Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Speech Tempo: What is the World's Fastest Language?

If you speak a foreign language, at some point you've probably been in that mildly embarrassing situation when you've had to ask somebody to speak either more slowly or more clearly. Then you may have wondered, "why do they speak so fast anyway?"

From my experience, it seems quite clear that most people (regardless of their mother tongue) believe at least one particular language to be spoken more quickly than their own. I imagine that part of this is due to the fact that when hearing a foreign language (especially when first learning it), your brain is working so hard that you barely have time to keep up, making the language feel really quick with a sensation that you're trying to keep thousands of different plates spinning at the same time.

How fast you speak a language is known as the speech tempo and, as I suggested, human perception of this phenomenon is largely subjective. However, there are ways to measure speech tempo, including measuring it as a rate of syllables over time, since the length of words varies wildly across languages. This measurement can be taken either with or without considering pauses in speech. It is known as speech rate when counting pauses and articulation rate when ignoring pauses.

An interesting study on this subject was published a few years ago, which found that the quickly spoken languages (of those studied) tend to contain less information per syllable. However, those spoken more slowly tend to contain more information per syllable. I've put the results into an interactive chart below so you can see for yourself.

As you can see from the chart, languages with a low information density had a high syllabic rate, and vice versa. Mandarin was shown to contain the most information per syllable (since Vietnamese was a reference) while Japanese contained the least. In terms of speed, Japanese was the quickest and Mandarin the slowest.

Spanish was the fastest European language and German the slowest. Spanish also had the lowest information density of all European languages, while English had the highest. It seems to be that as humans, we all tend to deliver information at the same speed.

Which languages do you think sound like they're being spoken the fastest? Do you struggle with the speed of native speakers' speech for any languages you've learnt? Tell us about your experiences with speech tempo in the comments below.