It’s a common experience for the novice language learner: you’ve been going along, feeling pretty confident about your new vocabulary and grammar. You even think you might be ready to speak to a native speaker for the first time. But then, as soon as they open their mouth, your jaw drops. Your brain is helpless against the speedy onslaught of syllables. Before you can get hola out, you flee (OK, maybe you don’t flee). So what’s going on here? Are other languages going faster than English? We took a peek at language speed to find out what’s going on, and which languages are fastest.
Language Speed: Are Some Faster Than English?
To knock off this question straight away: yes, some languages have a higher syllable per second rate, so they are technically faster than others. But it’s worth looking at a couple other factors that influence how we interpret language speed.
Your impression that other languages are faster is likely going to be influenced by how advanced you are at a language. Language teachers the world over start students off with slowed down versions of foreign languages because it doesn’t take a study to show that that’s easier for listeners to comprehend. Trying to compare a native speaker with the actors who recorded “How To Introduce Yourself In Spanish” is going to create a mental mismatch.
Another theory that lends itself to differences in listening perception is isochrony. The people who study isochrony have pointed out speed differences between languages that are syllable-timed (each syllable is the same length) and stress-timed (the time between every two stressed syllables is the same length). There’s also a third category, which is mora-timed (each mora is the same length). Morae, which are not common way of measuring English, break down syllables into parts. One syllable, depending on its value, can have one, two or in some languages even three morae. Mora are more commonly used to look at languages such as Japanese.
To make all that easier to imagine, there is fortunately a simpler nomenclature. Phonetician Arthur Lloyd James distinguished between types of language by saying Spanish and languages like it have machine-gun rhythm (syllable-timed), whereas English and languages like it have morse-code rhythm (stress-timed). While English seems to have syllables of varying length (like morse code), Spanish has a torrent of syllables (like a machine gun). Machine-gun rhythm languages will sound, especially to a morse-code rhythm language, much faster.
The problem with isochrony is that it’s not actually proven. There are many proponents of the concept, but it’s a contentious issue that has yet to be fully confirmed by the data. There’s more research to be done, but for now syllables per second is our best measure of language speed.
What Are The Fastest Languages?
There unfortunately have not been any wide-ranging studies on language speed. One 2011 study from the Université de Lyon looked at 7 languages, which reported the order as Japanese (7.84 syllables per second), Spanish (7.82), French (7.18), Italian (6.99), English (6.19), German (5.97) and Mandarin (5.18). But, you know, seven is pretty small.
The most recent study, published this year in Science Advances, looked at 17, which is better but still far short of the roughly 7,000 that exist in the world. So while this article can’t really promise you that any of these are “the fastest” languages, here are the rankings of the 17 that have been looked at, in ranked order. It’s also worth noting that individuals within a language can vary in how quickly they speak (just think of an auctioneer).
- Mandarin Chinese
While this is only a small selection, it does give you a good idea of how language speeds vary around the world. Syllable-timed (and mora-timed) languages are closer to the top, and tonal languages are generally at the bottom.
So Some Languages Are Just Faster Than Others?
All of this can seem a bit weird. Some languages being faster than others seems like it could slide into linguistic relativism, in which the language you speak affects the way you interact with the world (generally not true). But as it turns out, “language speed” is not as simple as syllables per second.
The same Science Advances study from this year that ranked language speed was also looking at a deeper phenomenon: how quickly do languages convey information? This question is complicated, starting with the fact that information density is calculated by translating syllables into bits. The amount of information any syllable can have corresponds to whether that syllable helps the listener narrow down what the next syllable will be. It’s basically treating your human brain like a predictive text computer, and the faster the language you’re hearing can help you narrow down what is likely to be said next, the greater the information density.
The researchers’ analysis of 170 speakers showed that despite variations in syllables per second, the amount of information per second is pretty much the same across all languages, hovering at about 39 bits per second. Languages with a low rate of syllables per second make up for it with a high rate of information per second, and vice versa. All in all, while some have a higher speed, they are not better or more efficient. There is yet to be research on why exactly this is the case, but it could be that the brain has some optimal amount of information intake.
What does this mean for learning a new language? For one, it’s reassuring to know that no language is better than any other. But to be fair, none of this will make your first encounters with a native speaker easier. Just remember to take your time, focus and get comfortable with saying “I don’t understand. Could you say that a bit slower?” in a new language.