Language speed versus efficiency: Is faster better?

September 1, 2011

A recent study of the speech information rate of seven languages concludes that there is considerable variation in the speed at which languages are spoken, but much less variation in how efficiently languages communicate the same information. The study, "A cross-linguistic perspective on speech information rate," to be published in the September 2011 issue of the scholarly journal Language, is co-authored by Francois Pellegrino, Christophe Coupe, and Egidio Marsico.

Their research sheds new light on the ways in which languages ensure the efficient communication of . The study is based on 20 short texts (each consisting of five ) translated into seven languages (Mandarin Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, Italian, and Spanish) and pronounced by about 60 .

Dr. Pellegrino outlined the major findings of the team's research: "Languages do need more or less time to tell the same story – for instance in our study, the texts spoken in English are much shorter than their Japanese counterparts. Despite those variations, there is a tendency to regulate the information rate, as shown by a strong negative correlation between the syllabic rate and the information density." In other words, languages that are spoken faster (i.e., that have a higher syllabic rate) tend to pack less information into each individual syllable (i.e. have a lower information density).

As Dr. Pellegrino notes, "this result illustrates that several encoding strategies are possible. For instance, Spanish is characterized by a fast rate of low-information syllables, while Mandarin exhibits a slower syllabic rate with more informative syllables. In the end, their information rates are very similar (differing only by four percent)." Furthermore, Dr. Pellegrino concluded, "we discovered a strong relationship between the information density of the syllables and the complexity of their linguistic structure." Pellegrino and colleagues' result confirms the existence of distinct linguistic ways of packing information into syllables which eventually interact with the actual speech rate to result in a tendency toward a uniform information rate.

The origin of the speech regulation remains unclear and the team explores several hypotheses in the article involving cognitive or social factors for potential follow-on research. Whether this variation involves cognitive or social factors, it also affirms our appreciation for the richness of languages and their power of expression across different cultures and peoples.

Explore further: Endangered languages threaten to disappear, researcher says

More information: A preprint version is available on line at

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not rated yet Sep 01, 2011
What about big talkers having nothing meaningful to say.
not rated yet Sep 01, 2011
Information is nonphysical. The associations for abstract thoughts are of physical origin. Sound is physical. The random, imaginative associations with sound are abstractions.

Spoken language is bounded by a human audible range. The origin of the speech regulation lies with a human audible range. A cognitive function.

And the significance, meaning and associations with sound heard is determined by how often the sound is used. A social function.

Never can the same story told, regardless if the story is repeated in the same language or in a different language, have the same significance, meaning and associations as the original story told.


Not only are you born with acoustical bias (audible range sensitivity, for example), you are expose to social (linguistic)bias though pronunciation/enunciation.
not rated yet Sep 01, 2011

All children of:
... big talkers having nothing meaningful to say. - nicknick

are left speechless.

Many see this as a righteous outcome.
not rated yet Sep 02, 2011
Out of curiosity: in terms of the "average/general" ratio of syllables (or sounds) to information transmitted, what languages arguably have a lower ratio than English?
not rated yet Sep 02, 2011
Good piece of science!

Of course, the basic "circuitry" of language is nerve tissue that we all share, so it is hardly surprising that different language groups have almost identical information rate.

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