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I am not sure if this goes for everyone, but do you ever find yourself thinking that some foreign languages are spoken faster than others?

I have been in contact with many foreign languages at a local level through travelling and living abroad and as we are increasingly becoming a multilingual and multicultural society, I often find myself asking this question.

It is understandable that there is some variation between individuals in their speech. We have all come across a plodder, who seems to purposely pronounce every word down to T. Then we get those who talk so fast they barely have time to breath and we barely have time to have any input into the conversation. In English we can certainly say the same for the many dialects around the country. For example, as an English speaker in Wales, my ‘Londoner’ friends quite often tell me they can’t understand what I am saying! And after studying in Bristol for four years, I would definitely class people in the South West as plodders. All in all, general consensus is that, pushing dialects aside, most will probably believe that foreign languages are spoken faster than their own.

We have all pleaded to our foreign language teachers in the past that they speak too fast, and I am also very familiar with this criticism from my time as an English language assistant. And I see myself as having a ‘neutral’ English accent and wasn’t sure I could do much more to speak ‘clearer’. My colleagues from Newcastle and Liverpool didn’t really stand a chance in the beginning as English language assistants, but we got through it!

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I find myself asking this more often than not when I hear speakers of East Asian languages, i.e. Chinese and Japanese. Whilst trying to figure out what it is, it seems that they seem to get their words out so fast that I even wonder if they know what each other is on about. As well as that, it frightens me how difficult it must be to converse in the language as a learner! Can you imagine trying to have a conversation in these languages, it just seems so daunting from the prospect of the language speed! We find our customers like to have an interpreter at their fingertips and regularly use our telephone interpreting services.

A little on speed

Professional translators have discovered that the average comfortable word amount that is produced per minute is 150. We can compare words from one language to another to gain some sort of answer to the topic being discussed, however, this would be far from accurate if we compare the word lengths from one language to another. For example, German has a very disproportionate number of very long words, whereas Chinese is made up of very short words. As a linguist myself, I know that the word count from language to language is 99% never going to work out the same. It just doesn’t happen.
But then what about syllables? Research has shown that when the speed of spoken English is compared to spoken Finnish, the former language may appear to be spoken faster if the amount of words are counted, but Finnish was faster when syllables were counted. This is another reason why some languages may appear to be spoken faster than others.

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From experience as a foreign language teaching assistant and as a language learner myself, I have come to the conclusion that even though in the first instance of hearing familiar foreign languages being spoken, they may appear to be faster than others, it is actually all down to the understanding of the language by the listener. In the case of language learning, whilst we are attempting to grasp some understanding of what is being said, we allow words to pile up at the ear before we can understand the sentence as a whole, therefore blocking out the second part of the sentence whilst trying to make sense of the first part of the sentence and being left with half a sentence to respond to, leading to frustration and putting the blame on the speed the language is spoken.

It is a weird little thing, but something I have always pondered over in the past, and probably still will, even though I have come to a sensible conclusion. Languages are just so fascinating and what all of us here at Lingua Translations care about! Check out our the history of Lingua Translations to read all about The Dream Team.

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