Pace Yourself!

About American English pace, speed, and rhythm

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I haven’t written an article in a while. I was in Italy for a couple of weeks and the trip messed with my “pace”.  Slowed down my world in a warm and lovely way. Arrivederci-for-a-while to my usual fast-as-a-New-York-minute productivity.

Meglio tardi che mai. Better late than never. This is where espresso/caffeine has its purpose.

Speaking of pace: People say Americans speak slowly. Others say they speak quickly.

“Did you eat” can sound like “J’eet?”
“What are you doing tonight?” => “Whutchuh’doin’t’nite?”
“I can bring it to his attention” => “I’k’nbring’it t’isattention”.

American Accent stress and speed

In American English, we speed through connecting words (prepositions, articles, etc.) and find speech shortcuts to get through unstressed syllables.

So the word “to” in a phrase like “to the store” never sounds like “tooo” (unless it’s followed by a vowel). It should sound like “tih” or just a quick little “t”-sound. “I’m going t’the store”.

Same with “for”. It should sound like “fur” or even just “f’r”.  “This is f’r my mother”. (Note: at a slower speaking rate, the degree of shortening reduces slightly.)

When a speaker has very good pronunciation but fully pronounces unstressed words and syllables, it immediately reveals “an accent”.

Also, we rarely use long vowels in unstressed syllables of words. For example, in the word “banana”, the only ‘A’ that is getting its full length (/ae/)  is the middle one.  The first and third A are both shortened to the mumbled “schwa” (/ə/) sound.  /bənaenə/ is the phonetic spelling.

Take the vowel “ee” (/i/). In words like “teamwork”, “pizza”, and “appeasement”, “ee” is found only in the syllable getting the primary or secondary stress. Here are more examples of long vowels in stressed positions:

/o/: “sofa”, “aroma”, “October”
/ei/: “flavor”, “potato”, “advantageous”

Here is a sentence you can practice: “It’s a lot of work for him, and he needs to see once and for all what others can do to help him.” When spoken with a proper American accent, it sounds more like: “itsuhlottaworkf’r’im, n’heneedst’see oncen’f’rallwhatothersk’ndot’help’im” OMG. LISTEN HERE:

Practicing DOING this can also help you UNDERSTAND English better.

English is sometimes described as a “stress-timed” language, which means that the rhythm is based around the stressed words. The length of time between stresses is more or less equal. Other languages that are considered stress-timed include German, Russian, and Swedish.

So, in English the amount of time it takes to say “The cat chased the mouse” can take about the same amount of time as it does to say as “The hungry cat chased the mouse“.

Many other languages (including Italian, French, and Spanish) are said to be “syllable-timed” which means that the lengths of the syllables are equal. “The hungry cat chased the mouse” would take more time to say than “The cat chased the mouse”.


accent reduction english speaking rate and paceA client recently asked: “Would you consider American English to be a fast or slow language?”

Answer: Hard to say. Compared to what? Can we compare the speed of one language to another? Studies are inconclusive*.

How can we measure speed, anyway? Do we count…

…the number of words per minute? No, because some languages have more syllables per word than others.  Take the German “Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften” (meaning ‘insurance companies providing legal protection). One of many long words in that language!
…the number of syllables per minute? Not really, because some languages have more words with syllable structures that are difficult to physically sequence (and require more time to pronounce) that do other languages (take the English word “strengths” as an example…you need strength just to say it! ).
…the number of sounds of per minute? This is going to give us the most accurate measurement. However studies show that there may not be much difference in speed between languages when comparing sounds per minute, even when accounting for pauses.

We also must take into account social factors such as level of formality, emotional state, and urgency of message that will affect the pacing of any language.

A final tip on speech practice: In general, when you’re working on improving your American English (or any!) accent, it’s best to speak a bit more slowly, so you can self-monitor. And if you can start shortening the connecting words, it will make you actually sound more fluent, even if your overall pace is slower.

A final tip on lifeDolce far niente. The sweetness of doing nothing. After all this discussion about pace and rhythm, it’s time to slow down and take a break. Go enjoy some ciccetti and spritz! Ciao!
american english speed








Me in dog-friendly Florence

*Want to learn more about research studies on speeds of languages? Read this very interesting article by Peter Roach, from the book “Language Myths”