The Fastest Language in the World

by Translation Guy on September 30, 2011
0 comments

The swanky restaurants here in the neighborhood of the UN come with an elegant price tag, but the atmosphere is more like that bar scene in Star Wars, full of all these residents jabbering away in their own rapid-fire lingo.

Foreign languages just sound fast. And as any language student knows, once you start studying the language, your target language becomes a moving target, sprinting out of sight as your synapses spark and smoke Frankenstein-like to catch up.

Bad as it is, there’s got to be worse. So which language is the fastest of all? Researchers at the Université de Lyon got out their stopwatches to measure just how fast people spoke in FIGS and CJV (that’s French, Italian, German, Spanish; and Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese). So they had some 60 volunteers, both male and female, read some stories, edited out the pauses, and started counting syllables. (What are grad students for, anyway?)

As reported by Jeffrey Kluger in Time Magazine, “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.”

Some languages used a lot more syllables to say the same thing as other languages, and some used much fewer, but each story took pretty much the same time to tell. Those syllables doing the heavy information lifting just came out more slowly, so that the amount of time required to communicate a set of information was the same, language from language. “English, with a high information density of .91, was 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, ripped along at a syllable-per-second velocity of 7.82. The true speed demon of the group, however, was Japanese, which edged past Spanish at 7.84, thanks to its low density of .49.”

Researchers noted that 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.”

Interesting, but I sure would love to kick the tires on their numbers. Eliminating pauses, using a few amateurs probably from similar socioeconomic and educational levels, controls for levels of politeness and translation expansion, etc. This could be really subjective or really useful, but I can’t get to the study published in the journal Language to see how they managed control.

This language speed is a big issue for us in the studio at 1-800-Translate, since good timing is king, and translation always expands. (The translators always say that it has nothing to do with getting paid by the word. Yeah, right.)

And if what these guys are saying is true, then how come we go bonkers trying to drop 180-word French track into the original English timing? Or Portuguese? Huh? Huh? Tell me that, monsieur professeur de linguistique!  Damn eggheads.

0 Comments

  1. The study’s obviously flawed as I’ve been listening to a lot of conversational Mandarin and it’s definitely a lot lot faster than English. Wouldn’t it be a joke if they only had one informant for each language!?

  2. How come the article doesn’t mention the difference between languages that have long and short vowels and those in which all syllables are the same length? Surely, English, with short and long vowels must have a longer time on average for each syllable simply because some must be longer than others. Japanese has long syllables so it would be surprising if it really were faster than Spanish.
    Or perhaps they counted the very often occurring past tense marker ‘shita’ as two syllables, because it’s written as two syllables but it’s pronounced ‘shta’ as one syllable…

  3. I am also intrigued as to the validity of the experiment. How many participants were used with each language and were they asked to speak certain phrases or just talk as fast as they could?

    • Ken says:

      As I understand it they read from scripts, 60 total for 8 languages, and two sexes so not a deep bench.

  4. Bree says:

    In general, women speak faster than men, no matter what the research says!

  5. Ducky says:

    I feel like I should go watch Star Wars now.

  6. Natalie Vick says:

    Great video for FedEx. Did that guy memorize that or did he read it off cue cards?

  7. Stacey Chan says:

    Perhaps culture plays a bigger role than language itself.

  8. Ellen Koch says:

    Hard to believe that Japanese and Chinese languages were so far apart. I lived in China and heard both regularly. I guess with the different dialects and it being a tonal language, Chinese may be spoken slower, but I witnessed for fast talkers in the markets there.

  9. Andrew-R says:

    The real test should be how quickly and efficiently does a language get across a certain message. Whichl anguage is to the point, less wordy.

  10. I live in Florida and all I hear is Spanish. Half the time I wonder if anyone knows what they are saying because it sounds so fast. I can’t even keep up with fast English.

  11. PickleHead says:

    This is probably one of those concepts that is very difficult to determine. Afterall, some languages require many words to get across something that is just one word in another language. (Ex: bathroom vs. la salle de bain)

  12. Some people are just slow talkers… go to the Souhtern States and you’ll see. How do they account for individual speaking speeds??

  13. Robyn Cox says:

    Foreign languages always seem so quick to me, and I think it is simply because I do not understand them!

  14. Nathan Olson says:

    Again, we are trying to measure something that is not so easily measured and not necessarily that important. We should be measuring efficiency not just speed.

  15. I have tried to learn French and Spanish. I can read the words, learn what they mean, but when someone starts talking to me I am lost. My brain just can’t keep up.

  16. Such an interesting study. So glad you wrote about it.

  17. Jules says:

    I think the region where someone lives has something to do with the speed at which they talk. Just compare different parts of the US. Texas is pretty slow compared to the North. Actually, I think the entire South is pretty slow. Could it be the heat?

  18. Warren says:

    What about the same language spoken in different regions? I am told the Swiss speak German much more slowly (more precisely?) than Germans do. I am SURE that the Swiss speak French more slowly than the French do, because I could sort of understand it when I was visiting Geneva, but I can’t come close to following French when I am visiting France.

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