Tag Archives: technology

Technology is turning us into fast talkers

Oct. 31, 2011

From Strombo to Jon Stewart, let’s agree that some broadcast hosts can talk at the speed of lightning. They’re smart and satirical even if they do sometimes trip over their own brilliance.

Indeed, the media are full of fast talkers from talk shows to sitcoms and newscasts.

But it’s not just media types who motor along.

Texts, tweets, and technological gizmos are making communication ever faster and it’s causing many of us to speak more quickly in our everyday lives to keep up with it all.

Ray Hull is a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Wichita State University in Kansas and he has done considerable research in the area of human neuroscience and speech.

“A decade ago,” he says, “I measured the speed of speech of teachers, family members and those out in society at a rate of about 145 words per minute, the average rate of human speech.

“That is certainly not what we’re finding today. People are speaking at a rate of typically 160 to 180 wpm, as I have measured it.”

Too fast for our brains

Some of us, of course, like to speak trippingly on the tongue to show that we’re smart and funny. But fast talking is also a result of our overwhelmed brains trying to cram more into the same amount of time. For broadcasters – more news; parents – more activities; teachers – more information.

CBC TV and radio host George Stroumboulopoulos, a fast talker. 

Hull’s mission is to slow the world down, one person at a time. Teachers, broadcasters, doctors, lawyers, even parents, they all come to him to learn to speak more deliberately and with greater clarity.

Hull is particularly concerned with elementary school teachers. He recently conducted a workshop for teachers in a large school district in Kansas. And last July, he spoke to teachers, professors and administrators at a meeting held by the U.S. Department of Education.

He says that he’s measured elementary school teachers in the classroom speaking at 180 words per minute. At that rate, he says, “those children simply cannot comprehend what is being said. Their central nervous system is not designed to do that.”

Hull says the human brain is best able to comprehend speech at around 124 to 130 wpm; when we speak slowly, our brains have the time to fill in the gaps of speech with elongated vowels and consonants.

The 30s slowdown

Now, perhaps you already speak at the Mr. Rogers rate of 130 wpm. Fantastic. Or you may speak quickly and be perfectly understandable. Carry on, I say.

Mr. Rogers, a slow talker. 

But others (our foreign minister, for example) can end up clipping word endings, slurring words together or eliminating pauses. End result? Sometimes we understand only half of what’s being said.

So when teachers or parents think that kids don’t listen, it may be more that they don’t understand what’s being said.

It isn’t just the speed of words that’s the problem. A recent study showed that fast-speaking and fast-moving cartoons negatively affect children’s “executive function,” meaning their ability to stay on task without being distracted.

It found that four-year-olds who sat down and watched just nine minutes of SpongeBob SquarePants had lower concentration levels than other kids their age.

So while fast-speak may be fun, it’s also fraught.

Seniors also can have a hard time with people who speak quickly, especially on the phone. And who doesn’t get frustrated with phonemessagesthatruntogether?

Hull says that when we hit our mid-30s, our central nervous system slows and we’re less able to understand people who talk quickly. By around 73, we have the listening abilities of a three-year-old.

Slow down

Hull says we all need to advocate for slower speech.

That may be especially true for those of us who live amid a growing population of new immigrants. Heck, if native speakers can’t keep up, then people with a lesser grasp on English must get really muddled by the motor mouths.

Hull has worked with television newscasters who he has timed speaking at 200 wpm.

“People call in and complain that they cannot understand what that news broadcaster is saying and that’s why that news broadcaster is referred to me.”

You’d think, he says, “that people would begin to take the hint that they… need…to…slow… down.”

There are a few ways to do that. Communications experts suggest looking people in the eye to get feedback, and pause between phrases.

[Pause inserted here.]

You can also time yourself. Mark 130 words on a page and clock how fast you read it out loud. If you’re done in less than a minute, try slowing down and see what that feels like.

Then again, I clocked myself at 170 wpm, and I’m often told how clearly I speak. So it may depend on how well you enunciate your words.

Instead of sighing dramatically, throwing up your hands and saying “nobody understands me,” do your bit to help people understand you.


Listen here:

Are we trivializing the language of death?


May 19, 2011

I recently discovered that an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen for several years, had passed away. It came as a shock.

I didn’t know how to reach her family, so I did the only thing I could think of to connect: I looked her up on Facebook.

There I found pages and pages of condolences, most written about (let’s call her) Jane, the more traditional way. But some were written to her, as if she were still alive.

There were comments like: “OMG…RIP SOOOOO sorry to hear of your passing.” “Luv n thoughts r w u, i hope ur @ peace wherever u r.” “You are now somewhere safe and worry free!”

“R.I.P. YOU WILL BE MISSED SOOOOOO MUCH!!” And, “I’m sorry, Jane.”

Somehow I felt pressured to write her a little note as well. But it felt odd, uncomfortable even. And I wondered why.

I get that Facebook is a place to mourn — a digital gravesite, if you will.

But the difference is that what I would say graveside to my friend, or write in a letter to her parents or loved ones, is private. With Facebook, everyone’s condolence is there for all to read.

But what really bothers me is that these postings seem so mindless — that people don’t even have the courtesy to write a proper sentence to someone who has just died.

Digital deathspeak

Internet expert Jesse Hirsh suggests that the flippant comments could be some people’s way of addressing the absurdity of a death when that person’s profile is still active.

Today’s social media, he says, merely reflects a society that is increasingly secular and doesn’t yet have a protocol for dealing with death in a respectful manner.

Another element here is that digital technology has allowed us to adapt to a different model of communication, says Marco Adria, director of the Master of Arts in communications and technology program at the University of Alberta.

“We don’t write things to have them interpreted, we write for them to be broadcast. Like a radio broadcast, once it’s said, it’s gone.”

Now it’s making sense. Now I understand the posting: “I WAS SO PRIVILEGED TO HAVE KNOWN YOU.”

It’s a kind of Sarah Palin-style shout out — folksy and inappropriate at the same time.

But that’s okay, says Adria, “because conversations are complicated. Talking to the dead online can be easier than talking to people in real life, which can be messy and not turn out as you want.”

Dead people talking

Also, it’s becoming easier to write to the deceased, especially if they have a Facebook, Twitter or other online account. Their identity is still as it was — their interests, photos and postings, the causes they support — they’re all still online, even after they pass away.

“Technology works as a metaphor,” says Adria. “We refer to it as the net, as channels, as a transmitter. So just as we use it to chat with the dead, the dead can end up talking as well.”

And talk they do. There are dozens of famous dead people who don’t just have Twitter accounts, but communicate through social media as if they were still alive.

The stand-in for a witty Queen Victoria tweets: “Let me make this clear, I do NOT require 38 ministers to advise me on the happenings of the Dominion.” Dom Perignon (who always seems to be drinking) recently re-tweeted: “Prince Harry Gives ‘Brilliant’ Champagne Toast.”

 Britain's Queen Victoria (1819-1901). She really doesn't tweet, you realize. (Reuters)  Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

Edgar Allan Poe constantly offers words of wisdom and Charles Darwin, in his dull note-taking style, tweets a description of each leg of his trips.

But perhaps William Shakespeare sums it up best when he tweets: “All this is but a dream.”

The late Marshall McLuhan (who incidentally has a Twitter and Facebook account) would no doubt agree with this otherworldly communication.

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan argues that technology is an extension of the human body. And that when you use technology, you lose part of your body.

For instance, the telephone extends the voice but “amputates” the hand used to write correspondence. The computer extends so many parts of the body — brain, voice, hands — that we lose other natural abilities.

In effect, says Adria, we tweeters and tech users become disembodied — ghost-like.

So, perhaps, we’re just as ghostly as the ghosts we communicate with. We have become more used to sending online messages into the ether than having face-to-face conversations.

Still, while I’m all for the Facebook tribute page, when it comes to commemorating the deceased, I’d rather make sure my message actually gets to the people most affected by the loss here on Earth.

That means writing my message by hand and sending it to the family.

The Business of Language


August 6, 2007

It’s a languid summer afternoon and I’m tasked with fashioning a light radio piece on what not to wear to work. Two stylish men lolling outside a Bay Street office tower are my first victims.

One of them tells me that men wearing lycra bike shorts in the office, especially before morning coffee, is utterly unacceptable. He grimaces, chortles, then becomes serious.

He says what’s worn in the office has morphed over the past couple decades. It used to be that suits and ties were the norm, but the dot-com revolution changed all that by going ultra casual. Nowadays, jeans are paired with open dress shirts and blazers. 


“We’re expected to be everything to everyone,” he sighs. And that made me think: fashion is just one form of expression that’s adapted to a society pressuring us to be all that we can be, and more.  

Just like the attire we wear sends out different messages, the language we use in the world of business has also taken on multiple meanings.  In an age of globalization, business (wo)men are having to supersize: provide more to a demanding customer. 

Take emails, for example.

Marketing professor at Queen’s University, John Pliniussen, says we’re still expected to stick to a conventional letter format with proper syntax, capitalization, and salutations for professional communication. However, there’s also an expectation we know when to send a cool, flippy email to show our more social side.  

He tells me he’s just finished sending an email to an MBA student, half formal – answering career queries – half chatty, ending off with an emoticon. Pliniussen says that nowadays, clients and audiences are much more diversified, composed of different age groups, genders, and ethnic backgrounds.

To properly address those audiences, he says: “You have to understand more the power of colours, words, numbers and nuances.”  He adds that we’re expected to be able to flow into and out of different modes of communication on demand. 

That’s not a bad thing. This linguistic dance gives value to a wide range of communication skills and keeps us on our toes. 

The language of business also shows its multiplicity in the lingo related to technology. Lingo develops with every generation, evolving with what Pliniussen calls gecomacts (generational communication activities). 

Every new generation develops its own unique expressions that help brand it, based around activities. It’s just that now, there are so many ways to communicate with the written word.

Each innovation supplies its own language: the internet, blackberry, cell phone, and now Apple’s new iPhone, which will likely generate its own lingo. They’re all ways we can communicate with customers and colleagues, tailoring messages appropriately.


Another way in which business language refuses to be buttonholed into one fixed meaning is buzz words.

They’ve long been used to represent an industry’s philosophies and vision, but an advertising insider says that ever since ‘branding’ came on the scene in the mid-1990s, they’ve really taken off, some even jumping into the mainstream. In this sense, buzz words are used to convey a desired image, to sell people on an idea or product. 

“Buzz words are simply a new way to express an idea that is actually common sensical but gives the impression that you own it,” says the advertising insider.  

She says they’re more important than ever in an era where marketing has become such a science, where more and more people come equipped with marketing degrees to deal with savvy, scrupulous customers.

But the problem with buzz words is that they can have so many meanings, they can become meaningless: vague words that mask unformulated decisions and ideas.  

What do ‘synergistic’, ‘value-added’, ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘shifting the paradigm’ really mean? ‘Moving forward’? Where else would you want to move?Why say ‘ideate’ when you mean ‘think of ideas’? 

My personal favourite is an advertising industry expression: ‘strategic integration and executional synergy across all communications’. Translated: don’t waste money and make sure your message is consistent. So why don’t people just say that??

Buzz words are the epitome of trying to prove we’re all things to all people, a push to show we’re knowledgeable – even when we’re not.

Are today’s buzz words going too far in the quest to impress:  are we selling out our language? 

Adopting new ways to be creative reflects a changing society, but there’s still a need to retain meaning. The purpose of language, after all, is to make oneself better understood.

In the early days of my journalistic schooling, I was taught that a journalist’s job is to communicate in the clearest way possible. I frequently comb through media releases, looking for the ‘real’ words tucked behind buzz words and other meaningless expressions — words that communicate something substantial about the issue at hand.

Purposeful words are rare, therefore coveted. Communication that gives meaning to every word lays thoughts and emotions bare, with no words to scamper behind.

I advocate a real economy of language. It just makes good business sense.

Love’s Language Lost



July 12, 2007

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there used to be a language of love. I mean a tactile language you could plunge into and swim around in, caressed by the largesse of words. 

I used to anguish over the right words to put in a letter to the latest object of my desire. The letters and poems I received were (usually) thoughtfully written, replete with descriptions of where said object of desire was sitting, what he was doing, a reflection on his latest musings—and how I figured in them. 

One poem delivered to my doorstep wooed: “with a last kiss, a butterfly brushes lightly over her eyelashes.” 

But that’s all in the past. I’m finding the language of love is losing its power of seduction.

Messages used to be simple, but heartfelt: “I’m sitting in a café, drinking plum tea, and thinking of you.”

Nowadays, that message would read more like:  “sittin in TH drinkin coffee thinkin of u :-)”  TH, I am told, means Tim Horton’s, apparently today’s version of the café. The smiley face gets punctuation, not words, to express feelings.

Instead of arriving on a glossy card or crisp paper, the words flash across the screen of a computer, cell phone or blackberry. 


I can’t help thinking that all this technology is leading to a faster-paced language that focuses less on style and more on a basic exchange of information. 

Emails, text messages, websites like Facebook and online dating sites are modifying the language we use.  Words are often truncated.  

Laugh out loud becomes LOL; thinking of you is TOY; miss you so much becomes the peculiar-sounding MUSM.  Basic spelling and grammar rules seem to be shelved in the relentless pursuit to get the message out.  

I don’t see any excuse for writing “danceing” when your fingers can waltz a few inches over to the spell check function.  And what’s happened to our punctuation pals: the apostrophe and the comma?  

The apostrophe is often glaringly absent or misplaced; the comma sprinkled maniacally throughout a sentence. I’m noticing traditional greetings like dear, even hello, as well as from and love, are disappearing. 

What’s more, it seems language is becoming less creative and reflective in our effort to state our purpose and get on with things. 

A friend shared the following insightful descriptor on an online dating site:  “I love conversations about anything and everything and if I find our conversation stimulating then you can bet that I might want to listen to you more.” Well, that’s an enticement if ever I read one.

We say that language mirrors society.  So, as technology pushes us forward at break-neck speed, it’s creating a language that is fast, less thoughtful, and flouts basic principles. 

Is this language, in fact, reflecting a new kind of romantic relationship? 

Rosemary Sullivan says the longing for intimacy has not changed over the years, but the attitude towards language has. She’s an English professor at the University of Toronto and author of Labyrinth of Desire.  In an age where people say one thing and often mean another, she says: “there’s an anxiety where language is not to be trusted—it’s just rhetoric.” 

Sullivan adds that the language of love has been exhausted by the world of advertising we live in: sensuousness and seduction can now be found in everything from cars to cosmetics.

Maybe I just have to get hip and accept that the language of love—or at least the attitude towards it—is changing. 

I turned to the younger generation for enlightenment. Twenty-year-old Saira Khan is a 4th year public policy student. She sends and receives more than a dozen text messages per day and is constantly writing on Facebook. She likes getting brief, flirtatious messages from guys she likes, but rarely does she want more. 

“A letter from guy would be soft,” she says. “You don’t want that much of an effort because it’s like, why are you trying so hard?” Khan says if a guy were to spend too much writing her, she’d wonder if he had a life. 

She cringes at the thought of receiving a romantic poem.  “If a guy did that, that’s the number one turn off. I’ve never met a girl who wants that.” 


Okay, so I’m clearly a dusty remnant of the twentieth century. 

I learn that if a girl and a guy really dig each other, they go onto their Facebook sites and write on each other’s “walls”, or “poke” each other electronically. I don’t know. It seems that we’re going right back to the playground where all these romantic feelings first began to bloom.

Alas, perhaps love’s language is not all lost.

The way we use written language is changing, but body language is as important as ever. Love letters and poems convey a certain amount of intimacy, but intimacy also lies in the glance, the slight brushing of the arm, or stroking of hair—beyond what words could ever express.