Why Some Languages Sound Faster Than Others

It’s a common experience to hear a language you don’t know and think the people speaking it are talking very quickly. This is often related to the fact that all those sounds are unfamiliar. This experience is referenced in an article written by Jeffrey Kluger for TIME magazine, but he also sheds some light on when languages are faster (or slower) than your own.

Kluger summarizes a study published in the journal Language. Researchers had native speakers of 8 languages (English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, and Vietnamese) read over a set of passages in their own languages. The research team recorded and then analyzed the passages.

They counted all the syllables spoken in these recorded passages and noted how much meaning was carried in each. Kluger gives the following examples of meaning per syllable:

  • bliss, a one-syllable word, carries a lot of meaning about a specific kind of happiness
  • to, also one-syllable, still has a meaning, but not as much as bliss
  • i, as one of the syllables of the word jubilee, has no meaning at all on its own

Using the information gathered in this process, the researchers came up with averages for each language regarding 1) information density per syllable and 2) the number of syllables spoken per second in ordinary speech. According to linguists, Vietnamese is a very information-dense (per syllable) language, so that was used as a reference point for the other seven languages in the study.

The basic finding of the study is that the more information-dense each syllable is in your language, the fewer syllables you need to speak per second to get the message across. If the languages in the study were all to be spoken for one minute, they’d all be able to get pretty much the same amount of information across, but Japanese would have to be spoken the fastest (it only has an info-density of .49), then Spanish (info-density of .63), while Mandarin could be spoken the slowest (info-density of .94). English could also go fairly slow with an info-density of .91.

In the translation/interpretation world, these kinds of statistics can help us estimate how many words we’ll have to transcribe/translate from an audio recording or how exhausting it might be to keep up with simultaneous translation, depending on the language. But this can also apply to daily life, especially if you live in a city where you can hear many different languages spoken as you walk down the street. The next time you hear Spanish or Japanese and think it’s being spoken fast—it probably is! And you can admire speakers of Mandarin or Vietnamese for being able to leisurely tell the same stories at a slower pace.