Surgery Damaged my Vocal Cords - My Biggest Linguistic Challenge Yet

Surgery Damaged my Vocal Cords - My Biggest Linguistic Challenge Yet

One of the worst things that could ever happen to a linguist / polyglot / facilitator / musician has just happened do me.  Spinal surgery has resulted in my vocal nerve being badly damaged and as a result, my voice is gone.  

They say it could take up to a year to come back (if it does), but I believe that I can get it back sooner.  

It's been about four days since shooting this video, and each day, I've been doing vocal exercises (especially in the shower) and trying to gain control of my voice again.

You can see in the video, a short video clip of when I had a small camera shoved down my nose and into my throat to get vision of my vocal cords in action.  In the video, the image is inverted, so the 'dead' vocal cord is the one on the right - but it's actually my left vocal cord.  You can see when the other side contracts as I make sounds, in my normal voice range, the left cord just sits still and straight.  The result, it doesn't seal and just allows air through (and anything else that goes down my throat ... I have to be very careful when drinking water.  Too fast and it ends up in my lungs).

After a few days of trying to take control back over my voice, I can see some marked improvements. I feel that the 'air' to 'voice' ratio is getting better - there's more 'meat' from my voice when I concentrate. I hope that I'll be able to prove the doctor wrong and bring my voice back faster.

What I've learnt from losing my ability to speak

Anyone who knows me knows that my voice is my life - whether speaking languages, facilitating with clients, negotiating across Asia, creating learning content and YouTube videos or just singing and playing the piano with my amazing wife and daughter.  My voice has always been centre stage.

Since the surgery, I've had to get used to not needing to use my voice.  To delegate things to other people and to walk away from discussions ... and even potential arguments.  It has changed the way I respond to situations in general - and I think in a good way.

I've Been Learning Russian Since Having No Voice

Despite not having a voice, I thought it was high time that I seriously jump into the world of Slavic languages.  I am starting with Russian and I'M LOVING IT.  In 3 weeks, I have learnt a lot - and learnt a lot about how I personally learn languages.  I'll save that for another post - I think that there are certain things that I do (have done) over these past few weeks that would really help learners of any language.  Stay tuned for another post on my journey into the Slavic Realm. It's been a blast!

Tonal Languages Still Work Fine Even with No Voice

One other thing that I've been able to put to the test is what I often preach when it comes to tonal languages - that is, that it's not so much about the pitch, rather the the positions and actions of the throat.  Pitch is just a by-product of the throat's actions - get them right and the pitch will follow.

Even with ZERO voice in my speech sometimes, people have no problem in understanding my language whether Thai or Chinese.  For example, the words for near and far in Thai are ใกล้ klâi (falling tone) and ไกล klai (common tone) respectively.  Even when saying these words in a whisper, if the throat is doing the right thing, the 'nature' of the sound that the throat is producing is distinctly different between the two words - and native speakers don't even flinch in understanding. I hope this can encourage people who are experiencing difficulties learning tonal languages be it Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese or any other tonal language in this part of the world.  Focus on your throat first.  Don't just mimmic pitch contours.

What About Work with No Voice?

I'm not going to lie.  It has been challenging.  I have had to turn down many facilitation, training and speaking projects since coming out of surgery. The hardest thing is the fact that the timing on my voice coming back is 'indefinite'.  

As a result, I've been really pushing forward with my wives businesses - she owns several online publications and we do a lot of multi-lingual SEO-driven white-label content for clients in different industries.

As for my own stuff, I have had to halt my re-recording of the new versions of certain modules of my CTF programme, and I will be finding ways of repurposing pre-recorded clips.

In saying that, I would like to thank everyone who has supported us during this time - many people have purchased copies of my Cracking Thai Fundamentals Book and subscribed to my online content.  Every little bit helps and is greatly appreciated.

It's very humbling to receive offers of support from complete strangers on YouTube and Facebook.

Stay tuned - I hope that this experience having to rehabilitate my voice will be something that we can all grow from.



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Written by

Stuart Jay Raj