Some languages are spoken faster than others

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Are Some Languages Faster than Others?

I’m thrilled to announce that Paul Martin will be Runaway Daydreamer’s first ever Guest Editor.
Paul is an English teacher currently living in Buenos Aires and he will take over the blog for the current month.
He agreed to write a series of articles and in-depth features for us.  I shall leave you in his capable hands. Enjoy!

If you’re learning a foreign language, you’ve likely had this experience: you feel like you understand the language pretty well, but when a native speaker talks to you, their speech is so incredibly fast that you don’t have the faintest clue what they’ve said. Indeed, it can seem amazing that native speakers can understand each other given the rip-roaring pace at which they speak! But just how fast are languages actually spoken? Are some languages really spoken more quickly than others? Read on to find out — the answer may surprise you!

Are Some Languages Faster than Others?

This conversation could be very fast or very slow, depending on what language they are speaking! Image via Clairity / flickr

The Research

To investigate the speed at which languages are spoken, researchers at the Université de Lyon had speakers of seven different languages — English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese — read several different identical texts, which were translated into each language. The researchers then counted the number of syllables in each recording, and divided that by the overall time in seconds to find the speed at which each language was spoken, in syllables per second. 

The researchers also calculated what they call grammatical density, which refers to how much information is packed into a single syllable. For instance, the word “bliss” — which refers to a very specific, intense type of happiness — has high grammatical density, as it conveys lots of linguistic information. In contrast, a less semantically rich word like “of”, which does not convey very much information, has low grammatical density.

The Findings

Here’s what the researchers found: indeed, some languages are faster than others! English and Mandarin were spoken most slowly, at a turtle-placed 6.19 and 5.18 syllables per second, respectively. Spanish and Japanese were the speed demons of the group, spoken at the breakneck pace of 7.82 and 7.84 syllables per second. 

They also found that there was a significant correlation between the speed at which a language was spoken and its grammatical density. That is, languages that had high grammatical density — who packed a lot of information into one syllable — were spoken slowly, whereas languages that had low grammatical density — that didn’t pack very much information into one syllable — were spoken more quickly. 

Therefore, even though the speed of languages differs, the amount of information conveyed in a given timeframe by each language remains constant: languages with low grammatical density, such as Spanish, simply have to produce more syllables per second in order to convey the same amount of information in the same amount of time. Therefore, speakers of Chinese take their time, whereas speakers of Japanese have to rush their words, but they end up conveying the same amount of information in a sentence.

Implications for Language Learning

What does this mean for language-learners? Are learners of Spanish and Japanese doomed to feeling overwhelmed and confused whenever native speakers talk to them? No! In fact, Spanish routinely finds itself at the top of the list of the easiest foreign languages to learn for English speakers. Indeed, the difficulty in learning a foreign language depends a lot more on how similar that language is to your own than to how quickly it is spoken. 

For instance, German is one of the easiest languages to learn for English speakers, as the two languages have almost 60% of their vocabulary in common. In contrast, it is much harder for an English speaker to pick up on a language like Vietnamese, which has very little overlap with English in terms of grammatical structures and vocabulary. (But of course, you can learn any language with motivation and hard work!) 

Readers — Do you speak a fast or slow language? Can you hear the difference?
Try taking the same listening test in Chinese and Japanese to see if you notice that the Japanese speakers talk more quickly — comment below with your thoughts!

 

 

Paul Mains - English teacherPaul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. You can check out their free language level tests and other language-learning resources on their website. Feel free to visit their Facebook page or contact paul@languagetrainers.com with any questions.

 

Chiara Grandola

Hey there! I'm Chiara, also known as Claire on the language learning community. I'm deeply in love with any form of art, different cultures and... guess what?! Yes, languages!

  • Great article, as always, Paul. Shared on LATG!

    So where’s mine? 😉

    • Paul Mains

      Thanks as always, @disqus_ksoTk6HVFE:disqus!

  • MN

    I’m in my third level of Japanese, and indeed, I have noticed that Japanese speakers speak really fast. My Japanese professors generally have their speech slowed down by a third so learners can understand them more clearly, but when I’m in the presence of native Japanese speakers, I have trouble registering what they say because they speak so fast. I remember trying to have a conversation with a Japanese speaker once, but since they spoke so fast, I ended up just nodding along and pretending I knew what they were saying, but in reality was lost. Meanwhile, my family speaks Vietnamese, which I think is a slow language compared to Japanese and Spanish.

    • Paul Mains

      @disqus_QOcn9IWrA2:disqus , you’re right about Vietnamese! It’s spoken at only 5.22 syllables per second, which places it just a little faster than Mandarin.

  • Frank Boscoe

    When I watch an American TV clip dubbed into Italian, the speed is exactly the same. It only seems like the Italian version is faster!

    • Paul Mains

      Dubbing is also an interesting topic, because languages vary syntactically as well as in terms of speed. For instance, Spanish generally has longer sentences than English — so a 300-word English article translated into Spanish could be 350-400 words!

      As a result, dubbing often involves modifying dialogue to fit the original film as well as possible. This would be a fascinating topic to explore!

    • Thank you so much for your input, Frank. Its greatly appreciated 🙂

      I agree with you, Paul. Dubbing is a very interesting topic, indeed!

  • One reason my husband bought me an internet radio was so that I could listen to Italian radio stations to accustom my ear to ‘normal speed’ Italian -the more you listen, the more you understand! I guess it’s a problem with all foreign languages because the brain needs more time to process, but I have found Italian easier to learn than the other languages I’ve tried, perhaps because it’s not as fast as others? It would be interesting to see a table, giving the relative positions of all the different languages studied.

  • Thanks! Wow … Italian certainly seems faster than English, but I thought that was probably because I was not fluent . .. not perhaps a huge difference but even so, I feel quite proud of myself now. I am completely self-taught, using internet/CDs/Skype/books/games/music/anything which interests me. I have honestly never had one single classroom lesson.

    I never thought of myself as having a knack for languages, but I think one reason I’m doing well with italian is that I really, really like it, and I have good motivation for learning (I’m allergic to many foods and need to be able to talk with and comprehend waiters when we go there). And now I’ve made some lovely friends through Skype, who we’ve met in person, and it just snowballs, doesn’t it? I can now read books in Italian which are not meant for students. OK, I need a dictionary with me, but hey – that’s an achievement, isn’t it? I’m ridiculously thrilled about it. 🙂

    • Paul Mains

      Very impressive — you should be thrilled! I’ve noticed that some people have a knack for certain languages — for instance, my friend Melanie was never able to learn Spanish, but she lived in Italy for four months and is now completely fluent. Incredible. Obviously, motivation is a HUGE factor here — if you really want to learn it, it will come.

      Congrats on your progress! Keep it up!

      • Thank you! It’s very strange about your friend Melanie, especially as they tell me that Spanish and Italian have so much in common, but there you go. ‘They’ also tell me that the best musical instrument to learn is the one you like to listen to, or the one you feel drawn to, and learning languages must be the same. I was able to learn French to ‘O’ level standard (yes, I’m that old!) when I was at school, but never was able to speak it, and in my forties tried to learn German, which was a total non-starter. Italian .. well, that just seems to be a whole different ball game.

        • Complimenti per aver raggiunto un ottimo livello in italiano! You’re thrilled about it and so am I. Bravissima!!! 🙂

          Grazie per averci raccontato la tua esperienza personale.
          Se ti va di condividere la tua storia scrivendo un post per questo blog, fammelo sapere. Sono sicura che sarebbe molto utile per tutti coloro che stanno imparando l’italiano ma hanno delle difficoltà.

          Anch’io ho studiato il francese a scuola ma prima riuscivo solo a capirlo e provavo molto imbarazzo quando dovevo parlare . Ora invece, studiando da sola, sto imparando a comunicare anche con gli altri!

          “They also tell me that the best musical instrument to learn is the one you like to listen to, or the one you feel drawn to, and learning languages must be the same.”

          Sono completamente d’accordo! 🙂

          • Chiara, sei molto gentile! Grazie!

            Ho scritto un blog riguardo il mio viaggio imparando l’Italiano, qualche anno fa. Ci sono cose che – se scrivessi uno così oggi – io dovessi aggiungere, e forse lo farò. Se vuoi, può leggerlo qui: http://www.thedeppeffect.com/7524/learning-italian/

            E’ il tipo del articolo che intendevi? Se sì, sarò felice di scrivere un altro per te. Se non, non importa! Come vedi, non sono fluente e faccio ancora molti errori, però non si può impara senza sbagliare, non è così?

          • Prego, ho detto solo la verità! 🙂

            Ho letto il tuo articolo e mi è piaciuto moltissimo, io adoro le storie che raccontano un’esperienza personale.

            Hai proprio ragione! Infatti in Italia c’è il detto “sbagliando s’impara!”.
            Anche io faccio ancora errori quando scrivo in una lingua straniera che ho studiato ma è proprio così che si migliora 🙂

            Ora ti scrivo una email!

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