Turns out, though, that this isn’t entirely an illusion. Researchers from the Universite de Leon recently recruited volunteers in multiple languages to read a number of texts out loud. And, after much data-crunching, what they discovered was that some languages really can cram more syllables in per second. What’s interesting, though, is that these swifter languages don’t actually deliver more information per second. There’s a trade-off between information density and speed:
For all of the other languages, the researchers discovered, the more data-dense the average syllable is, the fewer of those syllables had to be spoken per second — and the slower the speech thus was. English, with a high information density of .91, is spoken at an average rate of 6.19 syllables per second. Mandarin, which topped the density list at .94, was the spoken slowpoke at 5.18 syllables per second. Spanish, with a low-density .63, rips along at a syllable-per-second velocity of 7.82. The true speed demon of the group, however, was Japanese, which edges past Spanish at 7.84, thanks to its low density of .49. Despite those differences, at the end of, say, a minute of speech, all of the languages would have conveyed more or less identical amounts of information.
Time’s Richard Kluger has more, noting that this makes intuitive sense, given that “Spanish films don’t take four hours to unspool when they’re translated into French. Somewhere among all the languages must be a great equalizer that keeps us conveying information at the same rate, even if the speed limits vary from tongue to tongue.”