The speed of languages

Think of when you’ve listened to someone speak Spanish or Japanese. Does it seem the words flow out very quickly, faster than other languages? Academics would agree with you. For the last decade, linguists have speculated that different languages are spoken at significantly different rates. The challenge has been how to measure the respective speeds.

Recently, linguist François Pel­legrino along with his team at the Univer­sity of Lyon in France tried to break down the rate differences between seven languages: British English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish. They compared two different components of language: speech speed and density of information. Speech speed is measured by syllables per second, and density of information is measured by how much information is encoded per syllable. What does that mean? Let’s take an example from English. The one-syllable word “calm” is information dense because it expresses a complex state with only one-syllable. However, “easy-going” uses four syllables to express an idea easily conveyed with fewer syllables. By averaging the information density across a language, the linguists determined the density of information per language.

How did the linguists conduct their experiment? First, they looked at how many syllables per second speakers articulated when reading 20 sample texts. They had 60 native speakers of the languages each read the 20 texts in order to gather an accurate average speed for the language overall. Out of the seven languages, Spanish and Japanese turned out to be the fastest, Mandarin the slowest. However, the second variable – density of information – complicated their results. The languages that were spoken more quickly were less dense with information, and the languages that were spoken slowly were correspondingly denser. So, the information rate for all the languages turned out to be relatively similar across the seven languages.

Linguists have speculated that this average information rate correlates to an innate speed at which the human brain comprehends the world. That, of course, is only speculation. There is no concrete evidence to support that yet.

Do you tend to talk quickly or slowly? Do you wish the language you speak would slow down or hurry up?

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