Language Learning: They Talk Too Fast

giphySo I’ve been a teacher for 23 years at this point, and a casual multilingual for a similar amount of time. I’ve been thinking about the following topic since the 90s, but have been afraid to try to explain it, since monolinguals are often such babies.

Second language learners and monolinguals often accuse people speaking other languages of talking too fast.  “Slow down! Please! You talk too fast!” How inconsiderate of you, to not speak at a pace that I dictate. You people (of a different culture) have a problem, and my needs, as the outsider, must be placed at the center of this exchange.

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Listen, these cross-linguistic studies about words per minute, and syllables per minute were done years ago. There’s a ton of them but I’ll just link to publications with the most authoritative sounding title; so here’s Scientific American and Psychology Today.  Both articles explain that all over the world, different languages exchange information at about the same rate; nobody is actually giving information faster or slower than anyone else. Spanish and Japanese might have slightly more syllables per minute, and Mandarin and German might have fewer syllables per minute, but if you look at Mandarin and German syllables they are denser with information; in the end, no one culture is exchanging information faster than the other.

Yes, there are exceptions; excited teenagers, coke heads, etc. But the remarks I hear are rarely about a coke head; instead they are about entire cultures. I’ve heard: Spanish speakers talk too fast! French people talk too fast! Chinese people TALK TOO FAST (um, Scientific American just said they have the fewest syllables per minute…).

My students regularly tell me I’m talking too fast. I’m not. I’m talking normal speed.  When I show a video, they throw themselves on the floor and say OMG WHY ARE THEY TALKING SO FAST. I can hear with my own freaking ears that they’re not talking fast at all.

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Get up off the floor.  They are not talking too fast.  You don’t understand anything due to the fact that you have THROWN YOURSELF ON THE FLOOR. You stopped listening. You. You did that. You stopped listening, and now you’re complaining about them.

Here’s what’s happening:

  1. giphy1They’re not talking fast; you are understanding slow. You are at a stage where you cannot process normal speed human communication. That’s normal, it’s not your fault. But it is YOUR problem to deal with, not theirs; stop accusing them of being abnormal. They are treating you they way they treat everyone else.  You want them to baby talk you? The least you can do is ask politely.  Could you please baby talk me? Can you please stop treating me like the adult you think I am, and instead infantilize me?  Go ahead and use all your baby stereotypes, I love that.
  2. They’re not talking fast; they are talking in paragraphs. It feels fast to you, because you’re slow to process, but you’ll notice that even when they baby talk you in paragraphs, you still get lost.

But I need it, you say, I need slow speech! That would be a great argument… Actually, no;  it’s not, restating that you need something is a terrible argument.  When you actually get people to slow talk you, one of two things happens:  a) they baby talk you and it’s condescending and they stop taking your seriously as a person, or b) they slow motion talk to you, which DOESN’T HELP YOU UNDERSTAND.  If you don’t speak Chinese, no amount of slow Chinese is going to help you understand.  If you don’t know the words, hearing them at half speed doesn’t help you; no amount of slowing or shouting or repeating the same word at them excitedly is going to connect the dots in your brain.

So just go home and give up.

Or you can try to negotiate for meaning.

  • Interrupt politely and ask a question, hear the answer and repeat it.
  • Interrupt and try to repeat what they said; check for confirmation.
  • Interrupt and try to paraphrase them, check for confirmation.
  • Interrupt and request clarification, “what was that word?” Hear it and repeat it.
  • Interrupt and ask them to repeat what they said. Hear it and repeat it.

These are all communication strategies that forgo you accusing them of being abnormal that don’t require slow motion or condescending baby talk.  You’ll notice that they are all appropriate strategies in a regular conversation in your native language. People talk to you in paragraphs all the time in your native language; you already have the strategies to disrupt the stream of information a little so that you can manage it.

What if you’re in a conversation where interrupting would be impolite?  Oooh that’s a tough one. Let me suggest this; if you’re in a situation so formal that interrupting would be rude, then accusing that person of talking too fast is also rude. Maybe be a different kind of rude. Or maybe stick to familiar register social interactions for the time being; stick with allies who know you better and are familiar with how you fast you process information, and can comfortably adjust for your level. Maybe just smile and survive it, and keep your coke-head accusations to yourself.

tenor

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