Ever listened in on a foreign language conversation and thought you were listening to a rap battle? You’re not imagining things. While some languages speak at a rate that’d make Barry White sound like a speed reader, others spit out words faster than an automatic rifle.
In fact, it’s not just the speech that sounds faster; certain languages seem to squeeze more info into a small number of syllables. Translate this article in Japanese, and it’d go for longer; if you read it in Thai, you’d save yourself some time. Read it out loud, however, no matter the language, and you’d be done around the same time.
Weird, right? This strange phenomenon is a challenge all languages unknowingly face: the balance between complexity and speed. So, while Italians chatter at a rate of nine syllables per second, Germans manage only five to six. What’s going on?
Are Some Languages Faster Than Others?”
Absolutely! Although it’s not as clear cut as some languages are faster than others. Our perception of language speed is often related to how familiar we are with a language. That’s why language teachers tend to slow things down significantly during the learning process – just as you would when attempting to master a riff on a guitar.
However, certain languages genuinely do pack more in than others. A study of 17 Eurasian languages compared the information rate and the information density, i.e., how fast the information was spoken and how much information was encoded per syllable.
They found that language differed quite a bit in their information density: Japanese encoded around 5 bits per syllable, English just over 7 bits per syllable, and Vietnamese, famed for its complex system of tones, maxed out at 8 bits per syllable.
So, that’s conclusive, right? Not so! After recording speakers reading a set text in the different languages and calculating the average speech rate per language (syllables/second), they confirmed that some languages are faster than others. But, when they multiplied the rate by the bit rate, the result demonstrated a surprising consistency. All languages, no matter their speed or complexity, revolved around an average of 39.15 bits per second.
Which Language is Fastest?
Confused? Don’t worry. In a nutshell, the above findings mean that although the language may differ in how it encodes the information, no one language is more efficient than any other.
As the researchers explained:
“A tradeoff 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.”
That being said, while you’re getting the same information per second, on average, to the listener, it can feel like a very different experience. So, how did languages measure up based on their speed? Here’s what they found:
- Mandarin Chinese
Eagle-eared language experts may spot a pattern. Syllable-timed languages rank closer to the top, while tonal languages, where a word’s meaning changes depending on the tone, appear nearer the bottom.
The bottleneck preventing languages from encoding information faster isn’t the language itself but our brains. Neuroscience research indicates an upper bound for auditory processing of 9 syllables per second in US English – any faster and our brains can’t convert our ideas into speech.
Do Accents Impact Average Speaking Speeds?
Ask a British person about accents, and they’ll reliably inform you a West Country drawl is much slower and more methodical than a Glaswegian spitfire. Indeed, the United Kingdom has the greatest variety of accents of any country in the world.
While the US has fewer overall accents, the auditory phenomenon is no less noticeable. But are we imagining things?
No. In an analysis of US State accents, researchers found where you hail from alters the speed and cadence of words. After sifting through more than four million recorded calls, analytics firm Marchex ranked states based on their speaking rate.
Want to guess the results? North Carolina, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi comprised the five slowest-speaking states in the country. It’s called the Southern drawl for a reason. Meanwhile, Oregon, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Kansas, and Iowa were the fastest talkers.
The reason for these varying speaking speeds is likely due to cultural differences. Slower-talking states tend to be wordier, more talkative, and more patient – measured by how fast they hang up a call.
Speaking Speeds in a Professional Setting
As a voiceover training and coaching organization, we’re primarily concerned with conveying information to listeners clearly and coherently. After all, nobody wants to hear an advert where they struggle to catch every word or settle down to an audiobook so slow that it puts them to sleep.
Funnily enough, just like different languages, faster speakers don’t necessarily say more than slow talkers. However, the speed at which we speak does affect how people interpret what we say.
Speak too quickly, and you come across as nervous and anxious, potentially sacrificing clarity and diction as you mumble or jumble your speech. The average person manages a rate of around 150 words per minute. However, those that talk slower actually engage us more and even appear more attractive.
Why? Because we’re forced to concentrate on what they’re trying to say, and the information conveyed is more succinct. Shakespeare said it best: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
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Sources for this piece on speakings speeds: