We've all been there, listening to some nearby people speak rapidly in a language we don't know, possibly one we can't identify. We all know that speech tends to be faster when speakers are comfortable using a language as compared to when they are not. But as a listener of a language that is completely unknown, the speed at which any speaker talks can seem too fast and thus extremely intimidating. But does this speech sprint only occur when you don't know the language yourself, or are some languages really that much faster than others?
When I started university, I chose to study Mandarin in an attempt to adapt to how the world was changing and expand my language learning past the Romance Languages I had previously learned. Before I began learning it, I always felt that Chinese was spoken much more quickly than many other languages I had heard. However, I always wondered if that was because I didn't know the language or because Mandarin was really that much faster. Now, having some experience in the language, I still find that native speakers speak very quickly, but I realize the language is much slower as a whole than I originally thought.
The same cannot be said for my perception of Spanish.
I've recently moved to Sevilla for 6 months, but I moved here not knowing any Spanish. Though I grew up studying French and had some minimal exposure to Italian, Spanish was (and still is) an unknown to me. Upon arriving here, I immediately thought that Spanish speakers must not breathe. They speak so rapidly and intensely that they could not possibly pause for a breath. Having now lived here for almost 3 months, I still stand by that initial impression.
Though I don't know Spanish currently, I grew curious about why Spanish still seemed so fast compared to how my view of Mandarin changed. I decided to look into language speeds to see if it was all perception or if some languages were truly faster. Thanks to a few studies, I learned that language speed varies way more than I thought. And for good reason!
The Table above was courtesy of a study on Japanese Speech. The column on syllabic rate is the speed at which a language appears spoken - what we hear and can be so intimidated by. No surprise, Spanish has one of the faster syllabic rates!
What I find more interesting is that the languages that are spoken faster have the lowest information density. Basically, languages where every syllable has a very specific meaning (English, Mandarin, etc.) are spoken much slower, because they need fewer syllables to get a point across. Therefore, they can take more time in what they're saying. Meanwhile, when not every syllable has a specific meaning to it (Spanish, Japanese, etc.), the speed of the language is much faster because many more syllables must be added to get the same point across.
The other study I looked at explained this relationship very simply.
"There is a balance that cannot be disturbed: fast syllables are not allowed to carry too much meaning, and syllables with lots of information must be spoken slowly."
So there you have it! The spoken language really does vary immensely in speed. But to come full circle, there is some amount of that speed that is intensified if a listener doesn't know the language. Just like I reacted to Mandarin before I knew it, unknown languages can really intimidate us. But with a little practice it becomes clear which languages really are fast, and which ones are simply pretending.
*This article was updated on March 16 at 5:00 PM to correct an example used in the argument for clarification*