How to get rid of a nasal voice is and isn’t straightforward. What does a nasal voice sound like? Why do some people have a nasal voice? How do you know if you speak nasally? Do I have a nasal voice? For you, has it always been this way? If so, do you regularly suffer with congestion on account of colds, sinus infections or allergies; do you have large adenoids, a deviated septum, nasal polyps or a cleft palate; do any of your family speak with way? If not, when did it start; and did anything else change in your life at the same time?
What does it mean when someone's voice is nasal?
If there isn’t any anatomical or pathological reason for your nasal sounding voice (if you are curious, Healthline have a useful article about medical causes of a nasal voice), let’s get clear about what’s going on at a physiological level. Take a breath, you exhale, that breath travels between your vocal folds which oscillate creating the vibrations of your voice. That vibration travels up from your larynx through your throat space and then into your mouth, where it is shaped by your articulators into sounds that travel out into your listeners ears.
Imagine the roof of your mouth like a ceiling in a room at the top of a house. In that ceiling is an attic door/a loft hatch. Imagine this loft hatch being what's called your soft palate or velum which is in the upper back part of your mouth just along from your upper palate. So we have the hard and soft palate. And the soft palate can lift and drop just like a loft hatch.
If the loft hatch dropped down you would be able to get up into the loft. Imagining that the loft space was your nose or nasal cavity, then when the soft palate drops the vibrations of your voice would travel up into your nose. This is nasality. When the soft palate is up the sound of your voice can only travel out through your mouth when it’s dropped it can travel out through your nose. A dropped soft palate that is dropped all the time equals an annoying nasal voice.
When do we use the soft palate in speech?
In some languages there are sounds that are called nasal consonants. In English, for example, the M, N and NG sounds are nasal consonants, meaning the soft palate has dropped and sound goes up into the nose. Try it.
Make an M sound, as if humming, and then pinch and release and pinch and release your nose. You should experience and hear the sound stopping and starting, because all the sound comes out of your nose, which when pinched, stops.
So when you have a word with and nasal consonant, like ‘mum’, ‘none’ or ‘song‘, your soft palate should be dropped and you should expect the sound to be nasal. So nasality in speech does actually have a time and place in some languages and accents.
Why do some people have a nasal voice?
That is all very well and good but you probably feel that you are nasal in more than just words with nasal consonants. So, what does it mean when someone's voice is nasal? It means that your soft palate is low or dropped to some degree all the time. And this is called hypernasality which is the technical way of describing nasal speech.
On the flip side, some people have a hyponasal voice, meaning that, unless there is something else causing an obstruction, their soft palate is raised all the time, even during nasal sounds.
But back to the point: the question of how to avoid having a hypernasal voice is actually a question of how do you lift your soft palate in words without nasal consonants?
How to stop sounding nasal when I talk?
How hard can it be to lift the soft palate, right? It’s just a muscle. Well, just like any other muscle, you have to bring it under conscious control if you want to change its use. But given that it is in a part of the mouth that you can’t see, and most people, at least initially, won’t even be able to feel, it’s not that simple to talk to. Even if you can get it to do what you want, the next challenge is making it do that consistently and without having to think about it. Changing the behaviour of your soft palate is not going to happen quickly. There are some great exercises below for how to stop sounding nasally, but as with most things in life, there is no simple solution for a nasal voice. You’ll need to give yourself time and do plenty of practice.
The first thing to do to learn how to get rid of a nasal voice is know what lifting and dropping the soft palate feels and sounds like.
Say the word "bank". Believe it or not the ‘n’ in this word is actually pronounced by a lot of people as an NG sound. This sound is made with the back of the tongue raised and touching the soft palate which is dropped, making the sound travel up into the nose. So the beginning of the word sounds like "bang".
For the K sound the soft palate lifts and blocks the entrance to the nose before the back of the tongue drops allowing the sound to pop out of the mouth. Try again and notice that if you slow the sound down there is a moment where your breath is held inside your mouth before being released.
Then try really slowing down the whole word so that it takes 3 to 5 seconds to say, especially the transition between the "n" and "k", and you might notice the soft palate being dropped for the “n“ (which remember is actually an NG sound) and then it lifting just before you release the K sound.
Try a few times until you can hear sound going up into the nose for the NG (soft palate dropped) and then being held in the mouth for the K (soft palate lifted) before it’s released out of your mouth.
Now try this...
On one pitch (intoning) try saying the following sounds very quickly:
muh-nuh-muh-nuh-muh-nuh-muh-nuh - (the ‘uh’ is a very brief sound. It's a bit like a grunt with relaxed lips).
Then try saying this quickly:
For the first one, the soft palate is dropped so it’s nasal. For the second, it’s lifted so it’s not nasal (or we might say the sound is oral - in the mouth space).
If they aren’t sounding that different, try, when speaking the second one, pretending like you’ve got a cold with a bit of a blocked nose. When we do this the soft palate lifts.
Try them again one after another a couple of times and get a feel for the experience of the nasal sound as opposed to the oral sound. We can then use this as a reference for how to stop talking through your nose.
Now try saying the following sentence with hypernasality (think the sound into your nose) and orally (think the sound out of your mouth):
"Take it to the place where people love to party"
You can try this with any sentence but remember that anytime you use an ‘n’, ‘n’ or ‘ng’ you should expect nasality.
Need some help?
I'm Ashley Howard MA, a UK voice coach with 15+ years experience, and I can tell you exactly what you are struggling with and exactly how to fix it so that you can speak the way you want to speak.
To begin with, it may be difficult to feel and hear the differences between the nasal and oral sound. Part of your competency around this relies on what is called proprioception: the body's ability two sense itself in space. It’s likely that you’ve never thought about your soft palate before now, let alone felt its movement or heard the result of whether it’s raised or lowered. So be generous with yourself as you explore this part of your body and learn how to get rid of a nasal voice. And think of it in the same way that you might train any muscle in your body: results are gradual and take consistent practice.