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Don’t Speak Fast English – Speak Clear English Instead (Here’s How)

So you want to sound more like a native English speaker. That means you have to speak fast English, right?

Absolutely not!

One of the biggest issues I have with American accent advice is the emphasis on speaking fast English.

If you only spoke faster, you’d sound more natural and more American. ?

The problem with this advice is that it emphasizes speed over clarity.

You may think you’ll impress people with how quickly the words come out of your mouth, but what they really want is to understand you.

When you speak too quickly, you might start mumbling, dropping important sounds, or rushing through your vowels.

You might forget to stress your words and your speech will sound choppy, which is harder for native speakers to understand.

You might stop thinking about your message, or emphasizing your most important ideas by breaking them into smaller chunks or thought groups.

You may forget to use your pauses and your pitch to punctuate your ideas.

While this is something I’ve observed while listening to my clients and students, it’s also something I personally struggle with when speaking Spanish.

So let’s pause for a moment. Slow down. Take a deep breath.

Let’s talk about why you need to stop trying to speak English fast and focus on speaking clearly instead.

Thinking Quickly vs. Speaking Quickly

Before we get started, I want to remind you that there’s a difference between thinking quickly in English and speaking quickly.

You should definitely do whatever you can to think more quickly in English by increasing your fluency.

When you think quickly, you can respond and react to what’s happening in the conversation.

You can come up with new words when you realize that you’re not being clear, or when you simply need more details to express yourself fully.

That said, I know that when you start thinking quickly, you’re going to want to get those words out as fast as possible.

That’s when you should focus on clearly communicating your message.

You want to speak clearly so that people understand you.

Sometimes that means slowing down and being more intentional with how you say your words.

Let’s get started!

Fast Speech in English

First, let’s talk about what we mean by fast speech in English.

If you want to speak English quickly, you’ll learn about the following:

  • stress and reductions
  • contractions
  • dropped or deleted sounds
  • elision
  • assimilation
  • palatalization
  • linking and connected speech.

Stress and reductions are which words and syllables you emphasize and which you de-emphasize or reduce to make them less obvious.

Contractions are when we combine words to make them shorter and faster to say.

In this case, I’m talking about standard contractions like “I’m,” “you’ll,” “she’s,” “he’d,” “they’ve,” “we’ve,” and “they’re.”

We also have informal contractions like “gonna,” “wanna,” “shoulda,” “tryna” that happen in casual, relaxed speech.

When we’re speaking quickly, we may actually drop or delete sounds, like when the “-ng” or /ŋ/ sound on “doing” and “playing” becomes “doin'” and “playin’.”

We might drop the initial “h” sound from “his” or “he”; it’ll sound like “‘is” or “‘e.”

There’s also elision, when we remove sounds from words like “library,” “February,” “comfortable,” and “chocolate.”

Then we have assimilation, which is when we transform certain sounds to make them easier for our mouths to say.

For example, “I can believe it” becomes “I cam believe it.” You can hear that sound becomes the “m” sound.

“I can go” becomes “I cang go.” The “n” sounds like the “ng” sound.

“That’s on my way” becomes “That’s om my way.” Once again, the “n” becomes the “m” sound. It’s easier to produce that sound.

Then there’s palatalization. That’s when “would you” becomes “woudju” or “wouldja,” “did you” becomes “didja” or “didju,” “what are you” becomes “whatcha.”

Once again, this change happens because of the way our mouths form these sounds.

Our mouths are trying to be more efficient.

These elements are part of linking and connected speech.

Connected speech is how we link words together within a thought group in order to say them faster.

Native English speakers do this naturally because they’re stressing important words and reducing the ones that don’t matter.

The important thing to remember is that stress comes before connected speech.

If you’re trying to use linking, connected speech, deleting sounds, or transforming them, but you’re not stressing your words, it’s not going to sound natural.

It’s going to sound like you’re forcing it.

With so many possible things to focus on, it may seem completely overwhelming to try to speak fast like a native speaker.

And like we said at the beginning, if you try to speak English too quickly, you might sacrifice meaning.

That’s why we’re going to focus on what you need to do in order to speak English clearly.

#1 Increase the Contrast Between Stressed and Reduced Words and Syllables

The most important thing you can do to speak English more clearly is to increase the contrast in your speech.

When we speak English, we emphasize the stressed syllables of stressed words by making them longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with an extra clear vowel sound.

The stressed words are the ones that express your meaning.

You’re basically highlighting the most important words with your voice.

Native speakers are listening for stress in order to understand your meaning.

Consider this sentence:

I’ve been learning Portuguese for a long time, but I haven’t had the chance to visit Brazil.

See if you can identify which syllables are stressed and which are reduced.

I’ve been LEARNing PORtuguese for a LONG TIME, but I HAVEn’t HAD the CHANCE to VIsit BraZIL.

If you pronounce every single syllable evenly, it’ll be hard for a native speaker to understand you.

When we use stress, we highlight or focus attention on the words that matter. We also de-emphasize or reduce the ones that don’t.

For example, prepositions like “for” and “to” are function words and they’re not usually stressed.

We reduce them: “for” (/fɔr/) becomes /fər/ and “to” (/tu/) becomes /ə/. These are called weak or reduced forms.

If I over pronounce these sounds, the other person has to work extra hard to figure out my meaning.

Listen again and hear how these words are reduced:

I’ve been LEARNing PORtuguese for a LONG TIME, but I HAVEn’t HAD the CHANCE to VIsit BraZIL.

Focusing on contrast between stress and reductions will help people understand you.

And it will help you speak English more quickly, but it won’t have a negative impact on your meaning!

I also encourage you to learn how to use standard contractions.

We actually expect to hear them, so when you separate the words, it focuses extra attention on the words that don’t matter.

Affirmative contractions like “I’m,” “you’re,” “they’ve” are one way that we de-emphasize unimportant words.

When you clearly pronounce them, your listener is going to think that they’re important.

On the other hand, negative contractions like “don’t,” “didn’t,” “haven’t” and “wouldn’t” are important because they communicate meaning.

We usually stress negatives for clarity because it’s not what you expect to hear.

For more practice, check out these resources:

#2 Break Your Ideas into Thought Groups

Another thing you can do to speak English more clearly is to break your ideas into thought groups.

If you listen to interesting, effective speakers, you’ll notice that they often pause after key ideas.

This is another way to emphasize what matters.

It makes it easier for people to digest and process your meaning.

In English, it’s your responsibility as the speaker to make your meaning clear and easy to understand.

Let’s look at my example again.

I’ve been learning Portuguese for a long time, but I haven’t had the chance to visit Brazil.

Listen to the video to hear me say it fast without any thought groups.

How did you feel while listening to me?

Now listen again to hear how I say that sentence with thought groups:

I’ve been learning Portuguese / for a long time, / but I haven’t had the chance / to visit Brazil.

You can hear that I pause and slightly change my pitch after key ideas.

If you’re listening extra carefully, you may notice that I’m stressing one word in each thought group more than the others.

Listen one more time to hear it:

I’ve been learning PORtuguese / for a long TIME, / but I haven’t had the CHANCE / to visit BraZIL.

I’m still stressing the rest of the words in the thought group, but one stands out more than the rest.

Rather than trying to speak fast, think about how you can package and present your ideas so that they’re easy to follow and understand.

For more practice with thought groups, check out this video on breathing, pausing, and thought groups.

#3 Use Your Voice to Clearly Communicate Your Meaning with Pitch and Intonation

The last thing you can do to speak English more clearly is to learn how to use your voice more effectively to communicate your meaning.

We’ve already talked about pitch with regards to stress and thought groups, but it’s also super important for intonation.

Intonation is how we communicate meaning, emotions and attitudes through changes in our pitch.

Let’s look at some examples.

You’ve been learning Portuguese for a long time.

This is a statement of fact. I’m using falling intonation at the end of the sentence in order to signal that it’s a neutral statement.

Listen to how the meaning changes if we change the intonation:

You’ve been learning Portuguese for a long time?

By using rising intonation at the end of the statement, this is now a question: You’ve been learning Portuguese for a long time?

You might turn the statement into a question in order to check that you understood, or to show curiosity or even disbelief.

Have you been to Brazil?

This is now a yes/no question. The rising intonation on the end of the questions signals that I need a response.

When did you start learning Portuguese?

This is an information question. The falling intonation signals that I’m done with my question and I need a longer response.

I haven’t been to Brazil.

I’m stressing the negative contraction “haven’t” in order to answer the question I was asked previously:

Have you been to Brazil? I haven’t been to Brazil.

You can also emphasize a certain word to clarify:

Have you been learning Portuguese for a little while? No, I’ve been studying the language for a long time.

By putting extra emphasis on the word “long” through my voice and a higher pitch, I’m clarifying the duration of time I’ve been studying Portuguese.

And, of course, remember that slight rise after thought groups:

I’ve been learning Portuguese / (rise) for a long time, / (rise) but I haven’t had the chance / (rise) to visit Brazil. (fall)

We use a slight rise after thought groups to signal that we’re still talking, and falling intonation at the end to signal that the sentence is complete.

Your Turn

Let’s review what you can do to speak English more clearly:

  1. Speak with more contrast using stress and reductions.
  2. Make ideas easier to understand with thought groups.
  3. Communicate your meaning with pitch and intonation.

Focusing on these three things will help you sound more natural and more like a native English speaker.

You won’t sacrifice your meaning to speak quickly.

Instead, you’ll help people understand what you mean because it’ll be easier to follow what you’re saying.

Want more tips that will help you sound more natural in English? This free email course will help you speak more clearly and be more easily understood.

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