Slow Down Tools

Ben Slavic once wrote that “the single most-important skill in language teaching is going slowly,” and he’s right: audiologist Ray Hull responded to my inquiry about ideal language speeds with “[f]or an adolescent, spoken speech at around 135 words per minute is perfect for speech understanding, particularly when the student is learning a new language. So, 130 WPM may be even better. It will seem very slow to you, but the central auditory system of the student will appreciate it.” We should note that adult speech is about 170-180 wpm, so…no slow = no go for kids.

Linguist Bill VanPatten also added that clear “spaces” between words are useful, as the learner’s phonological and other systems need clarity.

People speaking too quickly is always a problem for language learners in any context. Luckily, for input outside class, we now have some options.

YouTube has two useful features, both accessed through the gear icon. First, it can generate subtitles. Second, you can slow down the playback speed without changing the pitch. This is a feature I regularly use for learning tunes (because you can hear individual notes without the pitch dropping) and it works wonderfully for watching L2 video. Before COVID, when I occasionally used Spanish YouTube videos, I turned on subtitles and slowed to 80% speed and the kids were happy with that.

(Side note: as an English, Philosophy & Social Justice teacher, I have learned to always put on English subtitles in English-language films. All kids find adult speech too fast, and half of my kids in any class are ELLs who can process writing more easily than fast English speech)

If you watch Netflix through a Chrome browser, you can add the free Language Learning With Netflix extension. This has a whack of cool features. I have two faves:
a. two-language subtitles. I watch & listen in Spanish, read Spanish subtitles, and can read English subtitles when I don’t get the Spanish.
b. slowed playback. You watch the show at 70-90% of original speed (pitch stays the same) so the sound gets much clearer.

I find Spanish Spanish basically incomprehensible– it’s fast, it has slang that Mexicans don’t use, it uses vosotros— so I tried the slow-downer. And guess what? It wasn’t 90% speed or even 80% speed that worked. It was, yup, 70% of standard speed! That is where I could hear most of the words clearly.

Anyway, two good tricks.

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