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.


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.


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.


A dream, a rule, and a sunset



A dream.

Last night I dreamt I was talking to some people, and they were nodding and responding appropriately.  I realized later I was talking to them in Chinese, and they weren’t Chinese speakers, but they said it was obvious what I was saying and no big deal.

This has happened to me in real life; I had an extended conversation with someone in Spanish who wasn’t really a Spanish speaker… a Venezuelan friend uncomfortably it out to me.

Later (not today) I’m going to write a post about “language hijackers;” who they are, why they don’t usually bother me, and what I do if they do start to bother me.

A rule.

I’ve been saying for a long time that I’m going to write a post about sample sentences, how to write them properly, and why it’s important.  Today is not the day I’m going to write that post.  But just in case I forget, I want to include this rule:

Sample sentences are supposed to help you understand the target vocab/text/language; they are not supposed to confuse you more.  New rule:  every time you have to look up grammar or vocab from a sample sentence that’s above your level, you get to kick the textbook author in the face.

A sunset.

Rather than grinding out the vocab and grammar today, I took a delicious nap.  Then I drove to Seaside to eat pho, and when I got there, it was closed.  Brutal.  But it was also sunset, so I went to the beach and watched the sun set over Monterey Bay, before heading back to grind out the vocab and grammar.

The workload in my classes, it’s too much.  We are told to study over twenty new words a day, and we have no idea which ones are important and which ones we’ll never see again.  We could totally handle this quantity of content if there was more practice and less analysis.  There’s not.

On the other hand, I feel like I’ve been placed at exactly the right level, and I like everybody, and I like the class.  That has NOT always been the case over my career as a serial summer-intensive student.  Count em: this is the SEVENTH summer language intensive that I’ve taken, and so far this is the one that I feel the best about.

Vocab  is below; I’ll review it in the morning.

  1. 暑假 shǔjià          summer break
  2. 疑问 yíwèn  question, interrogation, doubt.
  3. 属于 shǔyú  classified as, belong to
  4. 实践 shí jiàn  practice, put into practice, fulfill
  5. 接触 jiēchù  to touch, connect, access, be in touch with
  6. 维护 wéihù          to defend, safeguard, uphold, maintain
  7. 考 kǎo         beat, hit, take a test
  8. 类 lèi  kind, type, class, category, like
  9. 吸引 xīyǐn  to attract
  10. 不远千里 bùyuǎn qiānlǐ  make light/go to the trouble of traveling long distance
  11. 看来 kànlai Apparently, it seems that…
  12. 翻译 fānyì
  13. 发挥 fāhuī  to display, exhibit, express, elaborate
  14. 热衷于 rànzhōng  to feel strongly about, be fond of, obsession
  15. 相比之下 xiāngbǐ zhīxià  in contrast
  16. 经验 jīngyàn        to experience
  17. 大于 dàyú  greater than, bigger than, more than
  18. 放假 fàngjià         take a vacation/day off
  19. 采访 cǎifǎng  to interview, gather news, hunt for and collect, cover
  20. 干嘛 gànmá
  21. 特殊 tèshū
  22. 科学 kēxué
  23. 秩序 shìxù  order, sequence
  24. 研 yán                  grind, study
  25. 收费 shōufèi  fee, charge
  26. 大批 dàpī  large quantities
  27. 介 jiè  introduce, lie between
  28. 追求 zhuīqiú  to pursue a goal stubbornly
  29. 网页 wǎngyè
  30. 专业 zhuānyè  specialty, major
  31. 当 dāng ,dàng
  32. 打工  temporary work, casual job
  33. 能力  capable, capability
  34. 否则 fǒuzé  if not, otherwise, else, or else
  35. 絶大多数 juédàduōshù  absolute majority
  36. 组织 zǔzhī  to organize
  37. 形式 xíngshì  outer appearance, form shape
  38. 收获 shōuhuò  harvest, reap
  39. 留校 liúxiào  stay at the same school
  40. 比例 bǐlì  proportion, scale
  41. 仍 ren2 still, yet, to remain
  42. 聚集 ju4ji2  to assemble, to gather.
  43. 绍 shao4 to continue, to carry on
  44. 后顾之忧 hòugùzhīyōu  worries about future?
  45. 充分 chong1fen4 sufficient, ample
  46. 特长 te4chang2  one’s forte
  47. 可观 ke3guan1  considerable, impressive, significant
  48. 丰富 feng1fu4 to enrich, rich plentiful, abundant
  49. 零花钱 línghuā qián  pocket money