Per favore, repeat slowly?

It’s always fun getting back to Italy to be entertained once more by the hand-waiving conversations, very loud and public arguments, and never-ending phone chats one is obliged to listen in on whist riding the train. Not only are the Italians rather cacophonous compared to the Brits, they are also seemingly speaking at the limits of the speed of sound. Once you actually understand Italian it is pretty easy to decipher, but to the new learner the rapid-fire chatter is ear-boggling.

The discussions had with non-Italian friends regarding this matter brought up some questions covered by this TIME article which I had read not long ago. For foreigners in Italy, it is often hopeless to ask the natives to repeat something slowly, they will probably just repeat it louder. We often think that other languages sound complicated and unfathomable because we are still learning them, but it appears that we are not mistaken in commonly thinking that some languages are spoken faster than others. Japanese tops the list, followed by Spanish, according to some research which only surveyed eight languages to begin with.

So what does it mean to speak a language faster and why are different languages spoken at different speeds? For a start, the more syllables you pack into each second determines how fast your language is spoken. Interestingly, pretty much all languages appear to pack the same amount of information or meaning into a given length of speech, the difference is how much information is transmitted by each syllable. So for example, a one-syllable word like ‘bliss’ will give you much more useful information that a word like ‘to’, or a particle like the sound ‘i’ in ‘jubilee’, to steal the examples in the article.

An information-dense language (one transmitting more meaning per syllable uttered), will therefore be spoken slower (fewer syllables per second), than a less dense language like Japanese which has to compensate by packing more sounds into each second to convey the same meaning. The next question then would be – do information-sparse language speakers, who use many syllables to convey meaning, have to write longer text messages, and what impact does this have on Spanish tweets?

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