by Tom Lavery
There are many challenges when learning a language. Many, we are not even aware of. Our attention is on a million different things and we are nervous.
I was once in Madrid, speaking terrible Spanish to a woman who to me sounded like Speedy Gonzales. She stopped me and said, ‘Slow Down, you’re speaking too fast.’
I couldn’t believe it. ‘How is that possible? I’m only speaking like all Spanish speakers do. Spanish is the fastest language on the planet. Much faster than English. I’m just being more Spanish…’
In reality there is no “fastest” language.
Of course, there are people who speak faster (and more) than average in every language and lots of things are different between languages: the sounds, the way words flow together, the rhythm, the intonation, the amount of time each person speaks, and lots more.
You might be thinking, ‘But in ……….. language they don’t breathe! It sounds like all the words blend together…’
However, others feel the same about your language.
The actual speed of the language is not different — only our perception of it is.
When we first learn to drive, 20km per hour seems fast. We have to learn each individual action and skill, then how they work together, then what to expect from other drivers, then practice and practice. Eventually the process becomes natural and 130km feels normal — slow even.
I was driving out of control.
The Spanish lady was right and this was only one of the reasons — I hadn’t learned the basics well enough.
I was speaking too fast.
So do lots of language learners.
They speak so fast that it is difficult for mother tongue speakers to understand. Even when the words are all correct and in the right order.
Like the kid in the school theatre production who sounds like a malfunctioning robot.
Often for similar reasons — with similar solutions.
We often mentally ‘script’ what we want to say in advance, like actors.
The problem is when we then “read” it as fast as possible so as not to forget.
The person you are speaking to doesn’t have your script.
Like our young actor, we forget that the actual words aren’t the only important thing — how they are said is important as well.
Planning ahead can be really helpful, but instead of scripting try rehearsing instead.
How to rehearse
The most overlooked parts of language learning are pronunciation and speaking skills and strategies. Words and grammar are far from everything.
Here lie many of the solutions.
- Really learn the individual sounds of the language, physically train yourself to make the ones that don’t exist in your language.
- Learn how words flow together. Look up what ‘blending’ and ‘weak forms’ are.
- Study the rhythm of the language, intonation and word and sentence stress and how it can affect meaning.
- Notice the speed most people actually speak at.
- Watch something with subtitles in the same language — read along with it at the speaker’s speed.
- Watch someone reading the news or giving a presentation — they are who you should copy, not your friend’s Grandma who drinks 20 coffees per day.
- As Gabriel Wyner suggests in the fantastic Fluent Forever — read a book and listen to the audio version simultaneously and notice the speed. This book also contains fantastic lessons in all of the above skills and language learning in general — highly recommended. The notes can be found on the wonderful Derek Sivers website here.
- For the brave — record yourself speaking and listen to how it sounds.This can be a traumatic but important experience.
Our brain is working faster than our mouth or vice versa — “I’m trying to think of what to say next so I’m just making noise”.
One of the most frustrating parts of learning a new language (and being on stage) is not being able to express yourself fully - which either means lots of painful pausing or speaking too fast.
Like actors when they forget their lines, learn as many strategies for thinking of what you are going to say next as possible, there are phrases to help you with this, ‘Hmmmmmmm’, ‘Well…’ ‘Let me think…’ etc.
Every language has them.
As all language learners know, there is still the problem, even when you script in advance, of the other person responding — and they could say anything.
This leads to…
When we’re nervous we often forget to concentrate on how we are speaking.
Which means we forget the words we are saying mean something to someone.
We either freeze completely or speak extra fast, like many people in their native language.
Remember, like the theatre audience, the person you are speaking to wants to understand you.
Speaking faster won’t help you, or them.
They need your help.
An actor’s trick helps here as well.
Then really concentrate on speaking one beat slower than you feel you want to until this rhythm feels natural.
All in all, what Stella Adler said of acting is true for language learning,
‘The actor has to develop his body. The actor has to work on his voice. But the most important thing the actor has to work on is his mind.’
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