After Therapy, My Valspeak Is Still, Like, <i> Out There</i>

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES <i> (Lauren Lipton is editor of Teen News, a national weekly newspaper for teen-agers due out in early 1993.)</i>

She’s a Valley Girl, and there is no cure . --from “Valley Girl”by Frank Zappa The printed word can’t really do justice to my Valley Girl patois. Too bad I can’t do this story on tape, so you could, like, hear it instead of see it.

But if you just read this out loud asfastasyoupossiblycan, you’ll get what I mean. No pausing between thoughts. Draaaw out the voooowels and raise your pitch excitedly at the end of every sentence, as if there were a chain of exclamation points hanging out there!!!!!!!! Toss in some choice vocab.

Oh yeah, and it wouldn’t hurt to giggle a lot, either.

If you do it right, you’ll get a speaking style somewhere between primitive Moon Unit Zappa-ese and the more advanced, ‘90s drawl of that “Saturday Night Live” babe who does the dead-on sorority girl imitation. (“Uh, muh god. Yur hair is suh cute!”)


That pretty well describes my dialect, although I have never in my life said, “gag me with a spoon.” And I didn’t grow up anywhere near the Sherman Oaks Galleria.

I picked up Valspeak in staid, proper Northern California from, ironically, a girl in English class. She had this weird habit of replacing the word said with the word all . Like this: “Mr. Meredith is all, ‘Kathleen, have you finished diagraming your sentences?’ and I’m all, ‘What good will diagraming sentences do me in real life?’ ”

This phrasing sounded exotic and glamorous to me, and it wasn’t long before I was all over “I’m all.”

But out in the working world--a zillion or so no ways, ummms and y’knows later--I had a flash of, like, insight:

The difference between me and the grown-ups who threw that paycheck my way every month was that they never, ever used the word bitchin’. I realized that sometimes my accent made work just a teensy bit awkward. Like the time I was interviewing someone for a story, and she asked if I’d just graduated high school.

After I heard myself in a radio interview sounding like a precocious 14-year-old, I began to look for a voice coach--the Professor Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle.

I didn’t want to meet the queen or anything; I just wanted to be able to finish one complete sentence without saying totally. But wouldn’t you know it, this was a totally difficult task.


English as a Second Language at a community college was a bit too remedial. An acting class could have taught me an Alabama Twang or New Yawkese, which would have been sort of like taking up heroin to cure a cigarette habit.

I tried calling my linguistics prof from college, but she never called back. I even got in touch with A Famous Voice Coach to the Stars, who listed 11 things wrong with my voice but was too stressed out promoting her newest book to give me the three-month, twice-a-week, $2,600 training she recommended.

Which is how I wound up on the 14th floor of a mid-Wilshire high-rise, explaining my situation in self-conscious Valspeak to the supremely well-spoken Laverne A. Slavin, a voice consultant who you’d never know is a Texan.

I’d come across her company, the Professional Voice, in the Yellow Pages and was thrilled to hear over the phone that she and her staff domesticate wild Val Gals like me all the time.


I was blown away when I found out that speech therapy is nearly as expensive as psychotherapy. I was also shocked when I discovered the two fields have a lot in common.

During the first session, I realized that my tendency to interrupt people has to do with my childhood. In my family, you have to jump right in and start yakking if you want anyone to shut up and listen.

But instead of recommending a Dysfunctional Co-Dependent Interrupters Anonymous support group, Laverne taught me the “One-Second Pause Rule.” This is a simple little trick where you stop for just a moment and actually--get this-- think before you speak! The one-second pause, as it says in my personalized Professional Voice notebook, “is the single best indicator of sophistication in speech. Your ability to use the pause gives you control over a variety of factors.” This session cost me a hundred bucks, but it was worth every penny.

Using the one-second pause regularly is not easy for me. Nor is speaking more slowly, which I had to practice over and over in boring, daily, 30-minute voice drills. Because spending this much money does no good without lots of practice, speech lessons are especially grueling for procrastinators like me. Reading. Magazine. Articles. Out. Loud. One. Word. At. A. Time. Gets. Old. Pretty. Darn. Fast.

I also had to practice my “optimal pitch,” because, says Laverne, a high and breathless voice is a classic Val Gal trait. I had to do strange humming exercises (“Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, uh huuh, uh-huuh”) and feel where my voice was originating. If you feel it in your nose, it’s too high; deep in your throat, it’s too low and can damage your vocal cords. But if you can feel it near the back of your mouth, it’s juuuust right.

We also played a little behavior modification game. Every time I used a “filler word,” I had to pay $400 to Laverne’s fictional vacation fund. I figure I probably sent her to Fiji and back on wells and likes. And with the funds from my ums, she could live at the Beverly Hills hotel for the next five years.

If all this sounds like stuff you could just practice yourself in the car, I also got a good dose of business and negotiating philosophy. I learned various ways to answer difficult questions and how to keep from slipping back into Valspeak when I get nervous.

The key, and it sounds unbelievably simple, is to anticipate things people are going to ask you and be prepared for anything.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how ingrained my speech pattern was, and how reluctant I (and most of us) can be about changing. Sometime after I started, probably worn down from repeating phrases like “aging and raging and ringing and singing” (to improve my “d” and “g” endings), I got fed up with the practicing and devised all sorts of excuses to blow it off.

One big deterrent is that there are few times in my life when I am completely alone. It’s pretty embarrassing to be caught chanting “send bank, send blank, send blink, send brink.” Luckily, Laverne forgave me and cut my practices back to three days a week.


I wish I could say my speech is close to perfect, but the truth is, I slip back into my Val voice whenever I let my guard down. When I do remember to use my new voice, it still sounds halting and kind of stilted.

So that’s where I am now--12 weeks, five sessions, $500 and countless hours of voice drills later.

One of the most memorable things Laverne told me was that a lot of her clients get very stressed once they hear their voices starting to improve. They worry that they’re losing some essential part of their individuality.

And you know what? I can, like, totally relate.