Why some languages sound faster than others

It is a common misconception that languages are spoken at different speeds, Spanish certainly sounds like it is being spoken at 100mph but does that actually mean it is faster, or does its flowing nature lead you in to a false sense of security?

Understanding

If you don’t understand a language, it is bound to sound like it is being spoken quickly. If you don’t comprehend the dynamics of the language or how the noises you are hearing are separated in to words, how can you possibly ascertain the speed of what is being spoken? On a similar note, if a nuclear physicist tried to explain a complex theory to you, it wouldn’t matter how fast or slow they spoke in your own language, you probably wouldn’t be able to break this down into understandable chunks!

Ease

Are some languages faster because they are “easy”? Yes, there are about 500 words you need to master to be a competent Spanish speaker, a significantly lower number of words than in other languages, and thankfully not an endless number of cases. But even though you could potentially learn the language faster, this doesn’t really address why it sounds faster.

Syllables

Some languages cram-in more syllables per second. In a recent study at the University of Lyon, researchers found that languages such as Spanish and Japanese have the most syllables per second. The fewest number of syllables per second occur in Mandarin and German. However, the amount of content conveyed within a given time frame remains pretty constant.

Rhythm

Some languages just flow. Spanish words seem to fit together seamlessly; you can run them together quite naturally and this can make understanding conversation a little tricky. For example, there would be no noticeable difference between deste and de este, nor between el lado and helado as the h is silent in Spanish.  Inevitably this means that some sounds are missed, this is known as elision.

“Speakers of some languages seem to rattle away at high speed like machine-guns, while other languages sound rather slow and plodding” – Peter Roach – Professor of Phonetics, Reading University.

There are so many factors that determine how a language is spoken you would think it impossible for them all to be spoken at the same speed. Whilst admittedly there are differences in rhythm, intonation and flow it really is impressive that a minute of speech in all languages conveys more or less an identical amount of information.

One time that you do notice the differing speeds of speech is when watching films or programmes that have been dubbed – the lips of the people on screen are often still moving when the audio has ended, or weirder still they have their mouths closed while the voiceover continues!

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