Speed and Language Learning

Speed Anxiety

How many times have you heard someone say that So-and-so’s Spanish is rapid? How many times have you heard a person say that they would understand what another person was saying, if only that person would just slow down a little? There is something about the speed of speech that causes a lot of anxiety for students who want to learn a second language, including Mandarin Chinese.

photo of speedometer in car
Yes, some language sound faster than others. But don’t panic about speed, you will catch up

What the Research Says About Speed

Is there anything to the idea that some languages are faster than others? It turns out that researchers have tackled this question. They looked at eight different languages, including Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin to see compare how many syllables people said per second. The research subject read from a pre-determined text. It turns out that in terms of syllables spoken per second, Spanish is faster than other languages. At the other end of the spectrum, Mandarin is much slower.

There is an interesting caveat, however. Different languages seem to convey the same amount of information in the same amount of time. A language like Spanish may use more syllables to do it, but Spanish speakers are not saying anything more in a minute than English or German speakers. The “fast” languages are not actually more efficient than others at conveying information. There is perhaps some sort of biological speed limit in our brains that keeps the flow of information to the same pace.

It Is Okay to Go Slowly

Whether a language seems fast, like Spanish, or slow like Mandarin and German, the ultimate goal is to understand native speakers in normal communication. This means keeping up with whatever the pace is. It takes a long time, however, to acquire a language. We also know that students do not acquire language at all if they do not understand what they hear. When students are just starting out in their language studies, listening to people (including teachers) speak the target language at a normal pace is just too difficult. Teachers need to slow down if they want students to understand them. Understanding language at a slower than normal rate of speech is a necessary part of language acquisition.

We know that students will learn a new language if they receive input (through listening and reading) that they understand in that language. For beginner and intermediate students, this means that they need to read texts and listen to speech that has a limited number of words, shorts sentences, and in the case of listening it needs to be slooooow. People who have about an intermediate level of a second language will often say that they are more confident in their reading skills than they are in their listening. There could be lots of reasons for this, but I think that it has something to do with pacing. With reading, a reader controls the pace. She can read as quickly or as slowly as she likes. This is not the case with listening, as the speaker controls the pace.

Focus on Understanding and You’ll Catch up to the Native Speakers

Beginner and intermediate students should embrace a slower rate of speech. They should not feel frustrated that they are not ready to understand Spanish or Mandarin at the rates they are truly spoken. That will come with time when they have a more solid foundation in the language. To build that solid foundation in the language, they need to listen to that slower than normal rate of speech. There is absolutely nothing wrong with listening to language that comes at a slow rate of speed. It is just another part of the slow, ordered and complex process of language acquisition.

photo of elderly people talking
What are these two talking about? If you’re just starting to learn their language, it is totally normal if you can’t follow a regular pace of speech.