22

I'm from East Asia so my English is not good compared to people from Western countries who use English or its Indo-European siblings as its native language. In most cases, it is fine to talk with fellow Asians (East Asian and Southeast Asian), and although I often don't understand what some Europeans say, the problem arises more from their accents than their speech speed, though their speech speed feels somewhat fast as well.

However, I don't understand what Americans are saying mostly. For example, if I watch CNN I only understand about 30%, largely due to their speech speed (but also I don't often understand their accents).

Now, the problem is that even after I ask an American to speak more slowly, they seemingly can't change their speed. For example:

American: gdajlgjagllmalvmlagjagmalvmalmldmamglanvammeao

I: Sorry, can you speak more slowly?

American: OK, do you understand now?

I: Yeah!

American: OK, then lgamlvmdljalmalvmadmvlavmeovmqmmvladljaljlajvdljal

Then I asked them again to speak more slowly, and it usually ends up in a few loops, and then I get upset and stop to talking with them.

The conversation is almost always initiated by the American. I rarely start the conversation as I know I don't understand what they talk about mostly, and honestly, I don't like to talk with Americans if they can't change the speed. This is not because I feel embarrassed but because it is quite stressful to keep concentrating on what they are saying and be forced to use a huge mental resource.

It seems that just asking them to speak more slowly is not a solution. How can I make Americans speak slowly? This happens in non-Anglo countries where English is not one of its official languages. Is it that difficult to speak more slowly? I don't know if this applies to Canadians or Australians as I have never talked with them.

  • 1
    People from different parts of the United States speak at different speeds. During the early 1990s, there was a study that showed that television news anchors in Boston spoke about twice as fast as television news anchors in Los Angeles. – Jasper Aug 16 '17 at 20:05
  • I don't know about you, but I don't practice speaking slowly. If someone asked me to I would have to figure it out on the spot. – Mehrdad Feb 2 '18 at 8:35
15

As an American, having been in the situation, it's a bit of a blind spot...

American's have a pretty huge luxury language wise. We're a rather large country, so you can drive a good several hundred miles and people speak the same language. And when we travel over seas people seem to make an effort to speak "our English"

I'm not saying it's right, I'm saying that's a common American experience.

As pointed out in comments, we're often accused of being condescending to people who aren't as proficient in American English... This can lead to being a little self-conscious about changing our speech patterns when we communicate with people who are having a hard time understanding.

I'm often guilty of assuming that the person I'm speaking to is proficient in American English, because most people I encounter are, and it can seem racist or condescending if I don't make that assumption.

Fortunately, Florida, the part of America I live in, has a large Spanish speaking population, and I've tried to learn a second language over the years. I kind of understand your problem. Spanish is spoken very quickly in some places... So I sort of know how you feel.

I would recommend saying something like:

I am learning your language. Can you speak slowly?

I know it's frustrating, but sometimes adding an explanation is all it takes. Simply saying "slow down" may be misunderstood, while explaining why you want them to slow down clears up the misunderstanding.

  • "and it can seem racist or condescending if I don't make that assumption" - yeah, and it can also seem pretty condescending if you do make this assumption, especially after somebody asked you to speak slowly. Life's not fair ;-) – AllTheKingsHorses Aug 13 '17 at 12:28
  • @AllTheKingsHorses It seems that people have trouble separating the broader ideas from specific instances around here... Living in the US, if I were to approach someone and just assume that they didn't speak English it would be considered rude, which shapes the way people tend to approach these situations. Your implication that it's what I would do, even after I was asked not to, is lifting a piece of info out of context, either because you missed the point, or purely for the snark value. – apaul Aug 13 '17 at 16:30
  • No, I said that because the OP wrote "Then I asked them again to speak more slowly, and it usually ends up in a few loops" and "This happens in non-Anglo countries where English is not one of its official languages". So it's understandable to just speak English with them the first time - but after that it comes across as quite "touristy" (is that a word?) and... condescending. – AllTheKingsHorses Aug 13 '17 at 20:52
  • Thank you for the answer. Stating a reason sounds a good approach; I don't learn English as I had done in school days so maybe should come up with a different phrase, though. – Blaszard Aug 15 '17 at 10:52
9

Hand motions

Most Americans really only speak English and only to other Americans, so they're not used to this situation. There's also a cultural stereotype that it's rude to speak slowly as it can be seen insulting to the listeners' intelligence. So, even if you ask an American to speak more slowly, they might accidentally speed back up.

A good way to tell someone that they're speaking incorrectly is through hand motions because this signals the issue without interrupting. Once they stop, you can ask them to repeat if they said it too quickly.

Hand motions work for a variety of speaking issues, e.g. when someone keeps talking too loudly. In this case, you might hold your palm up and flat, in a "Stop!" sort of signal, but more gently to express slowness instead.

  • 2
    Hand motions are great because you can do them without completely interrupting the speaker. – Catija Aug 13 '17 at 4:56
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    "There's also a cultural stereotype that it's rude to speak slowly as it can be seen insulting to the listeners' intelligence." - If you feel comfortable, I think you can actually incorporate this in to your request: 'Can you speak more slowly? I am still learning spoken English and I promise I won't feel like you think I'm stupid if you talk slow' – Bryan Krause Aug 13 '17 at 17:18
  • @BryanKrause: I believe that you are right, that most Americans don't want to speak "southern" (alluded to in my answer). – Tom Au Aug 13 '17 at 21:16
  • Thanks for the answer. However I already used hand motions. In many cases I usually end up in agressively sticking one of my ears out, which might look a bit awkward... – Blaszard Aug 15 '17 at 10:49
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    @Blaszard Sticking your ear out will look like you want us to be louder. – Deolater Aug 15 '17 at 18:41
5

Learning how to understand a new language with native speakers is often difficult. what others have said about Americans associating speaking slowly with treating someone as less intelligent is true, and is another factor.

(Your written English is very good, though; congratulations!)

When a native speaker (of any language; tagalog, french, arabic, welsh, etc.) is speaking, since they are so familiar with the language and how the sounds "fit" together, they will run words together and some of the sounds in the words actually change with more speed. For instance, when someone says "the little red ball" slowly, it will sound like "thee lit-tul reduh ball," but when speaking at a normal speed, it will actually sound like "thuliddel redba."

You're not crazy when people say a phrase at two different speeds and it sounds like they're saying two different things; it's because they ARE saying two different things.

Because they are native speakers, and they are familiar with all the variations in sound that a word may end up sounding like in speech, and native speakers don't notice it. But since you are new to the language, every little difference in how they pronounce words is painfully obvious (you're more aware of what the native speaker is actually SOUNDING like than they are!)

Practical tips: Don't sweat it! Smile at people, let them know that you are friendly even when you may not understand them (that's something people do in America). Have fun.

Say something like, "Sorry, I'm having trouble understanding you, do you mind saying that in a different way?" Having them come up with a different way to communicate their message means that they'll have to think of how to say it differently, which means that (hopefully) they'll slow down in how fast they're talking (because they will actually have to think about what they're saying).

Say, "I'm still learning English, and it's hard to understand you when you're speaking fast. do you mind just slowing down how fast you're talking or speaking more clearly? (this may work sometimes; other times it may not.)

Using items to help communicate (maps, pictures, phones, etc.) will help you understand what they're saying in the context. You will eventually start being able to process their blurred or fast speech more often, just by trying to understand it-- it's hard work though.

Keep practicing! Keep trying! Even when you think you can't understand them, your brain is hard at work trying to come up with new patterns and comprehensions to understand the language. You will improve when you practice.

I might listen to books on tape. they speak slowly, but will still introduce you to some of the ways native speakers compress or "blur" their words.

  • I'd recommend learning from native speech from the start rather than slowed down versions. Even if you can't understand anything at all, if you constantly listen to audio of the language you are learning, you will gradually become used to listening to that speed, and it will help you with your listening in real conversations as well. (More of a language learning tip than an IPS solution, so I am leaving it as a comment on the answer related to it) – user4788 Nov 9 '17 at 11:48
4

I've personally always struggled with understanding people. I don't have a hearing problem, but I do have issue parsing the sound that I hear (even in my own native language).

I'm well aware of the awkwardness that entails having to ask someone to repeat the same thing several times. They are likely to get annoyed, feeling that you're the problem.

The easiest way to avoid the problem (= the person getting upset at your ineptitude) is by pointing at your ineptitude yourself. In principle, it's the same as making jokes about yourself so that others are less inclined to do so at your expense.


1. Put the blame on yourself.

I'm not suggesting that you've been explicitly blaming the American for speaking fast, but the way you address the problem can cause such an inference.

Can you please talk more slowly?

You're being efficient by asking the easiest fix for the current problem (that you can't understand them). Consider the more polite alternative:

I'm sorry, my English isn't as good. Would you mind speaking more slowly?

This puts the blame on yourself. Because of that, asking them to speak slowly clearly means that you're asking them a favor, rather than trying to imply that they are responsible for speaking too fast.

Indirectly, this also reminds them that you are doing your best to speak to them in their native language, which is not your native language. That reminder may make them more understanding of any communication issues that arise.

2. Point out the cause once. Experience the problem repeatedly.

After you've asked them to speak more slowly, don't repeat that question. Repeating it insinuates that they didn't listen to your earlier request.

You can get away with asking them to speak even slower, but you can only really do that once, and the problem may occur again.

Instead, don't point out the problem anymore. Just ask them to repeat themselves.

American gdajlgjagllmalvmlagjagmalvmalmldmamglanvammeao
You I'm sorry, my English isn't as good as yours. Would you mind speaking more slowly?

American I would like to jagmalvmalmldmamglanvammeao
You I'm sorry, could you repeat that?
American I would like to book a table.

You What date would you like to make a reservation for?
American vmalmldmamglanvammeao
You I'm sorry, could you repeat that?

You pointed out the problem (fast speaking) once. Don't keep bringing attention to it, because that can be inferred as pointing out that they ignored your request.

However, since you honestly did not understand them, it's fair that you ask them to repeat themselves. The alternative (guessing what they said) would be much more impolite.

If you feel that they are getting annoyed by your requests for them to repeat themselves, apologize for being the cause of the issue. To the American, you are indeed the cause of the issue; he's used to being understood when he speaks the way that he does.

3. Prove that you're making an effort.

Notice the difference between the two responses:

1
American Excuse me, I was told that pgofdfdofz would be available today.
You I'm sorry, I didn't catch that. Could you please repeat that?
American I was told that the jacuzzi would be available today.

2
American Excuse me, I was told that pgofdfdofz would be available today.
You I'm sorry, I didn't catch that. What is supposed to be available today?
American The jacuzzi.

In the second example, you are proving that you understood most of what they said, but you didn't catch one important part. By asking what that specific part is, you are implicitly confirming that you understood everything else.

This also means that the American might only repeat the words that you missed, which may be easier for you to understand, compared to hearing the entire sentence again.


There's no way to guarantee that the person will not be upset. However, there are different reasons as to why the person may become upset, and you can try to minimize the reasons.

  • By expressing that your English is not good, you are reassuring the person that they are not at fault here. If they feel at fault, they will become defensive, which can manifest itself as getting upset.
  • If they feel that the problem is caused by your (by not paying attention properly), they may get upset with you. By repeating what you did understand, you are proving to them that you're actually making an effort.

However, if they get upset because it's annoying to have to repeat themselves, then there is little you can do to prevent them from getting upset. If you didn't understand what they said, the only option you have is to ask them to repeat themselves. If they refuse to do so, then there's not much you can do about that other than apologize.

2

The first thing you need to know is that only some Americans, mainly in the north, speak too fast. Other Americans, from say, the south, actually speak slowly. (America is a big country, and the cultural differences between North and South culminated in a civil war just over 150 years ago.)

But if you're with a "fast-talking" American, I would point to Nat's excellent suggestion to use hand gestures, but with an added twist. That is, I would say "please slow down" at the same time as using the hand gestures. This is called Pavlovian conditioning, to link the hand gestures to your words in the other person's mind.

  • Thank you for the answer. "fast" is a relative term; given that I also have a hard time in understanding Europeans' English, for me American from the south is quite fast as well... – Blaszard Aug 15 '17 at 10:51
  • @Blaszard: I have this problem in non-English languages as well. The main solution is to listen to more conversations, mostly on tape. If it were mainly New Yorkers talking too fast, I'd ask them to slow down. But if it's southerners and Europeans as well, maybe I'd concentrate on "speeding up." – Tom Au Aug 15 '17 at 10:54
1

This is not just an issue with Americans. I am an American who enjoys speaking a number of other languages with native speakers of those languages, but the people I speak with often talk (a) too quickly for me to understand, (b) too quietly, or both. I'd like to think that if I were in the opposite position, I would prefer to adapt my way of speaking so that they wouldn't have to ask so many times. But it's hard to say. The speed and the volume with which a person speaks seem to be directly tied to their personality. As it happens, many of the people I speak with are gentle and a little shy. Unfortunately, that translates into their speaking quietly (even mumbling) and quickly.

I've gotten used to frequently asking these people to repeat themselves. It helps to say "I didn't hear the beginning of that" or "I didn't hear the last word" or to restate as much of the sentence as I thought I heard correctly. Fortunately, they don't seem to mind.

1

Try repeating back to the speaker, paraphrasing only the bits you did understand.For the bits you didn't get, substitute with something obviously wrong.

Them: Ihaddainsufishsishishintlunch.

You: You went fishing at lunch?

Them: No! Sorry! I had an in-suff-icient lunch!

This may drive home to them just how ambiguous their fast speech is. But paraphrasing back is a good way to make sure you've heard the right message.

It's common to mock English speakers for yelling at non-native speakers. What's going on, I think, is that it's hard to articulate clearly at low volume, because it takes more energy to form sounds more precisely. So for many people clearer speech may need to come with increased loudness.

0

China and the USA share a bond, I think, and perhaps we can include much of Japan and east Asia, it being that few from these nations learn to fluently speak a second or third language. America is, by far the worst offender, though. Therefore, we have no complications when we articulate speech, that is we don't have to rummage around for or translate images into the correct language of the moment. There is an old joke, if a person who speaks two languages is bi-lingual, one who commands three is tri-lingual, then what do we call someone who speaks one language? American!

There are geographic, social, and economic rationales for what seems to others as rude and even ignorant on our part, but we, the USA, had no practical need, unlike the Old world where your neighbor spoke another tongue, here we needed only English. The South West being an exception, but by the time of the Westward expansion, the habit of speaking only English seems to have been adopted.

This rumination, of course does not answer your question, but it does lay the ground work. We speak quickly, because we can.

With respect to CNN, my recommendation would be not to watch a media source for conversational English or even information on current affairs. The cable news stations are 24/7 and tend to cycle both reports and speech, furthermore the redundancy of word usage is compounded by the dumbing down of language to better suit the listening audience. Your problem, may not be understanding the language so much as not understanding why conversation does not culminate in an answer. Wolfe Blitzer, in my opinion, is the guiltiest actor in that regard. He can stretch a soft-ball question out so long that the subject is lost and the listener confused. Succinct is not part of his lexicon.

We are told, that is Americans are reminded regularly, that the rest of the world finds us rude and culturally ignorant and few can disavow the truth, but we are nice and if you get lost in a conversation, simply ask the person to slow down or repeat and they will endeavor to accommodate your needs.

Americans are not frustrated by social rules governing status, elder respect, and interactive conduct that have developed in Asia over five millennium. Certainly we recognize qualities in others that demand forbearance, but for the larger part, anyone may speak to anyone and pay deference or not. Adulation is not demanded and so whole parts of conversation are eclipsed for an Asian listener. Where you might expect a courtesy to be extended to a person of rank in Asia, here it may not be and the pattern of conversation is altered for you.

From your writing I suspect you understand all that is said, perhaps you need to understand more about American culture than the language itself.

  • 1
    "China and the USA share a bond, I think, and perhaps we can include much of Japan and east Asia, it being that few from these nations learn to fluently speak a second or third language. " is that truly fair of far-east nations ? Their language structure is totally different and yet a surprisingly large number learn another language. I do agree that the US should try harder. – bigbadmouse Nov 22 '17 at 8:51

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