Languages and the Need for Speed

Sep 30, 2013

Sometimes when using an interpreter, the speed and length of the interpretation may seem to vary wildly from what you said or heard.

For example, you say a sentence consisting of twenty syllables and your Vietnamese interpreter only uses a handful of syllables to respond: did the interpreter even say the same sentence? In another instance, your client seemed to jump from one word to the next very quickly, but when the interpreter provided the English version, the words were slow and simple.

Some languages seem so fast compared to English. Is there a difference between the speed of languages? Is your interpreter really acting professionally?

The answer is a resounding “yes!” to both questions. Some languages are spoken faster than others, say researchers from the Université de Lyon in France who published their study findings in the journal Language last year. The researchers recruited 59 volunteers who were native speakers of seven languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish and Vietnamese. Each participant read 20 different texts in their native languages into a recorder.

According to the Time Magazine article, the researchers found that some languages are spoken faster than others. They found Spanish and Japanese, often described as “fast languages,” clocked the greatest number of syllables per second. Spanish possessed a low-density syllable rate of .63, but sped along with a syllable-per-second velocity of 7.82. Japanese, which surpassed Spanish with its 7.84 velocity, had a minimal density of .49.

The “slowest” language in the set was Mandarin, followed closely by German. Mandarin, which topped the density list at .94, only had a velocity of 5.18 syllables per second. English was also on the lower end of the spectrum, with a high information density of .91 and an average rate of 6.19 syllables per second. Results showed that each text, no matter what language used, was told in relatively the same span of time despite sounding slower or faster.

So while you might believe you hear a discrepancy from an interpreter, your keen ears may simply notice the speed and density differences of the languages spoken.
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Voiance’s employee interpreters complete a 120-hour, in-class interpretation course – 80 hours longer than other interpretation companies – helping to ensure consistent quality and accuracy of interpretation amongst hundreds of interpreters.