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One word written in many languages
FLICKR/QUINN DOMBROWSKI One word, many languages. NOT GREEK TO YOU The most useful foreign languages an English speaker can learn, and why Sanda Golcea By Sanda GolceaJuly 6, 2015
How quickly are you getting your point across?
COULD YOU REPEAT THAT?

The language you speak changes how informative you can be

Olivia Goldhill
By Olivia Goldhill

Science reporter

Not only does the language you speak differ in its tone, syntax, and speed, it also changes the way you convey information.

Linguistic researchers studied 17 languages from around the world to track differences in “information rate”—how quickly a spoken language gets its point across—and ranked them accordingly. The study, published in Science this week, found that despite their many differences, languages have fairly similar rates of imparting information, though they achieve this rate in different ways.

The 17 languages studied contain a huge variety of speaking styles: Some have contrasting tones while others do not; Japanese and Spanish have 25 phonemes (distinct units of sound) compared to 40 in English and Thai; and there are a few hundred distinct syllables in Japanese, versus almost 7,000 English. There are also significant differences in the information density of each language, meaning the amount of information contained per syllable. However, the authors found that information density tends to be balanced out by speech rate (how quickly the language is spoken), meaning that, overall, humans get the some amount of information across in roughly the same amount of time.

For example, though Japanese tends to be spoken extremely quickly, it has a low amount of information per syllabus; meanwhile, Vietnamese is spoken slowly but is densely packed with information. This means that, overall, both languages convey information at fairly similar rates.

Science
Speech rate and information rate per language.

The researchers note that humans seem to avoid the information extremes, such as information-dense languages that are spoken quickly (or “high-fast”), and languages with low information density that are spoken slowly (“low-slow”). Both high-fast and low-slow languages would be too challenging, they hypothesize: A high-fast language would be more complex and less predictable to both speak and understand, while low-slow languages would call on speakers to commit more to working memory.  

There are still differences in information rates—French and English have a higher rate, while Hungarian, Thai, and Basque are on the lower end—but the range isn’t so great given the many differences between these languages.

These challenges can also explain why extremely fast speakers, in any language, tend to be less informative. Regardless of how quickly you prattle, our brains can only handle a certain information rate—no matter what language you’re prattling in. 

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