Donders Wonders

A fast Spanish speaker? That’s not saying much

This post is also available in Dutch.

Learners of some languages, like Spanish, often complain that native speakers talk too quickly. But are some languages actually faster than others or is it just an illusion?

Languages clock in at different speeds 
Image by Dwernertl via Wikimedia Commons (licence CC-BY-SA-3.0). 

As a Spanish speaker, I often hear that native Spanish speakers talk too fast for learners to follow. Interestingly, I’ve heard similar complaints from learners of Dutch and other languages. Do native speakers of some languages really talk faster or does it just seem that way to non-native speakers?

As it turns out, the answer is “yes” … to both. A non-native language sounds faster than your own native language. Nonetheless, speakers of some languages do speak faster than others. Interestingly, these languages also have a lot more “fluff”, so the amount of information actually being communicated remains the same across languages.

Non-native speakers need more time
On the one hand, non-native speakers tend to speak more slowly than native speakers, because of the additional effort it takes to speak a non-native language. This would explain why when you learn a language in a classroom, and only ever practice with other non-native speakers, talking to a native can be a real shock. Similarly, listening to and understanding a non-native language takes more effort, at least in the beginning. Native speakers’ words may seem to zip by, while you’re still trying to understand a word they said a minute ago. However, the more proficient you become in a language, the less time you will need to process each word, and the slower speakers will seem to speak.

Really only an illusion?
Does this mean that Spanish speakers only seem to talk fast to non-native speakers? To answer this question, researchers had 59 native speakers of 7 languages read the same 20 texts in their native language. They measured the speech rate in syllables per second (i.e., la-dy-bug: 3 syllables) and calculated the average speech rate for each language. The languages were ranked, fastest to slowest, as follows: Japanese (7.84 syllables/second), Spanish (7.82), French (7.18), Italian (6.99), English (6.19), German (5.97), Vietnamese (5.22), and Mandarin (5.18). Another study found similar results.

Beyond speed: Efficiency
That being said, anyone who has ever glanced at an instruction manual knows that languages can vary in the amount of words they need to express the same idea. For example, in Spanish, “Paul’s dad” becomes, “the dad of Paul.” The same information is distributed across four words, which means some words must transmit less information.

The researchers thus calculated, for each language, the average amount of information carried by each syllable. They found that Vietnamese was the most information-dense language, followed by Mandarin, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese. Notice anything familiar? That’s right! The researchers found a trade-off between information density and speech rate: languages with more information-rich syllables, on average, are spoken more slowly. But, if our speech organs are the same, why would some languages be spoken faster than others?

According to the researchers, the limit is based on the amount of information being communicated per second: too much and the listener might feel overwhelmed; too little and they might lose their patience, as shown in the video below:


So, while some languages may be faster than others, in the end, the amount of information captured in a minute of speech is the same for everyone.

This blog was written by Monica and edited by Marisha and Marpessa.

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