks impede communication the least? What does the science say about clear speech and face masks? Most of all, how can you communicate clearly in a face mask? Follow these 8 steps.

Step 1: Choose the right face mask

Which face masks are best for clear speech?

Transparent face masks

Some health care settings are investing in clear face masks to help patients with hearing loss. If you have one, consider wearing it for patients with English Additional Language too. Failing that there are two other things to consider-

Not too thick

I asked Dominic Watt (Senior Lecturer in Forensic Speech Science, University of York) whether disposable masks would muffle speech less than re-usable ones. He said "disposable masks of the pleated paper sort will probably block the air stream less than a heavier-weight fabric mask." It depends what the mask is made of - thicker materials with a tighter weave will muffle the voice more.

Not too tight

Dominic also says "tight masks make it more difficult to move your lips and they impede the air stream more than loose-fitting ones." So if yours is a reusable mask, be sure not to pull the straps too tight. Disposable masks tend to have elastic straps which means your jaw and lips have a little more room for maneuver.

Where clear masks are not available, the science suggests that disposable masks with elastic straps may be the best choice for clarity of speech.

Step 2: Put your conversation partner at ease.

I'm a nice lady, but I look just as scary as the next person in my mask. We all look anonymous and intimidating - until we smile that is.

Smile all the more.

You might think that there is little point in smiling when your mouth is totally obscured, but you'd be wrong. Genuine smiles reach the eyes - they are called Duchenne smiles. In one of the photos below I'm smiling. Can you tell which one?

It's the photo on the left.

Smiles come across in your voice too - that's why telesales staff are trained to 'smile and dial.'

Smiles transcend language and will help put your conversation partner at ease - if they are able to relax they are more able to do the hard cognitive work of attending to a language which is not their mother tongue.

Wear a friendly photo

Take a photo of yourself smiling and pin it to your apron or uniform. Like many of the tips included in this article, this one also helps dementia patients and people with hearing loss. (Click on the links to learn more.)

Step 3: Don't despair

There are more tips to follow that will really help, but first consider the science of speech.

Scientific findings indicate that clear speech is still possible when the mouth is obscured.

Dominic Watt and his team at the University of York tested a range of types of face covering back in 2013. Their study found that-

Your voice is less muffled than you might think.

"Of all the different types of face wear we tested, none interfered very much with articulation, and the effects on the air stream seemed mostly quite minor."

Being able to see you still helps.

"Our participants could identify speech sounds more accurately simply by being able to see the video image of the talker, even when the mouth is effectively invisible."

Step 4: Use my simple trick to slow down.

There are right ways and wrong ways to slow down. The right way is to put a gap between every word. The wrong way is to extend the length of each word. The right way is illustrated in the following two video clips. The wrong way stretches out the words, making them harder to understand, and it sounds patronising. (Click here for 12 tips on how not to be patronising.)

Can you speak Spanish?

No? Great. That means the following videos will be all the more instructive. In video one, watch me say a Spanish sentence at natural speed without making any modifications to my speech. In video two, I'll slow down. Watch for yourself what a difference it makes

Video 1: Natural connected speech.

Video 2: With word gaps

Click to watch me say the same thing again, but with word gaps.

Are you starting to get a little of my meaning? By introducing word gaps I gave you a fighting chance. It is no longer just a stream of noise. Here come more video clips with more tips to come - hopefully you'll get it in the end.

Step 5: Give context

In video 3 I repeat the phrase nice and slowly, but this time I'll reveal the context first.

Did context help you?

Too often we launch straight in without providing context. Remember - what's obvious to you may not be obvious to your English Additional Language client.

Let's imagine you're a nurse.

You know that you're a nurse and that the doctors wear a different uniform. You know that doctors are never the first person a patient sees in this particular clinic. But does your patient know that?

First make sure your conversation partner has all the contextual information they need and after that begin your message. It makes a huge difference.

Step 6: Use gestures and props

No props in my video but any of the tools or objects you use at work can be used to illustrate what you're saying.

Be wary of over using props and gesture - don't underestimate the listening skills of your conversation partner.

Is the face mask a complete game changer?

Let's find out. Click on the next video to watch me say the Spanish phrase with no mask.

Still not 100% sure what I'm saying?

Click on this one to watch me say the phrase in English.

I hope that in the end I was able to get my meaning across to you.

This is what I have come to think, and I would love to know if you agree-

As a speaker I prefer not to be impeded by a mask, but a listener can very often get my message if I modify my speech, even when I'm not speaking their mother tongue.

Step 7: Repetition helps if you do it right.

You watched me say the same thing 5 times which I'm sure helped too. Rephrasing is recommended if you're with someone who has hearing loss, but it can be bewildering for people with English Additional Language.

Before you rephrase something, try repeating it slowly in the exact same words.

Step 8: Book a webinar

These are not the only techniques you can use to help your client to understand you - I have over a dozen other tips. To find out what they are, book an English Unlocked webinar. In addition to the usual content, on request I can expand the training to include tips on how to communicate more clearly through a face mask. Click here to find out more about the course, which I can also deliver face to face when circumstances allow.

What about using interpreters?

I can help there too. My other webinar trains staff to work more effectively with interpreters. Click here to find out more.

Take care of your voice

It's tiring and dehydrating to wear a mask all day. This excellent resource from the speech and language therapists at NHS Tayside gives some great tips for self care.

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