There’s no question that some languages sound faster than others.
Many languages around the world seem that same way to non-speakers of them. To the causal listener Japanese, Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese (for example) all sound like they are spoken at a far faster pace than English, French or Mandarin.
The questions is, are some languages actually spoken faster than others, or do they just sound that way to those who don’t understand them?
The science bit
The question is such an interesting one that a team of researchers at the Université de Lyon in France decided to put it to the test. They used 59 native speakers of eight languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish and Vietnamese. The volunteers read out 20 set texts each, ready for the research team to analyse the findings.
Using a combination of ratings for information density (based on how much information each syllable conveys) and the average number of syllables per second, the team was able to grade each language in terms of its relative speed.
The result was fascinating. Essentially, those languages where each syllable conveyed more meaning sounded slower, as less syllables per second were required to get the information across. So even though each text took the same amount of time to read, languages such as Spanish and Japanese needed to cram more syllables into each sentence to convey the same meaning as their slower counterparts, such as English and Mandarin.
The Université de Lyon’s team summed up their findings as follows:
“A trade-off is operating between a syllable-based average information density and the rate of transmission of syllables… A dense language will make use of fewer speech chunks than a sparser language for a given amount of semantic information.”
What does it all mean?
Essentially the findings of the study mean that some languages really do sound faster than others.
Though a Spanish speaker and a Mandarin speaker might both take five minutes to read the same document, the Spanish speaker will have pronounced a great many more syllables while doing so, thus creating far more sound during the five minutes than the Chinese speaker while delivering the same amount of information.
What are the implications for translators?
For the modern professional translator, the study has provided an interesting insight into understanding the flow of the world’s 6,800 plus languages. While translating written texts is a unique skill in its own right, so too is translating documents from audio or video files. In these cases, being able to follow a language at its natural pace – whether super-slow or furiously fast – is essential.
So, are all languages essentially the same?
Linguist Noam Chomsky theorised in the 1950s that all languages share a common set of abstract structures, despite their notable differences. His hypothesis divided the linguistic community, with many supporting his way of thinking and just as many dismissing it.
However, the recent French study does seem to support Chomsky’s theory, as the delivery of information at the same rate, despite the languages’ differences, does support Chomsky’s hypothesis of universal grammar, whereby communication flows from speak to listener at a steady pace, regardless of the language being used.
One thought is that this could be due to the speed at which the human brain is geared to deliver and receive information, regardless of the language in which that information is delivered. Perhaps the French research team will be inspired to turn their attention to studying this aspect of linguistics next.
So, next time you hear a language being spoken at what sounds like the speed of light, just reflect on how much work the speaker has to go to in order to include all those extra syllables to convey the same amount of information.
Which languages have you noticed are spoken particularly fast or slowly? Use the comments box to let us know.