Friday, September 30, 2011

Speed of languages

When I translate an English text into Chinese, it usually becomes only about 2/3 of the original length. When I hear people speaking Spanish or Japanese, I always feel like hit by a storm of syllables and I would never be able to catch up.

An interesting study was recently published in the journal Language on the speed of human speech. Linguists Pellegrino, Coupé, and Marsico from Université de Lyon recruited 59 volunteers who were native speakers of one of seven languages: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese. The subjects were instructed to read 20 different passages in their native languages into a recorder. The researcher then counted all of the syllables in each of the recordings and further analyzed how much meaning was packed into each syllable. They arrived at two critical indexes for each language: the average information density for each of its syllables and the average number of syllables spoken per second in ordinary speech.

The intriguing discovery was a negative correlation between information density and speed. The more data-dense the average syllable was, the fewer of those syllables had to be spoken per second, and thus the slower the speech. Out of the seven languages, Japanese was the fastest, spoken at 7.84 syllables per second. And in the density chart, it was at the bottom. Spanish came in second in terms of speed (7.82), and its density was also quite low. Mandarin, the slowest of the seven (5.18), was also the densest language. It seems that the speed of a language depends on the average amount of information its syllable can convey.

The researchers explained, "A dense language will make use of fewer speech chunks than a sparser language for a given amount of semantic information." I guess our brain can only process so much. If the flow of information remains steady according to the capacity of the brain, speed and density have to compensate each other for the speech to be understandable and not boring.

Another explanation could be the languages' sound systems. In languages with fewer consonants and vowels, or no tones, words tend to require more syllables to remain distinct. Hawaiian for example, has only eight consonants and five vowels. That's why you will see long words like humuhumunukunukuāpua'a (state fish of Hawaii) and lauwiliwilinukunuku'oi'oi (another type of fish).


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