Improve Your Chinese By: Speaking Slowly

Time for some unusual advice: try to speak Chinese slower, rather than faster.

Most advice you see about learning languages encourages you to go for “fluency” and speaking as much as possible. There is some merit to this – it is of course good to get in a lot of speaking practice.

But I think that the benefits of speaking slowly and taking your time are often overlooked as well, so here are my thoughts on that.

This is mostly about pronunciation

When I talk about the benefits of speaking a bit more slowly, I’m referring mostly to pronunciation and accent issues.

A lot of people learning Chinese give in to the temptation to speak very fast at times. I’ve ended up doing this myself on occasion. It feels like you’re being very fluent, and perhaps you are. But it also lets bad habits creep into your pronunciation and accent.

The issue is that speed is not the same thing as fluency. Think about your native language. The speakers who come across as most competent tend to speak a little slower than other people. They come across as measured and in control.

People who speak very fast tend to come across as anxious, excited, hurried and so on. This may be appropriate in some situations, but most of the time I find I can communicate better if I try to take my time.

That’s another advantage of speaking a little slower – you’ve got more time to think about what you want to say and to say it clearly. You’re also less likely to slur words as if you’re drunk, which can happen if your brain is going faster than your mouth.

Speed won’t cover up bad pronunciation

Sometimes people try to speak fast in the hope that it will disguise bad pronunciation. This rarely works. Aside from sounding like you’re desperate to go to the toilet or something, speaking fast will probably make your pronunciation sound worse.

I think this comes up especially often with Chinese, because of tones. It’s quite common to hear people saying that tones don’t matter if you speak fast, and that native speech has tones all over the place anyway.

Neither of those is accurate. It’s true that tones in real speech can be very different to what’s in your textbook and audio course, but that’s because real speech is much more complex. Mandarin tones aren’t as simple as 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Getting the nuance right will be even harder if you speak fast, because it makes it more difficult to focus on what you’re actually doing.

But native speakers speak really fast!

Yes, some of them do.

But, firstly, they’ve got a much better handle on how clear they sound and how understandable they are.

Secondly, it’s not wise to put each and every native speaker on a pedestal. Some people are better at communicating than others, and one of the best bits of general advice for improving your speech is to slow down a little. This applies to native speakers just as much as learners.

You need time to imitate

There is a heavy focus on speaking as much as possible in most language learning approaches. This is good, but it’s a huge mistake to overlook input and imitation.

You may not be aware of it, but when you speak your own language, the majority of what you say is just imitations of others. We mimic vocabulary choices, intonation, accent etc. from the people we’ve come into contact with throughout our lives. It’s rare that people say something very original.

This is important for learning other languages. The real goal is to build up a nice database of language snippets to have at your disposal. You can build this up by paying careful attention to native speech and writing, and trying to imitate it.

If you speak too fast, though, you’re making it harder for yourself to practice imitating. This is similar to learning to play an instrument - it’s better to go quite slow at first to make sure you’re getting it right, and to isolate the mistakes you’re making.

Mistakes are good: this is not about perfection

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I was saying you should aim for 100% perfection. That isn’t what this is about.

Making mistakes is definitely a very important part of learning anything. But the goal isn’t to do things that make you more likely to make mistakes. The goal is to notice your mistakes and learn from them.

Overall, this is about being mindful and learning actively.

What do you think?

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