Plenty of learners have told me that they struggle to understand fast speech. I’ve offered study tips and listed resources for listening practice in the past, but I’ve finally decided to make my own special contribution. I’m currently running a 20-day Fast Speech Challenge on YouTube.
My goal is to teach some common patterns in terms of linking and reduction through short daily videos. I’ve made it clear that I’m not promising total listening comprehension after watching my 20 videos. I tell viewers from the start that listening will be easier if they’re aware of certain patterns, like unstressed vowels reducing to a schwa and the frequent dropping of the T in the prefix inter-.
One criticism I’ve faced in my other video lessons is my speaking rate. “Why do you speak so slowly, Jennifer?” But more often I hear, “Thank you. I understand almost everything you say. You speak so clearly.” I believe that an ESL teacher can build bridges between the classroom and the real world. Of course, I usually speak faster and in a more relaxed way when I’m with my family and friends. But wearing my teacher’s hat, I speak to be understood. In live instruction, I can adjust my speech to the level of the students before me. In a video for a mass audience, I keep in mind the average learner at the level I’m teaching.
I think as teachers we need to expose students to fast speech, but with care and consideration. For example, if instructions are written, you could read them aloud at your natural speaking rate because the text is there for support. Also, if you’re repeating words you say every day, like a greeting or a set of instructions to get a familiar routine going, they can be said with relaxed pronunciation. However, I personally choose to slow down and articulate my speech when I deliver an explanation. Students will deal well with fast speech if they aren’t being simultaneously challenged with complex ideas, too much unfamiliar vocabulary, or new grammatical structures.
What challenges students about fast speech?
- The relaxed pronunciation. Some learners have the misconception that all native speakers use this fast, relaxed manner all the time. Perhaps they need to remember that careful speech is still natural speech. A film clip could illustrate this point. The scene of young Mia accepting her title in The Princess Diaries might serve as an example. I especially like how her grandmother slows her down, and at the very end Mia uses her most careful articulation to announce her formal acceptance.
- New vocabulary and perhaps some unfamiliar cultural references. Students need to realize the importance of developing their vocabulary, and they should recognize that part of the learning process is to have passive and active words. Some words are worth studying and putting into use, but others just need to be understood…for now.
- Grammar that has yet to be mastered. As with vocabulary, every learner can benefit from some focused study of grammatical structures. You won’t pick everything up from exposure.
- The inability to hit a pause button and replay a line when it’s a real-world situation. Learners need strategies for these situations. Towards the end of my 20-day challenge, I offer the tip of listening for key words. Often you can catch the meaning without catching every word. At that point, students should know how to ask for clarification.
What challenges teachers about fast speech?
- To teach it or not. Should relaxed pronunciation be taught? My feeling is that learners need to be aware of reduction and omission of sounds for the sake of comprehending others. They don’t have to learn how to say, “Whadidja tell’em?” but they should have enough practice to prepare them to understand that as what did you tell them? Prioritizing comprehension, we should also teach word stress because if you say bal-LANCE instead of BAL-ance, you can be misunderstood. But if a learner doesn’t reduce the ‘a’ in can to a schwa, communication won’t break down. I also feel we should emphasize accent reduction over accent elimination. Teaching linking will help learners attain smooth, more natural speech, but a glottal stop isn’t a requirement for effective communication. Those learners whose goal is accent elimination will do the repetitive drilling needed to reproduce relaxed speech.
- To use it or not. Yes, we should, but as I said earlier we should use fast speech with care. If the content of what we need to say is challenging, we can use more careful speech. We also need to teach strategies for listening to the news or films. I like to emphasize the benefits of repetitive listening and learning how to use (and not use) captions or a transcript.
- To use authentic materials or instructional materials. Much of what I’ve said about authentic texts can be applied to our use of authentic recordings (films or podcasts). We certainly can and should use authentic materials with our students. At the same time, I see strong benefits of using ESL instructional materials, too. Why? It’s about building that bridge. I have a few colleagues who do that very well with their online resources. I’m a big fan of Mike Marzio’s RealEnglish site and greatly admire his smart editing choices, which take out the shock of hearing ‘real’ English. In addition to my 20-day Fast Speech Challenge, I’ve also started to post some additional listening practice on my website. I may vary the format as I go on, but you’ll presently find three listening tasks that allow students the chance to hear me speak at length using relaxed pronunciation.
Got any tips or favorite resources of your own? Please share them.