English Learner Article Why does my teacher not speak more slowly?

Summary: Reasons why teachers sometimes speak at a speed at which students can’t understand everything that they say – both good ones and bad ones – with possible student reactions.

By: |Audience: All|Category: Learning English

It is very difficult to say why your teacher speaks at the speed that they. Many new find it difficult to slow their speech down to the right speed for their students, but many teachers who could speak slowly have decided that it is best not to speak so slowly that students would be able to understand every word. Below are some reasons why some teachers decide to speed their speech up a little and some reasons not so good reasons why others teachers do the same thing.

Good reasons for a teacher to speak English a little quickly in class

Natural rhythm

It is very hard to speak slowly with natural English rhythm. If your teacher slows down his or her speech too much, you will not pick up the way that native speakers give prominence to the important words in the sentence and squash up the less important words. 

Picking out important words

Related to getting used to natural English rhythm is the skill of concentrating on the important words in the sentence, usually meaning stressed “content” words like verbs and nouns. Just by concentrating on these important words, you should be able to understand at least 60 or 70% of what is being said.

Keeping up

Another problem students have with listening comprehension is not listening to what is being said now because they are too busy thinking about what was said before. As you practice listening to your teacher speaking quickly, you will gradually learn to concentrate on what is being said, forgetting about less important things that you just heard or using things that people say later to help you understand what was said earlier.

Coping skills

The three points above are examples of learning how to cope with the speed and pronunciation changes of English at a faster and more natural speed. These are skills that you will need if you want to take an English language exam, speak to native speakers, attend conferences, study in an English speaking country, etc. Especially if you have one of those needs, your teacher might have decided to take a “sink or swim” approach to comprehension in class, where most students will struggle at the beginning but should quickly learn to at least cope. 

Mixed levels

If a teacher speaks English too slowly, the students in the class with better listening comprehension skills will get no useful practice at all. If the teacher speaks a little faster, all the students will be able to learn something while listening, even if some of the students are understanding less than others.

Classroom language/ Checking understanding

If your teacher suddenly starts speaking faster than usual, don’t be too shy to say “Can you repeat that please?” or “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch the last part”. In fact, these incredibly useful real life English phrases might be exactly the language that your teacher wants you to practice.

Saving time

It is more efficient to speak twice as fast and explain yourself again almost every time than it is to speak at half the speed all the time so that you never have to explain yourself again. 

Possibly good reasons for a teacher to speak English quickly in class

Speed isn’t the problem

It could be that your teacher isn’t actually speaking that quickly at all. Instead it could be that you are having other problems such as the level of vocabulary used or not being used to the teacher’s accent, and your brain is telling you that the teacher is speaking quickly. If so, no need to worry about your brain, as this is a very common misconception! Those other problems might also be good reasons for your teacher to slow down enough that you can understand at least 60 or 70 percent, but it might be better for them to reduce their accent or simplify their language instead. If you want to speak to your teacher or another member of staff about your problems understanding in class, make sure that it really is a problem with speed before saying so. If you are not 100% sure that is the problem, tell them more generally that you can’t follow what is being said in class. If it is a problem with idiomatic vocabulary or accent, there are also things you can do outside class such as learning idioms and listening to radio from the country that your teacher comes from.

To show you that you have problems with your listening

Especially for students with real life needs such as understanding lectures in the UK next year, the teacher may very occasionally decide to frighten students into improving their listening outside class by showing them what listening to English at natural speed is really like. However, that situation is fairly rare and the teacher should switch to a more useful speed for learning in class once the point has been made. 

Bad reasons for a teacher to speak English quickly in class

Showing off

Some non-native speaker teachers of English who have worked very hard at improving their English fluency don’t like to then have to speak slowly and carefully in class. They may also perhaps want to prove to their students how good their English has become. These are never good reasons for speaking fast in class, and if you have such a teacher you shouldn’t be shy about asking them to slow down and repeat until you can at least understand the general idea of what is being said. 

Misunderstanding your level

Some teachers speak too quickly because they have the idea that you should be able to understand much more than you do, perhaps because your general level is better than your listening skills or because the whole class has been given a name (e.g. Upper Intermediate) that doesn’t match most students’ real abilities. The teacher should realise over the first few weeks that your listening comprehension is not as good as they thought, but telling them that listening comprehension is your weakness could help. 

Not being able to slow down

Learning to speak at exactly the right level for a particular class of students is something that takes years of practice for non-native speaker and (especially) native speaker teachers of English. There are ways of practising this, and if you think speaking speed is the main weakness of your teacher, giving some feedback about this to the school manager can help them concentrate on this aspect of their teaching (making sure that you don’t mix up comments on speed with other negative feedback so that this point stands out clearly). There is no substitute for many years of teaching experience, though, so try to find out how many years the teachers in a school have been teaching before you choose where to study. 

Naturally quick speakers

People who speak faster in their own language or outside the classroom usually find it more difficult to speak slowly when they are teaching, but if you make it clear to the school or owner that this is the one particular problem you have with your class the teacher should be able concentrate on that aspect of their teaching and eventually overcome their problem. 

Adrenalin/ nerves

As in normal life, one thing some teachers do when they are nervous is speak more quickly. Unfortunately, telling a new teacher or anyone else who is nervous that they are speaking too quickly is likely to make them more nervous and so maybe make the problem worse. Usually the best thing to do is to give your teacher a few weeks to become more comfortable in the classroom and with you and the other students before saying anything. Again, paying a little extra to go to a school where all the teachers have many years of teaching experience will make it easier to avoid this problem.

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Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com