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A recent study suggests that the language you speak changes the way in which you convey information. A team of linguistic researchers who studied 17 Eurasian languages, tracked differences in their ‘information rate’ – that is, how quickly a spoken language gets its point across – and ranked these languages accordingly. The team concluded that while languages do have similar rates of imparting information, they achieve this rate in significantly different ways.

The researchers found that languages, regardless of structure or origin, tend to convey about the same amount of information per second despite considerable variations in the speed of speech. Essentially, while some languages are rapid-fire and others are more languid, there is no significant difference in the speed at which information is shared. The team found that the fastest language reached 9.1 syllables per second, whereas the slowest hit a mere 4.3 syllables per second. Yet, this was offset by the amount of information, measured in bits, that each syllable contained. This tended to vary quite significantly, from 4.8 bits per syllable for Basque to 8.0 bits per syllable for Vietnamese.

Further, these findings suggest that languages which pack a lot of information into sounds and syllables tend to be spoken more slowly, while those with a low information density are delivered at a more rapid rate. The average information rate tends to hover consistently around 39.15 bits per second. For example, although Japanese tends to be spoken at a quick pace, it has a low amount of information per syllabus; on the other hand, Vietnamese is spoken at a slow rate but is densely packed with information. This implies that, overall, both languages convey information at roughly similar rates.

Students planning to apply for Modern Languages can consider how research such as this sheds light into a seemingly bizarre universal pattern in human languages, reflecting on how language can be perceived as ‘the product of a multiscale communicative niche construction process’.

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