Thursday, February 7, 2013

Are some languages spoke faster than others?

A common complaint among students taking a foreign language, is that the professor speaks too fast.  It is almost a universal complaint. Many students feel like there is an avalanche of speech coming their way.

But - is the foreign speaker really speaking faster than normal?

No* - they are not speaking faster. This essay will explain the in's and out's as to why we think foreigners are speaking faster.

The foreign words reach the ear so rapidly that they pile up before the listener can understand all of them in a sentence. The short term memory overloads, the second half of the sentence dissipates into the ether. The student feels frustrated  The words are not meaningful, and the student tunes out.

The average speech rate for a radio personality is between 120 - 150 words per minute. This is quick enough to be understood, and not so slow that it bores the listener. The former president of France, Jacques Chirac spoke 120 words per minute. We can usually understand 200 spoken words per minute, but 175 is usually the comfortable amount.

If we compare the words per minute from one language to another, certain problems arise. Some language, like German have a disproportionate number of very long words. Contrast this with Chinese, which is made up of very short words.

A Finnish linguist, Jaakko Lehtonen conducted an experiment where he had native English speakers talk extemporaneously and read a prepared English text. The then had Finns do the same. When he compared the speech rate of the two languages counting words, English was faster, but when he counted syllables, Finnish was faster.

The question arises, if what is our standard for counting? Is it syllables or words? By the Finnish experiment, certain languages will have fewer words spoken per minute but many more syllables. Here, we are going to learn a new word.

Agglutinative languages: these are languages that allow for the creation of long words via compounding.

Words in the Afrikaans language can at times be particularly long due to the compounding nature of the language. According to the Total Book of South African Records, the longest word in the language is

Tweedehandsemotorverkoopsmannevakbondstakingsvergaderingsameroeperstoespraakskrywerspersverklaringuitreikingsmediakonferensieaankondiging (136 letters), which meansissuable media conference's announcement at a press release regarding the convener's speech at a secondhand car dealership union's strike meeting.

The longest word in is the 39 letter-long Непротивоконституционствувателствувайте (Neprotivokonstitutsionstvuvatelstvuvayte). The word is written at the beginning of the Bulgarian Constitution and it means "not to take actions which are against the constitution of the country

If these words are not enough to take your breath away, try these Dutch ones:
  • vervoerdersaansprakelijkheidsverzekering, "carriers' liability insurance";
  • bestuurdersaansprakelijkheidsverzekering, "directors' liability insurance";
  • overeenstemmingsbeoordelingsprocedures, "conformity assessment procedures"

If incredibly long words were not daunting enough, we are faced with another problem. Some language pack a lot of punch in their syllables. By 'pack a lot of punch', I mean that you can pack many phonemes (basic sound units) into just one syllable. Take the English word 'strengths'. It is one syllable and seven phonemes. Seven sounds in one syllable. That is about as complicated as syllables get.  Its structure would be CCCVCCC, (six consonants/one vowel)

When Japanese students speak, and English students speak, there is little difference in the number of words per minute or syllables per minute they speak. Yet, the English speakers think that Japanese speak much faster. The Japanese think that the English students speak much faster. This phenomena is true across most languages. When the speech rate is the nearly the same, we still have the impression that the foreigners are speaking faster than us.

 Some languages have a machine gun rhythm (French,Spanish,Italian) and others, have a sing-songy Morris code rhythm (English and Chinese). English and Chinese contain more information within their syllables than the machine gun rhythm languages tend to convey.  It might take Chinese 20 syllables to convey information, while it will take Italian or Romanian 120 syllables to convey the same information. Languages that had the longer blocks of text, like Spanish, are spoken just a little bit faster while English and Chinese were spoken a little slower. The rate of communicating information is relatively the same. 

The more meaning a syllable has, the slower it is spoken. The lighter the meaning, the faster it moves. 

Once you gain a familiarity with the language and the words then you do. Your ear develops in that way. And I'll just read to you one more thing that Osser and Peng wrote about this hypothesis. They talked more specifically about Japanese and English and they said, "When the Japanese speaker hears the bundle of dense consonant clusters of English he hears them in terms of the syllabic structure of Japanese, which of course does not have so many consonant clusters, and he therefore judges the speech to be faster than it really is." And then they said, "Similarly when an English speaker hears the successive vowel" sounds in Japanese, which we don't have as much of in English, that we judge Japanese to be faster.

So there you have it. It is a universal complaint that foreigners speak too quickly. The fact is that it is all a matter of perception. 

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