Here’s a fascinating article about why some languages sound so fast to English native speakers – the results may surprise you. But it doesn’t change the fact that some languages seem to fly by compared with your native tongue. Being an English speaker learning Mandarin Chinese, I often find myself flummoxed when I’m trying to comprehend native Mandarin speakers: not because I don’t know the words, but I simply can’t keep up with the speed at which they’re coming at me. One of my most common phrases in Chinese is “màn diǎn, nǐ shuō de hěn kuài!” – “speak a little slower, you talk very fast!”

They took 20 short, very standard paragraphs of text and translated them into various languages, and gave them to native speakers to read. The native speakers were English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, and Vietnamese. After they had finished the recordings, they edited out any silence longer than 150 milliseconds. Then they counted the syllables in each recording, and also gave each syllable a ‘meaning value’ – how much meaning is packed into each syllable.

From the article:

With this raw data in hand, the investigators crunched the numbers together to arrive at two critical values for each language: The average information density for each of its syllables and the average number of syllables spoken per second in ordinary speech. Vietnamese was used as a reference language for the other seven, with its syllables (which are considered by linguists to be very information dense) given an arbitrary value of 1.

For all of the other languages, the researchers discovered, the more data-dense the average syllable is, the fewer of those syllables had to be spoken per second — and the slower the speech thus was. English, with a high information density of .91, is spoken at an average rate of 6.19 syllables per second. Mandarin, which topped the density list at .94, was the spoken slowpoke at 5.18 syllables per second. Spanish, with a low-density .63, rips along at a syllable-per-second velocity of 7.82. The true speed demon of the group, however, was Japanese, which edges past Spanish at 7.84, thanks to its low density of .49. Despite those differences, at the end of, say, a minute of speech, all of the languages would have conveyed more or less identical amounts of information.

“A tradeoff is operating between a syllable-based average information density and the rate of transmission of syllables,” the researchers wrote. “A dense language will make use of fewer speech chunks than a sparser language for a given amount of semantic information.” In other words, your ears aren’t deceiving you: Spaniards really do sprint and Chinese really do stroll, but they will tell you the same story in the same span of time.

So there you have it. Though some languages are spoken at a faster rate, there is less inherent value in each syllable. So even if some languages seem to be spoken so much faster than others, they are all conveying pretty much the same amount of information.

Also, with Chinese being the slowest spoken language in this survey, it seems that I have to work harder at my listening comprehension!

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