What is an effective speaking rate?
It might seem like the faster you are able to speak a second language, the clearer and “more native-sounding” your speech will be. Actually, this is not the case! Speech that is too fast will often be harder to understand than speech that is spoken at a more moderate rate.1, 2, 3 This is particularly true when one’s speech is difficult to understand at a moderate rate; just speeding up the rate of speech will not necessarily solve the problem.1 On the contrary, it may make one’s speech even harder to understand.2
On the other hand, speaking too slowly may also have a negative impact on your intelligibility. If you think your speaking rate might be affecting your intelligibility, we recommend that you speak just slightly slower than the average English speaker (about 150 words per minute). That means that you might want to aim for about 140 words per minute.4 That sounds like this:
Approximately 143 Words Per Minute:
Actually that reminder of my daughter brings me to the beginning of my story. 1996, when I gave my first TEDTalk, Rebecca was five years old and she was sitting right there in the front row. I had just written a book that celebrated our life on the internet and I was about to be on the cover of Wired magazine. In those heady days, we were experimenting with chat rooms and online virtual communities. We were exploring different aspects of ourselves. And then we unplugged. I was excited. And, as a psychologist, what excited me most was the idea that we would use what we learned in the virtual world about ourselves, about our identity, to live better lives in the real world. Now fast-forward to 2012. I’m back here on the TED stage again. My daughter’s 20. She’s a college student. She sleeps with her cellphone, so do I.
Connected, but alone? | Sherry Turkle
What factors affect speaking rate?
Your speaking rate is likely to change based on the type of speaking and the context. For example, you should probably speak at a slightly slower rate when giving a presentation than when you are having a normal conversation. It’s also normal for nervousness to affect speaking rate, which is why rehearsing for public speaking events is crucial (come practice with us!).
In addition, individual speaking rates naturally vary. Some people speak at a faster or slower rate than others, and that is perfectly okay! The goal is only for your speaking rate not to affect your intelligibility. We provided more examples of different speaking rates below.
How can I figure out my average speaking rate?
The formula for calculating speaking rate is number of words divided by number of minutes (# words/# mins). Here are some suggested steps for figuring out your average speaking rate:
1. Choose a prompt that you think you can respond to in at least one minute. Tip: the “Practice Speaking and Self-Monitoring” exercises for our Just to Be Clear podcast contain several good examples of prompts to use!
2. If you have a smartphone or computer with a microphone, use an app with speech-to-text capability. You can also try free online tools like this one from IBM Watson. This will allow you to easily count the number of words you say in a minute.
2. Using your phone or other recording device, record yourself responding to the prompt from step 1 for one minute (you can think about your response for a few seconds first).
3. Then, count the number of words you said in that minute – that will be your average speaking rate in words/minute!
4. We recommend repeating this exercise several times, with different prompts, because your speaking rate may vary depending on the topic.
How can I practice modifying my speaking rate?
We highly recommend incorporating shadowing practice into your daily pronunciation and speaking practice. Shadowing is the action of imitating a speech sample as closely and as quickly as possible. With or without a transcript, you follow “just behind” a recording. It’s a good idea to pick a specific feature of intelligibility to focus on when shadowing, and speech rate is one option. Try it with the TED Talks above or below, and check out our other suggested resources for shadowing!
In addition, if you want to change your speaking rate, it’s a good idea to be mindful of your pausing. Short pauses between thoughts are normal and expected in spoken American English. However, pausing too often or for too long can make speech harder to understand.5 Our sections on Thought Groups will introduce you to focus words and pausing, and will give you helpful tips on how to pause appropriately to improve your intelligibility.
More examples of speech that is spoken at other, also intelligible rates:
Approximately 120 Words Per Minute:
In 1991, I went to my first lecture on brain SPECT imaging. SPECT is a nuclear medicine study that looks at blood flow and activity, it looks at how your brain works. SPECT was presented as a tool to help psychiatrists get more information to help their patients. In that one lecture, my two professional loves, medical imaging and psychiatry, came together, and quite honestly, revolutionized my life. Over the next 22 years, my colleagues and I would build the world’s largest database of brain scans related to behavior on patients from 93 countries.
The most important lesson from 83,000 brain scans | Daniel Amen | TEDxOrangeCoast
Approximately 165 Words Per Minute:
I’m a storyteller, and I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call the danger of the single story. I grew up on a university campus, in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books. I was also an early writer, and when I began to write at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading. All my characters were white and blue-eyed; they played in the snow; they ate apples; and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria, I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow; we ate mangoes; and we never talked about the weather because there was no need to.
The danger of a single story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
What do you do now?
First, visit our section on Thought Groups to learn more about how pausing affects your intelligibility. We also recommend practicing your rhythm and connected speech, both of which will help you improve your fluency and intelligibility overall.
Second, as we noted above, we highly recommend incorporating shadowing into your daily pronunciation and speaking practice. Shadowing is the action of imitating a speech sample as closely and as quickly as possible. With or without a transcript, you follow “just behind” a recording. It’s a good idea to pick a specific feature of intelligibility to focus on when shadowing, and speech rate is one option. Check out our list of recommended TED Talks for shadowing on our Helpful Links & Resources page.
Third, make an appointment with a Speech Consultant to discuss your speaking rate and get personalized recommendations that fit your intelligibility goals.
1Anderson‐Hsieh, J., & Koehler, K. (1988). The effect of foreign accent and speaking rate on native speaker comprehension. Language learning, 38(4), 561-613.
2Munro, M. J., & Derwing, T. M. (2001). Modelling perceptions of the comprehensibility and accentedness of L2 speech: The role of speaking rate. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 23(4), 451-468.
3Llurda, E. (2000). Effects of intelligibility and speaking rate on judgements of non-native speakers’ personalities. IRAL-International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 38(3-4), 289-300.
4The National Center for Voice and Speech. (n.d.). Voice Qualities. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from http://www.ncvs.org/ncvs/tutorials/voiceprod/tutorial/quality.html
5Kang, O. (2010). Relative salience of suprasegmental features on judgments of L2 comprehensibility and accentedness. System, 38(2), 301-315.