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

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?

18 responses to “Mandarin vs English speed race?”

  1. Karan says:

    So, initially when I started learning Chinese, I used to think “Whoa! Chinese is so compact because it does away with all that annoying grammar cruft.” But, when I actually stopped to think, I found that it’s the “grammar cruft” that makes languages like English “faster”. For example, Mandarin does not have tenses, but denotes completion using “aspects” like 了,完,好, etc. So, at the micro level, you can see that whereas in Chinese you have to say “吃了” (2 syllables), in English “ate” (1 syllable) does the trick.

    At the macro (sentence) level, it’s very hard to say which language is more compact. Sometimes, the Chinese grammar is more verbose, for example:

    “I sang well today” (5 syllables)
    “我今天唱得很好” (7 syllables)

    “Are you free?” (3 syllables)
    “你有空嗎?” (4 syllables)

    However, in colloquial Chinese, it’s easy to drop the subject, aspect, and other words, whereas even in colloquial English, it feels very unnatural to drop the subject, for example, in most cases. So:

    “I sang well today” (5 syllables)
    “今天唱得好” (5 syllables)

    “He said he was going to the bathroom” (10 syllables)
    “他說要上廁所去” (7 syllables)

    Verdict? Tie. In general, I’ve found that Mandarin and English are pretty much neck-to-neck in information density per syllable.

    Also, in both English and Chinese, it really depends on what register you are using. The more colloquial/informal you are, the more likely you are to use native English words which are single syllable and, in the case of English verbs, many have single syllable conjugations (come, came; 來, 來了); the more formal you get, your words will generally tend to be longer (arrive, arrived; 到達, 已到達).

    Of course, other languages can do better. For example, “pro-drop” languages like Italian, Spanish or Hindi will have a better chance against Mandarin. Languages like Japanese are going to do terribly (against almost anything else).

  2. Karan says:

    (Also, it’s generally the case that you’re going to think that a language that you don’t have a good grasp on is spoken “extremely fast”.)

  3. Julen says:

    Very interesting subject. But I definitely would not take a Baidu zhidao answer seriously, people there are usually clueless. To begin with, this usual misconception that there is “Chinese” and “foregin” phenomena, the latter being all roughly the same in their barbarian simplicity…

    Clearly, there are many languages in the World, some are more succint and some are less succint than mandarin. It makes no sense at all to group “foreign” ones.

    Interestingly, in terms of syllables per word, English is one of the most succint languages, way more than Spanish, Basque or other European languages I know. One reason behind this economy of syllables is that English has a great number of different sound combinations. There are way more distinct syllables in English than in mandarin, even accounting for the tones. I have always found it funny when English-speaking people call Chinese a “monosylabic” language, when English is THE monosyllabic language, as far as mainstream languages go.

    In comparison with mandarin, my first gut feeling is that English has less syllables/word than mandarin, if only because of the few available sound combinations. Stats about this should be easy to come across or calculate.

    Now what you are doing here is “syllables per phrase” where the syllables/word stat is affected by the different use of grammar elements, such as articles, etc. in each language.

    The best way to answer the question is to get hold of corpus (corpii?) of spoken language in Chinese and English and compare numbers. It doesn’t even need to be the same texts in both languages, because what you are comparing is ratios (syllable/sentence) , as long as the 2 corpus are large enough and representative of what you consider typical spoken language then you are good.

  4. The difference between Chinese and English in terms of its syllables, is that at least each syllable has the potential to have meaning. Let me explain: Let’s take the word: 开车。 Both 开 and 车 have meaning on their own and together. However, words in English has more “meaningless” syllables. For instance take the second word in this comment: “difference” – dif – fer – ence. Not one of those syllables mean anything on its own.

    The reason for Chinese being like it is, is because it has isolating morphology and density in terms of its meaning per syllable. I don’t think, maybe in the case of proper names, that Chinese words and syllables can NOT have meaningless syllables. Even the 过, 了 and 着 indicate meaning by showing aspect/tense. Even further 过, 了 and 着 can meaning many other things too.

  5. Kellen says:


  6. Kellen Parker says:

    First, every syllable in difference has some meaning. Ence has so much meaning that you can’t escape it’s occurrence. Oh man there is it again.

    Second, you can’t say every syllable in chinese has its own clear meaning any better than you’re claiming for English. See the whole 机+会 silliness for support.

  7. Andrew Chubb says:

    @Karan: good point about English tenses being economical. Spoken English’s contractions like “can’t” and “we’re” often beat Chinese’s “不能” and “我们要” too. At the same time, in practice you often get contractions in Mandarin, e.g. 比较 being pronounced “biào”, or 就是 as “jiùr”…or even 这样 as a kind of crazy “zhèang” dipthong.

    All of that suggests how syllables are a fuzzy concept anyway. Syllable count can only be a rough guide because different syllables take longer to say than others, e.g. English “strength” or Mandarin “chuǎng”. (The speed at which a speaker can get a given string of syllables out presumably also depends on how far the tongue has to move between syllables.)

    @Julen: agreed, the Baidu answer isn’t there because i agree with it, but because of the interesting questions it raises about relative speed & syllable count. To be fair, the author is explicit that they are referring to is English (even as they assume English is the language all foreigners speak!)

  8. Well, from a bogus question, you get a bogus response. Garbage in, garbage out.

    Interested parties may care to look at this short paper, which touches on a few important articles that have looked at this question before, from the perspective of oral translation, ie interpretation. In particular, sections 3 and 4.

  9. Julen says:

    Great link, and worth a careful read. As a frequent listener of the XinWen LianBo I have to say I have often marveled at the amount of info the guys are delivering per second. It is reassuring to read this report, I am not the only one who finds that too fast.

    I think there is an interesting subject here to investigate further. And definitely, we have to ask the right questions and consider it carefully to do the subject justice.

  10. Andrew Chubb says:

    Thanks for the link, super article.

    “The human brain is like a washing machine. The drum must never be overloaded with laundry, or there will be no room for spinning, and cleaning will not be thorough.”

    …sums up my experience precisely.

    In the article Li Changshuan talks about Chinese speaking speed in characters (cpm), and English speaking speed in wpm, putting the ratio at 1.3-1.7 Chinese characters per English word. Plugging a bunch of random English excerpts into the calculator at Wordcalc suggests the ratio of syllables to words in English to be roughly the same (1.35-1.52).

    So Mandarin newsreaders generally articulate way more syllables per minute than English newsreaders. That doesn’t automatically mean they’re sending out more information per minute (or second), but that seems to be the feeling both Julen and I are referring to.

  11. Chris Waugh says:

    Karan’s comment reminds me of a question I get very often:

    “Of all the languages you’ve studied, which is the easiest to learn?”

    And my answer is always something along the lines of:

    “They’re all about the same in terms of ease or difficulty of study. Each language has its own easy bits and hard bits, and it all comes out in the wash.”

    I suspect a certain principle is at work here. Mandarin and English each have their advantages and disadvantages in the amount of information that can be packed into a given time period, but surely the overall amount of information will work out at about the same, even though each language may be more efficient at packing in certain types of information and less efficient at packing in other types of information?

  12. Kellen Parker says:

    I pretty much believe what Chris Waugh said. I’d imagine that if we were able to look at the sum of all the parts (e.g. degree of written complexity, spoken complexity, ease of use etc.), we’d find that every living language is basically identical in overall complexity and difficulty.

    I get a similar question somewhat often and give a similar answer.

    Sanskrit though, that’s messed up.

  13. Andrew Chubb says:

    @Kellen, Chris – makes sense. And if that is the case, the Chinese newsreaders referred to (in the article linked above) are either articulating more syllables for the same amount of info, or they are actually sending out (though not necessarily delivering) more info per minute than English newsreaders.

    Would be interesting how well the average native English speaker would follow a newsreader who spoke at 200wpm…

  14. Kellen says:

    That’d be easy to test to some extent. A computer can surely be made to read any given text at that speed. What program you’d use, however, is another question. I don’t know one off the top of my head.

  15. GAC says:

    My experience is somewhat different. Having learned Spanish as a second language before Chinese, I found Chinese relatively slow. Of course, this perception may be fueled by stereotype or by the tendency of Spanish speakers to tie vowels together across word boundaries (among other shortening techniques), but there seems to be a difference, as I always miss syllables in Spanish, but I rarely do in Chinese (even when I don’t understand the vocabulary.

  16. Max Loh says:

    200 wpm is not fast. In fact it is about average for speech. It is less than twice as fast as typing.

  17. Surely this argument is about as useful as the one about English supposedly having the biggest vocabulary in the world (hah!).

    There are just too many variables and biased perceptions to stake a claim one way or the other.

    By the way, my favourite contraction in Mandarin is 不知道 being expressed as “bla”. Gold. As for English, I am quite the fan of “sup?”

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