What is the fastest language in the world? The answer depends in part on your perspective. English speakers perceive languages such as Spanish and Mandarin Chinese to sound very fast, which is why in these language courses, some of the first phrases we teach are “Can you repeat that, please?” and “Speak slowly.” But do Spanish and Mandarin Chinese speakers actually speak faster?
The answer is, like everything with language, complicated. In terms of syllables spoken per second, actually only Spanish is faster than English, while Chinese is actually spoken more slowly than English according to a study by a group of researchers from the Université de Lyon published in Language. Below are the rankings in syllables per second for the 7 languages analyzed in this study, from slowest to fastest:
So why do we perceive Spanish and Mandarin speech as faster than English speech? Well, first of all, of course as a language learner, one always feels as if the syllables of the new language are being hurled at you at unreasonably fast rates. But aside from this “learner effect,” there is actually a rhythmic difference between English and these languages that may account for this perception. English is what’s called a stress-timed language while Mandarin and Spanish are syllable-timed languages. Speakers of stress-timed languages tend to perceive speech in syllable-timed languages as faster than speech in stress-timed languages like their own. They may have the impression that the syllables are cut short and come out rapidly like from a machine gun. But this is just an impression as the data above show.
So if speakers of Spanish produce more syllables per second than English speakers, are they more efficient communicators? Not exactly, according to the Language study. They also analyzed how much information is conveyed over time across languages and found that there is a trade-off in terms of how much information a language packs into an average syllable and how quickly speakers generally produce those syllables. So, while Spanish words are on average about 2 syllables in length, English words are closer to 1.5 syllables. This difference in word length means that the rate of transmission of information across the two languages is roughly the same.
And of course, there’s variation across individuals and social contexts. Think of how you speak to your best friend versus how you speak to a young child. Nevertheless, if you’re learning one of the speedier languages on the list above, take comfort in knowing that it’s not just your perception. They really are speaking faster!
Want to pick up the pace and get started learning one of these languages? Start here.