How technology is turning us into faster talkers
And research is saying our brains aren't keeping up
From Strombo to Jon Stewart, let's agree that some broadcast hosts can talk at the speed of lightning. They're smart and satirical even if they do sometimes trip over their own brilliance.
Indeed, the media are full of fast talkers from talk shows to sitcoms and newscasts.
But it's not just media types who motor along.
Texts, tweets, and technological gizmos are making communication ever faster and it's causing many of us to speak more quickly in our everyday lives to keep up with it all.
Ray Hull is a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Wichita State University in Kansas and he has done considerable research in the area of human neuroscience and speech.
"A decade ago," he says, "I measured the speed of speech of teachers, family members and those out in society at a rate of about 145 words per minute, the average rate of human speech.
"That is certainly not what we're finding today. People are speaking at a rate of typically 160 to 180 wpm, as I have measured it."
Too fast for our brains
Some of us, of course, like to speak trippingly on the tongue to show that we're smart and funny. But fast talking is also a result of our overwhelmed brains trying to cram more into the same amount of time. For broadcasters – more news; parents – more activities; teachers – more information.
Hull's mission is to slow the world down, one person at a time. Teachers, broadcasters, doctors, lawyers, even parents, they all come to him to learn to speak more deliberately and with greater clarity.
Hull is particularly concerned with elementary school teachers. He recently conducted a workshop for teachers in a large school district in Kansas. And last July, he spoke to teachers, professors and administrators at a meeting held by the U.S. Department of Education.
He says that he's measured elementary school teachers in the classroom speaking at 180 words per minute. At that rate, he says, "those children simply cannot comprehend what is being said. Their central nervous system is not designed to do that."
Hull says the human brain is best able to comprehend speech at around 124 to 130 wpm; when we speak slowly, our brains have the time to fill in the gaps of speech with elongated vowels and consonants.
The 30s slowdown
Now, perhaps you already speak at the Mr. Rogers rate of 130 wpm. Fantastic. Or you may speak quickly and be perfectly understandable. Carry on, I say.
But others (our foreign minister, for example) can end up clipping word endings, slurring words together or eliminating pauses. End result? Sometimes we understand only half of what's being said.
So when teachers or parents think that kids don't listen, it may be more that they don't understand what's being said.
It isn't just the speed of words that's the problem. A recent study showed that fast-speaking and fast-moving cartoons negatively affect children's "executive function," meaning their ability to stay on task without being distracted.
It found that four-year-olds who sat down and watched just nine minutes of SpongeBob SquarePants had lower concentration levels than other kids their age.
So while fast-speak may be fun, it's also fraught.
Seniors also can have a hard time with people who speak quickly, especially on the phone. And who doesn't get frustrated with phonemessagesthatruntogether?
Hull says that when we hit our mid-30s, our central nervous system slows and we're less able to understand people who talk quickly. By around 73, we have the listening abilities of a three-year-old.
Hull says we all need to advocate for slower speech.
That may be especially true for those of us who live amid a growing population of new immigrants. Heck, if native speakers can't keep up, then people with a lesser grasp on English must get really muddled by the motor mouths.
Hull has worked with television newscasters who he has timed speaking at 200 wpm.
"People call in and complain that they cannot understand what that news broadcaster is saying and that's why that news broadcaster is referred to me."
You'd think, he says, "that people would begin to take the hint that they… need...to...slow... down."
There are a few ways to do that. Communications experts suggest looking people in the eye to get feedback, and pause between phrases.
[Pause inserted here.]
You can also time yourself. Mark 130 words on a page and clock how fast you read it out loud. If you're done in less than a minute, try slowing down and see what that feels like.
Then again, I clocked myself at 170 wpm, and I'm often told how clearly I speak. So it may depend on how well you enunciate your words.
Instead of sighing dramatically, throwing up your hands and saying "nobody understands me," do your bit to help people understand you.