When I was 13, a boy at summer camp tapped me on the shoulder and suggested I become a female rapper, like Lil' Kim. He'd been listening to my conversation and couldn't figure out how my mouth formed words so quickly. Did I get a headache from listening to myself? How could I possibly think as fast as I spoke?
This curious eavesdropper was hardly the first person to marvel at my supersonic style of speaking. If I'd listened to the procession of strangers who've offered me career advice over the years, I might indeed be begging Bad Boy records to sign me. Or maybe I'd be in auction school, practicing my cattle rattle. Because that's what people say to you when you're a fast-talker, and I'm the fastest talker I know.
Even as a baby, I babbled at a snappy clip, according to my parents, neither of whom shares my tendency to talk in double-time. In fact, I'm the only fast-talker in my extended family, so it doesn't seem like an inherited trait. I've come up with explanations for my dizzying cadence, but I don't actually know why I talk fast. Apparently, scientists don't either.
Researchers only recently began exploring the basis of what's sometimes called exceptionally rapid speech (or ERS, for short). According to experts, I could be vocally talented. Or I might have a well-managed speech disorder.
ERS is not in itself a disorder. But there is a speech disorder, called cluttering, that includes fast-talking. In addition to speaking quickly, clutterers crowd their sentences with fillers (e.g., um, like), insert pauses where they don't belong and use abnormal intonation. Both ERS and cluttering can be hard to follow, but not for the same reason. A slowed-down recording of ERS would basically sound like ordinary speech, whereas de-accelerated cluttering would still contain a multitude of what experts call "disfluencies."
Klaas Bakker, a communication science and disorders researcher at Missouri State University, said that he and colleagues took an interest in ERS a few years ago when they noticed that some people referred to them for cluttering were actually just exceedingly fast talkers. Bakker's team coined ERS to replace the technical term for rapid speech, tachylalia, which they felt sounded too much like a disorder. After all, it wasn't clear to them if ERS and cluttering fell on the same speech disorder spectrum or if they were entirely unrelated behaviors. In other words, are fast-talkers just reformed clutterers who deserve a gold star for tidying up their sentences?
In a study, published in 2011, Bakker and colleagues compared the rate and clarity of speech in three groups of people: fast-talkers, clutterers and control group members who spoke normally. All study participants had to read the "rainbow passage" and a phonetically balanced string of nonsense words, as well as recite their nursery rhyme of choice, first at a comfortable pace and then a second time as quickly as their lips could move.
While reading at a natural pace, fast-talkers and clutterers both spoke faster than control group members. But when participants made a concerted effort to speed up, everyone spoke at about the same rate. Fast-talkers appeared to have some advantage over other participants during the speed-reading task, but the differences were slight. To the researchers, the results suggested that there's a non-physiological basis for speech-rate differences. While fast-talkers naturally read aloud at a faster pace, researchers surmised that most people top out at about the same speed.
The study, though preliminary, helps deflate one theory of fast-talking, that fast-talkers are physically superior specimens. So while Michael Phelps' body was engineered to break records, mine probably isn't. But my brain might be.
As a little kid, I clung to the idea that I spoke quickly because I thought quickly. I floated this cocky and unsubstantiated thesis past Esther Janse, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. To my surprise, she went with it.
"I would also think that being a fast speaker may go together with other advanced language skills (such as fast reading and having a good verbal memory)," Janse said in an email.
So, I'm talented? It's hard to say. The demands-capacities model explains speech disorders as the result of external demands for fluent speech exceeding someone's capacity to produce that speech. According to Florence Myers, the go-to speech pathologist for ERS, fast-talkers emerge as exceptionally gifted speakers who can exceed normal fluency demands. But what about a fast-talker who, despite speaking clearly, prattles on quicker than listeners can digest the information?
Guilty. And I'd argue that any kind of incomprehensible speech is a social limitation, even if it is related to other heightened abilities.
At least one TV experiment, however, supports the talent theory. In the early 2000s, the Discovery Channel's Superhuman Showdown explored the medical basis of fast-talking in a segment about Fran Capo, the fastest-talking female according to the Guinness Book of World Records. While reading the Gettysburg Address, Capo donned an EEG (electroencephalogram) cap. Its readings showed off-the-charts activity in the Broca's area of her brain, a center for language processing.
"She has a very special talent," says Barry Sterman, the neuroscientist who read Capo's EEG, in the segment. "She's able to consolidate the effort of her nervous system, get all her chemical transmitters lined up so that just the part of her brain that is associated with articulated speech and remembering what she wants to say turns on. She's been able to use her Broca's area to a greater extent than is normal."
My parents have always found my breakneck banter exasperating, but the idea of visiting a speech pathologist apparently never occurred to them. As frustrating as it could be to remind me to slow down, they saw fast-talking as a trait to live with rather than something to fix. Maybe my parents were unknowingly onto something: One 2011 study suggested that listeners find fast-talkers more persuasive than people who waste time pausing between words.
To some extent, ERS does seem like behavior worth changing. I've worked on slowing down, with limited success, and know that when I don't modulate my speed, I'll need to repeat myself or give up on the notion that anyone can absorb what I'm saying. But I'm not sure I see a good reason to pathologize a distinctive quality just because it's atypical and occasionally irritating.
I don't know what people think of me when I first shake their hands, but once I open my mouth, I know exactly what's going through their minds: You talk really fast.
I sure do. It seems too late to become a rapper, but we can have a conversation, at your speed or mine. Let's chat.