Slow Down: The Essential Benefits of Speaking Chinese Slowly


I would bet that you, like me, would like to speak Chinese in this fashion:

  1. Speak at a normal speed - that of a native speaker, or at least near it. Slow speech is unnatural. And, if we speak too slowly, our listeners may not be patient with us and in some cases will even not want to engage us in conversation. When we are with a group of native speakers conversing (who then have a choice whether to address their speech to others rather than to ourselves), this awareness is heightened. Slow hurts.
  2. Speak with acceptable pronunciation, accurate grammar, and optimal word choice. But, of course.

But can we have our mooncake and eat it too?

You may find, and your intuition probably tells you that, if you speed up your speaking in order to be nearer the speed of native speakers, your pronunciation, your grammar, and your word choice will suffer to some degree.

I don't mean to be patronizing, but I'm going to also point out the reverse, which is that if you slow down your speaking, then your pronunciation, your grammar, and your word choice will improve to varying degrees. Sometimes a lot.

Life is Full of Trade-offs (But this isn't one of them)

Of course it would be best if we could both speak at a normal speed (compared with native speakers), and also get the other parts right, too. But, as learners, we can't and don't. So we are faced with a choice that appears, to the untrained eye, to be a common trade-off.

Like any trade-off scenario, you could pick one or the other, right? They (speed and accuracy) are both desirable, so it's your call which one to go for and you should decide according to the situation. Right?

Wrong.

Always choose accuracy over speed. Slow down.

Your listeners? They will just have to deal with it. And I will tell you why.

The Pay-Off

If you speak slowly, going for accuracy in pronunciation, and you consistently make a point to speak this way, your pronunciation will improve, as will your grammar, and your quality of word selection. And the best part: without even realizing where or when the improvements happened, you will gradually find you can speak faster, almost without effort.

Scratch the 'almost'. You will effortlessly speak faster and with better accuracy at your new speed. But, in fact, the effort was spent - it was spent during those times when you slowed down. Now you are reaping the benefits.

And consider the flip-side. If you choose to try to maintain a normal speaking pace (that, for a learner, would appear 'fast'), your errors will not right themselves. Some may say you are forming bad habits that will stick. This may or may not be. What they may be observing is not so much your so-called entrenched bad habits (the linguists call this 'fossilization') as much as simple failure to improve.

The real entrenched habit is not the flub in pronunciation or grammar that you consistently make, but the inappropriate speed of speaking for a learner where you don't afford yourself the space to correct it.

Errors are a natural part of learning a foreign language. But we have to take measures to right the errors and practice the skills in the correct fashion if we are going to overcome them. This means slowing down when we are 'performing' our foreign language in real life.

The Enemy Within

I mentioned some of the reasons that we would like to speak at a faster pace, and they mainly dealt with the comparison with native speakers. But there is another, more dominant, comparison that we are unconsciously making that is urging us to speak at a speed that is robbing us of the progress we should be making.

We are comparing ourselves unconsciously against our native language selves.

We have emotions, we have genuine desires to transmit our meanings, and our feelings, to our hearers. With our native language we have the ability (most of the time) to do that in real time. The emotions and desires to communicate are in step, in perfect sync with our delivery of the message.

So when we speak in our second language we naturally try to pull off this same little trick that we have the luxury of enjoying (and of taking for granted) in our first language. But it generally doesn't go the way we want - not yet.

So what's the solution?

Give it up. That's right, consciously give up the luxury of speaking at a 'normal' speed in your second language. For the sake of eventual mastery.

Because if we don't slow down and get it right (or closer to right), then that improvement never comes.

Slow down.

At least for now.

I promise, speed - crisp, accurate speed - is going to creep up on you and bite you when you most pleasingly least expect it. And once you get a taste of your advancing skills, your resistance to slowing it down for the sake of saying it right will altogether evaporate.

In the meantime, it wouldn't hurt to make some more patient friends.