Researchers at the University of Lyon confirm that the speakers of some languages really do utter more syllables per second than others.
It is the universal experience of anyone having a first serious encounter in a language he or she is learning: "Those people talk so fast I will never be able to understand them, let alone hold my own in a conversation."
The learner timidly poses a carefully rehearsed question about the availability of tickets for tonight's performance or directions to the museum or whatever, and the response all but gallops out of the mouth of the native speaker like a runaway horse.
Now researchers at the University of Lyon in France have presented findings that provide language learners some validation for their feelings – but only some. The team found that, objectively, some languages are spoken faster than others, in terms of syllables per minute. But there's a trade-off: Some languages pack more meaning into their syllables.
The key element turns out to be what the researchers call "density."
Time magazine published a widely reproduced article on the Lyon research, which originally came out in Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America. The team in Lyon recruited several dozen volunteers, each a native speaker of one of several common languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, or Spanish. Vietnamese was used as a sort of control language.
The volunteers read a series of 20 different texts in their respective native tongues into a recorder. The researchers then counted all the syllables in each of the recordings to determine how many syllables per second were spoken in each language. That's a lot of counting.