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Speech Patterns within Fast Speech

Mental representations of speech affect how fast or slow we say certain words, resulting in fast speech for certain words—but what determines the mental representation of a word in our brain?

Think of how often you use communication like speaking or listening in one day. Whether we like it or not, audible communication plays a significant role in our day. For students, this role may be even more significant than for an average person because of the classes, group discussions, and social activities that students are involved in. When communicating with others, our brains create comparisons and notice differences in speech that affect the way we speak or the way we listen to others’ speech. You may think your grandparents speak slowly, but are they speaking slower? Or are you speaking faster? Others may think that you speak too quickly, and they may have a hard time understanding you. Who or what decides what the right rate of speech is? Why would we speed up or slow down our speech?

There are many factors that affect our rate of speech. For example, if someone says the cow is blue, they will most likely say cow and blue in a comparatively longer time than the and is because we say the and is more often and subconsciously put stress on the content words that give meaning to the sentence.

BYU Photo by Gabriel Mayberry

Subconscious speech processes like that one can sometimes result in sound reduction. In many languages, sound reduction of words and phrases happens when speakers reduce the articulatory gestures, or movements of the tongue and jaw, in order to use less effort. As one example of the many reductions that are done in English and other languages, in a phrase like I went to the store, nearly all speakers of English in informal or casual situations reduce the word to from its canonical or “correct” way of pronunciation of an oo sound, IPA symbol [u], like in two, to a relaxed sound like in tuh [ə] with the second vowel sound in wanna. Through reductions, communication starts to become more complex and may lead to difficulties for speakers to understand each other, partially because word reductions can affect our rate of speech.

In his article “Cumulative Exposure to Fast Speech Conditions Duration of Content Words in English,” Dr. Earl K. Brown investigated rate of speech and what may cause speech to become faster.1 He specifically wanted to know whether speakers who use a particular word in the company of other quickly spoken words tend to speak the word quickly in the company of other words spoken more slowly.


For Dr. Brown’s research, he used a corpus of recorded conversations with participants from Ohio. They were asked everyday questions about school, sports, politics, etc. to invite natural conversation that helped him identify normal speech patterns and their normal rate of speech. Looking at the data from these conversations, Dr. Brown calculated the rate of speech (the number of sounds per second) for three pieces of data

  1. Target Word Rate: He measured the rate of speech of individual words that he called target words. 
  1. Contextual Speech Rate: He measured the rate of speech of the other words that immediately followed each target word, which he called the contextual speech rate. 
  1. Speaker’s Average Speech Rate: He also calculated the speaker’s average speech rate for everything the speaker said in the corpus. 

Using those variables, he compared the target word rates and the contextual speech rates with the speaker’s average speech rate, classifying each target word as faster or slower than the average rate. Controlling for other variables—including target word frequency—Dr. Brown then conducted a mixed-effect linear regression model to examine whether target words followed more frequently by faster words tended to be spoken faster in the corpus.

Dr. Brown found that the contextual speech rate had a small significant effect on the target word rate. In other words, if a target word was frequently followed by quickly spoken words, the target word tended to be spoken more quickly as well in other contexts. In addition, he found that the more frequent the target word appeared in the corpus, the more quickly it was spoken.


There are many variables that can change speech rate over time, but Dr. Brown’s research helps us understand two reasons why the rate of speech for certain words may become faster: (1) a speaker says a word and then frequently follows it up with other quickly spoken words and (2) a speaker uses a word frequently in all his or her speech.

These results have important implications for English language learners. Returning to our initial example of the cow is blue, if an English language learner understands the process of making the function words shorter in duration, they can better understand why native speakers say those words very quickly, and why native speakers say the content words at a slower pace. Similarly, as English language learners understand that contextual word rates and word frequencies can also affect speech rates, they can understand why some native speakers tend to say other words faster or slower.

BYU Professor Dr. Earl Brown

Dr. Brown’s results also have implications for everyday communication with others. As we recognize that multiple factors affect our rate of speech, we can be more patient and understanding when others speak faster or slower than we do. For example, the next time you hear your grandparents speak slowly, recognize that it may be you that is speaking fast and may need to slow down.

Through more research and consistent awareness, communication can be improved and allow us to continue to make connections with those around us.

Read the Original Article:

1Brown, Earl Kjar. 2023. Cumulative exposure to fast speech conditions duration of content words in English. Language Variation and Change. 35(2). 153–173.