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Languages and the Need for Speed

Sometimes when using an interpreter, the speed and length of the interpretation may seem to vary wildly from what you said or heard.

For example, you utter a sentence consisting of about twenty syllables and the Mandarin interpreter follows it with only a handful of syllables: did the interpreter even say the same sentence? In another instance, your patient rattles off sentences so quickly that it takes your breath away. But when the interpreter interprets it into English, your patient’s words sound slow and simple.

Some languages seem so fast compared to English. Is there a difference between the speeds of languages? Is your interpreter really acting professionally?

The answer is actually yes to both questions!

Some languages are spoken faster than others, say researchers from the Université de Lyon in France who published their study findings in the journal Language. The researchers recruited 59 volunteers who were native speakers of seven languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish and Vietnamese. Each participant read 20 different texts in their native languages into a recorder.

The researchers then counted syllables for each recording and analyzed how much meaning was packed into each of those syllables. According to the Time Magazine article, the researchers found that some languages are spoken faster than others, and these are usually the ones that have less data-dense syllables, such as having more words like “jubilee” rather than “bliss” (jubilee has three syllables for one word meaning, and bliss just has one, making it more data-dense).

They found Spanish and Japanese, often described as “fast languages,” clocked the greatest number of syllables per second. On the other hand, the languages that had more words like “bliss” were spoken at a slower rate. The “slowest” language in the set was Mandarin, followed closely by German.English was also on the lower end of the spectrum, with a high information density of .91 and an average rate of 6.19 syllables per second.

Results showed that each text, no matter what language used, was told in relatively the same span of time despite sounding slower or faster.

So while you might believe you hear a discrepancy from an interpreter, your keen ears may simply notice the speed and density differences of the languages spoken.

Here’s an Infographic, to put it simply:

The Speed of Language

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