Social Skills Series #17: Rate of Speech (or “Speaking Whale”)

The last aspect of paralanguage that I want to mention is rate of speech. We all know people who talk too fast. Does your kid fall into that category? What about the adults in the family? If you are a fast talker as an adult, you will find that people are often asking you to repeat yourself, since mumbling, tripping, and lack of clarity are natural consequences of too-rapid speech. Many motor-mouthed kids and adults can benefit from learning how to slow down their speech and take back their clarity of message.

Reminding yourself to slow down will not work, and nor will reminding your child. “Slow down!” you might say, and they will – for about five seconds. It is much more effective, as I learned from Jay Miller’s video on cures for fast speech, “to reinforce competing skills that naturally counteract your ability to talk fast.” Enunciating, relaxing your jaw, and opening your mouth more are all tips that I have given my voice students over the years to make their singing voices clearer and more powerful, and they work equally well for speaking. If you learn to enjoy the production of sound, elongating your vowels and speaking more deliberately, the rate of speech will slow down as a natural consequence.

Have you seen Finding Nemo? In one memorable scene, a whale appears in the distance, and Dory attempts to communicate with it by “speaking whale.” (You can watch the scene here.) Dory comically exaggerates her vowels and varies her pitch so that her words sound similar to whalesong. I used to “speak whale” with my voice students often as a way of encouraging them to project their voices. Slackening your jaw to elongate your vowels makes your speech more resonant, even if comically imitating a whale doesn’t exactly make your message any clearer. It also slows you down. If you or your child have the bad habit of too-rapid speech, try speaking whale with each other. It’s a lot of fun and has lots of potential benefits for your speech. You could have “whale days” at home when you speak whale to each other all day long! Just don’t forget to take deep breaths to support those looooooong syllables!

Reinforcing the competing skills of vowel resonance, jaw relaxation, and enunciation (even over-enunciation in Dory’s case) will all result in a slower rate of speech, which prevents a lot of problems in the long run. Fast-talkers are hard to communicate with. They project anxiety and lack of confidence, and talking to them can be exhausting. The ability to speak slowly, clearly, and with confidence is the end result of all of the paralinguistic skills we have discussed over the last few weeks.

Now, here’s some food for thought: is there anything else that your child does too fast? Maybe they play the piano too fast when they’re practicing. Maybe they rush through their schoolwork and make mistakes. Maybe they eat too fast and miss out on enjoying their food. Are there any “competing skills” that you could help them to reinforce when they are playing piano, doing schoolwork, or eating? Could they be encouraged to listen more carefully to the notes they are playing, to check and recheck their work, or to chew thoroughly and notice the taste and texture of each bite? These are just a few things that might be worth a little experimentation. Perhaps developing skills in order to slow ourselves down is a principle that can be applied in a variety of situations.

I hope you have enjoyed this miniseries on paralanguage. The subtle, non-verbal aspects of our speech are just as important as the words we use. If I were in a philosophical frame of mind, I might liken the spoken word to lyrics, and paralanguage to music. Like music, it contains elements of pitch, tone, and rhythm, and like music, it takes thoughtful practice to get really good at it.

RECOMMENDED: Jay Miller: 3 Cures for Fast Speech

Vanessa Farkas is a writer, musician, educator, and lifetime learner who worked at the Phoenix Education Foundation as a music teacher from 2010-2018 and has left to retrain and pursue a new career as a legal assistant. Her eight years at Phoenix have left her enriched with experiences and stories, and this series blends those stories and experiences with practical advice and perspectives on helping children develop social skills.