Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
The Fastest Language in the World
September 30, 2011 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on The Fastest Language in the World

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.

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