When learning a foreign language, there are four main skill categories: reading, writing, speaking and listening. Of these 4 skills, listening is often considered to be the hardest skill to acquire. This is because it’s the only skill where the learner doesn’t have full control of speed. You can read, write and speak however fast or slowly you are comfortable with. But when it comes to listening, you are subject to the whims of the person you are listening to.
This raises an interesting question, are all languages spoken just as fast, or are some spoken faster than others? If some are spoken faster, is it because of cultural or linguistic reasons, or both?
Well it turns out a paper put out by the Université de Lyon in 2011 attempted to scientifically answer this exact question. In the study, 59 native speakers of eight different major languages were instructed to read aloud translated versions of various passages at a natural pace. Here is one such passage that was used:
Last night I opened the front door to let the cat out. It was such a beautiful evening that I wandered down the garden for a breath of fresh air. Then I heard a click as the door closed behind me. I realized I’d locked myself out. To cap it all, I was arrested while I was trying to force the door open!
585 recordings were made and from those recordings three values were calculated for each language: information density, syllabic rate, and information rate.
Information density refers to the average amount of information packed into each syllable. For example, the English word purple is 2 syllables while the Japanese word for purple, むらさき (murasaki) is 4 syllables. This means that the word purple is more dense than the word murasaki, because it conveys the same exact amount of information with fewer syllables.
The next variable, syllabic rate, is simply the number of syllables spoken per second.
And finally, the last variable, information rate, refers to how quickly linguistic information was transmitted.
The eight languages compared were English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish and Vietnamese. The results for each language is summarized in the chart below, with Vietnamese being used as the reference language.
As you can see, Japanese had the highest syllabic rate, at a whopping 7.84 syllables per second. The slowest was Mandarin at only 5.18 syllables per second.
Upon inspecting the chart further, an interesting trend becomes apparent. The lower the information density, the higher the syllabic rate. Japanese was the fastest spoken language of the group, but had the lowest information density at 0.49. On the other side of the spectrum, Mandarin had an information density of 0.94, almost twice that of Japanese. English sat comfortably between these two extremes with an information density of 0.91 and a syllabic rate of 6.19 syllables per second.
It is as if native speakers of less dense languages unconsciously speed up their speech in order to compensate for the extra syllables they have to say. The end result being that on average, all languages roughly transmit the same amount of information at the same rate.
Like any study however, there is always room for improvement. For example, only 59 speakers and 8 languages were included. These are not very big sample sizes and one wonders if the same results would have been observed had more speakers or languages been included. Additionally, as far as I am aware, this study has not been replicated elsewhere. One of the key components of scientific research is that for a study or experiment to be valid, it should be repeatable by an independent group with the same results. This has yet to be seen.
Furthermore, the study does not measure how fast people would talk in an everyday setting. Reading aloud a passage in front of a panel of linguists is very different from having a conversation with an acquaintance. This is important, because the nature of Japanese speech is very different from most other languages.
First is the issue of politeness and respect. As you may know, Japanese is a language with various speech levels and honorific forms that can be quite distinct from each other. More respectful language is often much longer than casual conversation, even though the same amount of information is being transmitted.
English: May I ask a question?
Casual Japanese: 質問聞いていい？- Shitsumon kiite ii?
Polite Japanese: 質問を聞いてもいいですか。- Shitsumon wo kiitemo ii desu ka
Respectful Japanese: 質問を聞かせていただけると嬉しいのですが。- Shitsumon wo kikasete itadakeru to ureshii no desu ga.
As you can see, the length varies incredibly between the different styles, despite the fact that they are all essentially asking the same thing.
The second issue is the fact that whole words and phrases can be completely dropped in Japanese if they are understandable from context.
English – Did you eat?
(Casual) Japanese: 食べた？- Tabeta?
The Japanese sentence simply is the past tense of the verb to eat said with a questioning intonation. The word “you” was completely dropped. In the proper context, it would easily be understood to mean did you eat? This kind of construction would seriously complicate the study’s calculation of information density. In this example, both the English and Japanese sentences are 3 syllables long, and are used to express the same question. But does that mean that both sentences have the same information density? Would the information for the word you be included in the Japanese calculation?
I don’t have the answer to any of these questions and I would love to see followup research into this fascinating topic. Japanese may seem like an indecipherable rapid fire string of syllables when you’re first learning, but with persistent practice and exposure to the language, you can learn to understand it in no time.