This week, guest blogger Robert Nurden looks at whether or not English people really ‘speak so fast.’ Many students say: “English people speak so fast. I can never understand them.” In fact, English is one of the slowest languages. On average, native speakers use 150 syllables a minute. But Spanish people go along at an amazing 300 syllables a minute. Japanese is another fast language. Mandarin is probably the slowest.
This is good news for people learning English. It means that if your mother tongue is one of the fast ones, you can slow down when speaking English. There are a number of reasons why English is spoken relatively slowly.
Firstly, English has 20 vowel sounds. This means that the mouth has to be in 20 different positions to make all those noises. That requires agility and takes time. The only way it can be done is by putting on the brakes. Spanish has just five vowel sounds, so it’s possible to go along at breakneck speed.
Secondly, the English stress system works very differently to that of other languages. When a syllable or word is stressed, it is stressed strongly. And the speaker will often talk slower just before it in order to give it extra emphasis.
Look at how this question is spoken (with the stressed words in italic type): “Excuse me [slow and stressed, followed by a pause while waiting for the listener to turn round], could you tell me how to get to the [fast] London Eye [slow and stressed], please?”
Other languages give more or less equal value to all the syllables in a word, which makes it possible to speak faster.
Thirdly, English uses a lot of pauses. Take this question and answer: “So, ........ how can we solve our overspending problem?” Answer: “Well, ....... we could cut back on advertising.” If you listen closely to English people, they will often extend the words “so” and “well” at the beginning of sentences for as much as three seconds, giving themselves time to think. This is quite normal and it is fine for students to adopt this practice.
So, the good news is that speaking English well does not mean speaking English fast. Ask yourself: why do we speak? There’s only one answer: to be understood. So, if speaking slowly helps you to be understood, do it! Remember: slow down!
agility (n.) - the ability to move quickly and easily
to put on the brakes (exp.) – to slow down
at breakneck speed (exp.) – very fast
overspending (n.) – to spend too much money
to cut back on something (phr.v.) – to spend less money on something
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