Hearing the Boundaries Between Words

Runtime: 4:12


They are common complaints: “He talks too fast!” “She speaks so quickly I can’t understand her!” “Why don’t you slow down?”

But is that really the problem?

It’s a common grumble when we hear people speaking a language we don’t understand as well as our own. Or when a non-native speaker speaks our own language. Too fast! We blame our lack of comprehension on the speaker’s speed.

Of … Course … Speaking … One … Word … At … A … Time … Makes … Things … Easier.

That’s because we can hear the elusive word boundaries that way. I read French quite well: all those nice neat little white spaces between the words. But understanding spoken French is more difficult for me: I can’t hear the word boundaries.

Given that connected speech is fluidly joined together…Given that connected speech is fluidly joined together – you hear that this is really one long string of sounds without any silences and each word flows into the next – the miracle is that we hear the word boundaries at all! Apparently we learn to hear word and syllable boundaries much earlier in our infancy than I would have supposed – a wonderful mystery in itself. But coming to a new language later in life, we long to be able to separate the words we hear spoken in that new language. Slow down! we plead.

I once interviewed the great English Shakespearean actor, Kenneth Branagh. I spent a couple of days on the film set for Hamlet, which he was shooting at the time. One of the topics we covered was speed and clarity. I published the interview in The Drama Review as Kenneth Branagh:With Utter Clarity, since Mr. Branagh pursues and achieves quite spectacularly, particularly in comedy, the perhaps contradictory goals of speaking both extremely quickly, and extremely clearly. Watch him as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Benedick has one famous speech that opens with this sentence:

“I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love: and such a man is Claudio.”

Imitating Branagh’s speed on that one phrase, “seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love,” you appreciate how very fast that goes in places, yet the speed, in itself, doesn’t make the speech less intelligible to the listener, I contend.   Hugely important in your comprehension of that line, were the stressed words I’ve put in bold. If I don’t stress those key words, then your comprehension drops and it really does sound too fast. [DEMONSTRATING] “seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love …”

When English speakers complain about someone talking too quickly, it may simply be a problem of insufficient stressing of key words.   Of course, there are other possible culprits too. Unfamiliar rhythm and melody, slurring of consonants, unusual syllable length, etc. may all be to blame too. But learners of English will go a long way toward their goal, not by slowing down their speech, but by honoring the right key words.

If you are still developing your English speaking skills, and have ever been told that you talk too fast, I hope this has been helpful. Reading this text along with me (if you are accessing this as my talking blog and can read it as well as hear it) and imitating my tempo and emphasizing the same words that I do, could very well be great practice.

Good luck and thanks for listening!