The Admirable Fast Talker: Exploring Speech Rate and Language Complexity Across Nations

Fast talkers are smarter, wittier, and more persuasive, at least according to stereotypes in pop culture. Think newscasters, salespeople, and the rapid-fire banter on shows like The West Wing and Gilmore Girls. 

However, research shows that the speed at which people talk depends on a host of variables other than intelligence—what a person is saying, where they come from, and who they are addressing. Sometimes, taking it slow might be the smarter option.

How Do We Measure the Rate of Speech?

When linguists talk about speech rate, they are referring to the speed at which a person vocalizes anything longer than a simple sentence. Just as engineers can measure the momentum of a car in miles per hour, linguists can quantify how fast a person talks. They do so by splitting phrases into small segments, usually syllables or words, that can be counted within a specific time frame.

Although earlier research established an average rate of 150 to 190 words per minute for English speakers, new evidence suggests people are beginning to talk faster. In 2020, a more recent study indicated that British English speakers have increased their standard speed to 198 words per minute—17% faster than their previous rate.

Stereotypes about fast or slow talkers have some scientific basis: the velocity at which a person speaks has a measurable impact on how others perceive them.

Listeners find moderate-to-fast talkers “more competent and socially attractive” than their slower counterparts and demonstrate a preference for people who speak just as fast or faster than themselves.

Why Do We Talk at Different Speeds?

The reasons why speech rate varies across individuals, social groups, and languages are as numerous and diverse as people themselves. Nonetheless, linguists have identified several interesting trends that explain natural variations in speech rate. 

People use speech rate like they use manual gestures: slowing down or speeding up to emphasize the importance of a topic or to illustrate their descriptions. 

Take an example used by researchers. When Taylor Swift sings the lyrics, “When we’re on the phone, and you talk reeeeal slow, ’cause it’s late, and your mama don’t know,” in her 2006 hit single “Our Song,” she decreases her speech rate to create the imagery of her boyfriend’s syrupy Southern accent.

Linguists have identified a relationship between speech rate and speech planning. How fast a person talks depends on how complex a sentence they’re mentally structuring. For that reason, people unconsciously pronounce certain words slower, much like a driver slows down before a curve.

Across multiple languages, nouns usually represent that bend in the road. In syntax, nouns are words used to refer to people, places, things, and ideas. Because these are words used to introduce new information, people slow down their pronunciation.

Consider certain famous slips of the tongue. While campaigning for the presidency in 1988, George H. W. Bush made an embarrassing mistake by tripping over an important noun in his speech: “For seven and a half years, I’ve worked alongside President Reagan. We’ve had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex—uh—setbacks.” 

Speech rate changes depending on the context. Studies show that in conversations with strangers, individuals tend to slow down and speak in longer segments. The opposite is true with friends and family, possibly because their connection and shared knowledge allow a person to speak faster without fear of being misunderstood.

Similarly, factors like age and gender also affect speech. The elderly have a propensity to speak slower than young people, while men have a slight tendency to speak faster than women.

Who Speaks English the Fastest?

On average, English speakers in the United States talk at a rate of 5.09 syllables per second, according to a 2022 Preply study. However, the same researchers found that this standard differs substantially across all fifty states.

There’s some truth to the cliché of a slow Southern drawl. Louisiana leads the list of the slowest-speaking states at 4.78 syllables per second, closely followed by South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

Whether this will change with future generations remains to be seen. Linguists at the University of Georgia recently found that the classic Southern accent began dying with Gen X, almost disappearing among Gen Z speakers.

However, those who expected New Yorkers to take the first spot might be surprised. Although Big Apple natives might talk the most, the title of fastest talker belongs to Minnesota (5.34 syllables per second). Oregon, Iowa, Kansas, and North Dakota round out the five fastest-speaking states, while the home of the New York Minute does not even crack the top ten.

Outside of the United States, other English accents are much faster than American English. Adult New Zealanders speak at turbo-speed, averaging an impressive rate of 280 syllables per minute.

Second place goes to British English speakers, with 260 syllables per minute, while Americans follow closely behind at 250 syllables per minute. Despite their proximity to the Kiwis, Australians are the slowest native English speakers, at 230 syllables per minute.

Fastest Languages in the World

Linguists have determined that the fastest language in the world is Japanese, at a staggering rate of 7.84 syllables per second. 

The Romance languages are not far behind in the top five. Spanish competes for second place at 7.82 syllables per second, while French and Italian take third and fourth place, respectively. 

The world’s most spoken language, English, has a global average speed of 6.19 syllables per second.

A fast talker does not always say more with their words. English is the most informationally dense language, followed by Mandarin. By contrast, Japanese people need almost double the syllables to convey the same amount of information as an English speaker. 

Bilingualism also plays a role in how fast a person talks. Multiple studies prove that people speaking in their second language have a slower speech rate compared to when they discuss the same topic in their native language.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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