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Is Spanish Faster than English?

“Native speakers talk very fast, I understand less than what I can say”, is what I often hear from my students. As a Spanish teacher, I have wondered if in fact Spanish has a higher rate of speech which impacts the learners ability to understand the spoken word. At the same time, many Spanish speakers who study English have the opposite complaint. They often say they can understand more than they can say. This distinction between the two languages is remarkable. Regarding speech rate, a study at the University of Lyon in France introduced a piece of information that’s worth considering.

In 2011 this university published their analysis of the speech of 59 people reading the same 20 texts aloud in seven languages: French, English, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Italian and Japanese. They found Spanish and Japanese clocked the greatest number of syllables per second. The “slowest” language in the set was Mandarin, followed closely by German.

But the story does not end there. The researchers also calculated the information density for the syllables of each language by comparing them with an eighth language, Vietnamese, which served as an arbitrary reference. They found that an average Spanish syllable conveys only a small quantity of information, contributing just a fragment to the overall meaning of a sentence.

In contrast, an individual Mandarin syllable contains a much larger quantity of information, possibly because Mandarin syllables include tones. The upshot is that Spanish and Mandarin actually convey information to listeners at about the same rate. The researchers conjectured that, despite the diversity of languages in the world, over time they all deliver a constant rate of information, possibly tuned to the human perceptual system.

Although rate of speech is not the only factor involved in the oral comprehension of a language, it certainly has an influence —the flexibility of Spanish syntax is perhaps equally important in this matter: e.g., the possibility of having the subject come after or before the verb in a sentence. Especially for beginners, what we can take away from this study is that perhaps you shouldn’t focus on every little thing you don’t know, but instead try to get a general understanding through context. Either way, don’t let it be a deterrent, if millions have been able to learn Spanish, so can you!

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I’m a Spanish teacher based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Since 2007 I have been teaching Spanish to people from all over the world. Whether looking for an online Spanish tutor, or in person while visiting Buenos Aires, please reach out to me with any questions you might have!

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