Mandarin vs English speed race?
The author is a postgrad in Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia. He received a “2nd Class Prize” in the 2010 Chinese Bridge, a worldwide Mandarin speaking competition heavily rigged in his favour. He is also an occasional contributor at Danwei.org
As Sima and Syz’s recent pieces have noted, written Chinese is a wonderfully compact language. Indeed, as the huge wave of microblogging (微博/wēibó) swelling in China reminds us, you can say much more in 140 Chinese characters than 140 letters.
But how compact is spoken Chinese?
There’s a post on ‘Baidu Knows’ titled, “Do foreigners speak English at the same speed we speak Chinese?”. The “Best Answer” goes as follows:
Their [non-Chinese] language speed is a bit faster than ours.
It’s because English sentences are made up of words, and words often have more than one syllable. Chinese sentences are made up of characters, each just one syllable. Therefore, when saying a sentence or expressing a meaning, foreigners articulate more syllables, yet the time they take to say a sentence is basically the same as us. This indicates that the speed of their pronunciation is fast, so the speed of their language is faster than ours.
Leaving aside the dubious distinction between English and Chinese sentences – clearly Chinese sentences are made up of words too – Chinese words indeed very often contain less syllables than their English equivalents.
Take this sentence, casually translated into Chinese, as an example 就拿这一句话随便翻译成汉语做例子: counting “casually” as three syllables and “这一句” as two to reflect actual spoken practice, it’s 19 syllables English to 15 syllables Chinese. (I’m sure readers can point out more succinct versions of that sentence in both English and Chinese.)
The Baidu Best Answerer’s claim is that “foreigners” articulate their syllables quicker than Mandarin speakers. This is based on their assumption that, although English sentences typically contain more syllables than their Mandarin equivalents, “the time they take to say a sentence is basically the same as us”.
My experience has been the opposite. My laowai brain often struggles to keep up with speedy Chinese conversations, and I’ve long had the sense that it’s due to the processor in my brain being overwhelmed by the density of the data stream.
If the Best Answerer is mistaken, and syllables are actually articulated at roughly the same speed in Mandarin and English, that might mean spoken Mandarin really is more succinct than spoken English. If Mandarin words and sentences really do have less syllables on average, could it be that Chinese speakers can actually pack more meaning into a given number of syllables than English speakers?