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Oftentimes while watching a subtitled foreign film, I find that reading the subtitles aloud (usually in my head) at the same1 pace as the speaker takes less time than what's spoken in the native language. Is it possible that spoken English is more efficient than other languages?

Like the question Do most languages need more space than English? I'm looking for hard data or relevant studies to support or discount my anecdotal hypothesis.

At first I thought this might be an illusion, similar to what Peter Roach describes in Some Languages are Spoken More Quickly Than Others. There are three possibilities he outlines:

  1. some languages really are spoken more rapidly, and some more slowly, than others as a natural result of the way their sounds are produced.
  2. we get the impression that some languages are spoken more quickly than others because of some sort of illusion.
  3. in some societies it is socially acceptable or approved to speak rapidly, and in others slow speaking is preferred.

Roach concludes that (emphasis mine):

[...] while at normal speaking speed the sounds-per-second rate for all languages may be effectively the same, some languages are characteristically using higher and lower speaking rates than other languages in particular social situations.

Delving further, I was led to a crosslinguistic study on speech information rates. Their initial hypothesis is that information rates (IR) are the same across languages:

However, IRL exhibits a greater than 30% degree of variation between Japanese (0.74) and English (1.08), invalidating the first hypothesis of a strict cross-language equality of rates of information.

Out of the seven languages in the study2, English had the highest IR. This seems to tentatively confirm my intuition. Still, there's a good deal of research left to do and the paper discusses many of its shortcomings.

Have there been similar studies that shed light on how English's "efficiency" (IR) stacks up? Also, is it possible that there is a wholly different explanation for my experience (e.g. subtitles are designed to be read quickly and actually "cut off" the full meaning of the speaker, or a confirmation bias)?


1: as best as I can approximate
2: French, Italian, Spanish, German, English, Mandarin, Japanese

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@XavierVidalHernández: I think you would need to define "efficient", and for that you would need to define goals first, or there can be no efficiency. As to vocabulary, what do you mean by this? The vocabulary of the average English speaker? The number of entries in the OED (if so, why?)? –  Cerberus Sep 10 '12 at 21:58
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@XavierVidalHernández Do you have a source that shows English is unique in using "double duty" words? I doubt this is the case. Also, English has all kinds of "excess bits" (e.g. "do-support", lack of more compact inflections, etc.) that other languages lack. –  Zairja Sep 10 '12 at 22:02
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@XavierVidalHernández "the richness of vocabulary is really without limits!" English has more vocabulary than other Languages? Can you define and then prove this? –  Alenanno Sep 10 '12 at 22:51
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Already been on Language Log –  jlawler Sep 10 '12 at 23:49
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Don't forget that subtitles don't provide a full translation, but almost always simplify what is being said, to give people time to read the subtitles AND watch the images. I've occasionally watched movies where this was not the case (notably on TV5 in The Netherlands), and it was almost impossible to catch up with reading the subtitles. –  gerrit Sep 11 '12 at 14:42

6 Answers 6

This is a very interesting question which has been the subject of many studies. I list just one, below. Traditionally, this question is related to the concepts of Information Density, Syllabic Rate and Information Rate (all of which are discussed and addressed in teh cited paper).

There are a few hypotheses which I hope you will find answers your question - the main reason that they are not facts (although please feel free to disagree) is that linguists tend to disagree on the metrics of information density.

The first is that there is a cross-linguistics "constant" of sorts, in relation to Information Rate. However, this is difficult to prove (for the reasons outlined above), and even within studies, it has been found that the Information Rate is not constant, but rather a range or cline.

The second is that, because of the constant, where there is greater Information Density, the Syllabic Density will also increase (and hence the time taken to understand/express ideas will increase).

Now, looking at the paper, it would seem that English, while having a greater Information Rate than, say, Japanese, invalidates the first hypothesis, of a strict constant. The second hypothesis, which is that language limits the Rate within a range of values to "guarantee efficient communcation, fast enough to convey useful information and slow enough to limit the communication cost (in its articulatory, perceptual, and cognitive dimensions)."

Looking at the data though, one would have to consider context, social and otherwise, that would affect the IR.

A CROSS-LANGUAGE PERSPECTIVE ON SPEECH INFORMATION RATE

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This may take less time, but it does not mean that the same information is conveyed. Being a native Russian speaker I find that with English I can convey only the basic meaning of a sentence and the overtones and other circumstances are lost.

Sometimes you can improve the resemblance of the original meaning by adding some additional qualifier words, but in many cases you cannot do anything without explanation that would span a page (and even then it is unlikely would be understood precisely).

In short one can claim that Black&White video is more efficient than the color one (it takes less volume), but actually it conveys less information.

I would describe English as a language with less "resolution" than Russian, that is less suitable to convey the details. With English you land not exactly at the point but somewhere near it (which may be enough for understanding a film though).

In English, for example, it is difficult for a speaker to covey his own attitude to the subject without stating it explicitly.

I think that there could be found examples of hate speech or political propaganda in Russian or German which after being translated to English would look quite neutral and unmarked. The English speaker would not even understand why the sequence is considered offensive or emotional.

A similar thing is described in Orwell's "1984" where a new, simplified language "newspeak" (based on English) is invented. It has further reduced "resolution" of the meaning so you would have no means to convey emotions and shades (for example, one word "ungood" for bad, terrible, poor, inefficient etc).

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As a translator, I can assure you that English is no more efficient than other languages.

First, subtitles often miss out whole bits of dialogue and definitely leave out swathes of meaning.

Second, there is no recognized measure of language efficiency. I did a comparative study of cohesion in English and Czech and found that word counts were very unreliable. There is no clear definition of what a word is and most words in any sentence only serve the function of holding the text together. And all languages have different rules. For instance, German or Czech will use more connectives where English will rely on the reader to make the connections in their head. Information density is a very discipline-specific concept. There is loads of 'information' conveyed by any one word that would not be captured by this notion.

Third, many bilingual speakers will tell you that there are certainly areas in which one language feels more expressive than another. So it's true that English adjective chain formation makes saying some things much easier (kind of like German word formation). But a language like Czech can express many things more efficiently thanks to its aspect or case markings. So overall, all languages are probably equally efficient.

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Anixx, with all due respect, as a "native Russian speaker" you'd be the last person I'd trust as to which language is more capable of inflection. The suggestion that Russian has words that would require an entire English page to translate is completely ridiculous. You write English very well, but you may not understand some of the spoken subtleties that convey these "overtones" you refer to. It is possible English accomplishes this through more subtle means than words: slight pauses, inflections, even minor dialect code-switchings. But that doesn't mean English is unable to convey nuance, it just means you don't recognize it. Ultimately language must reflect the speakers state of mind: your post inadvertently implies English speakers somehow have a lower state of mind than Russian speakers. (Obviously, some of them do! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dlyCTswYH0) It could also be cultural and pedagogic. If you're in the UK, speaking about certain things or speaking with a certain high degree of "resolution" about certain subjects, to use your word, is considered declassé. Heard of "omit needless words"?

This also has much to do with the speaker's overall level of literacy; while an NFL football team and the 1920s Bloomsbury group would be mutually intelligible, they wouldn't have much to say to each other. And subtleties would be completely lost.

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You obviously are confused about what inflection means. There is literally no way English has as much inflection as Russian. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inflection –  Cayetano Gonçalves Aug 16 '13 at 20:14
    
There is no claim in the above answer that English has as much inflection as Russian. I believe @hippietrail's point was just that English can be as expressive as Russian, and has different means of achieving this. Incidentally, i completely agree with Hippietrail - Anixx's answer is somewhat misguided, and there isn't any evidence to back up his claims. It's worrying that (at the time of writing) it's the top-voted answer. –  P Elliott Aug 17 '13 at 17:58
    
I once tried to learn Láadan - it definitely made it easier to express certain subtleties just by using certain case markers or inflections, like if I knew something because of direct experience, or someone I trust told me so; or if I had regrets about the way I had said something but not about what I had said, etc. It would take much more words to express the same in English or Spanish, or be completely left out of speech unless explicitely included. Don't know Russian but I think there must be some natural languages with similar properties. –  Joe Pineda Dec 13 '13 at 2:17

Is it possible that spoken English is more efficient than other languages?

Yes. See other answers for hard data.

However, subtitles are a poor source for proof (one way or another).

Oftentimes while watching a subtitled foreign film, I find that reading the subtitles aloud (usually in my head) at the same1 pace as the speaker takes less time than what's spoken in the native language.

Try watching an English language film, with English language subtitles turned on. You will often find that reading the subtitles aloud (usually in your head) at the same pace as the speaker takes less time because so much of the spoken dialog is not rendered in the subtitles.

I've been doing this more and more as the wife and I watch movies or Netflix while the kids are falling asleep. The volume is sometimes so low we have a hard time hearing what is going on, so we turn on the subtitles. We quite often turn them off as the mismatch is so jarring.

This is personal anecdote, and not hard data in any way.

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I agree about subtitles being a very poor source of evidence for this but I don't think the other studies cited constitute 'hard data'. They are very theory specific when it comes to what constitutes information conveyed by a language. When you look at real life uses, overall all languages do pretty much equally well at their job but there are many context-specific areas where one language can make expression easier than another. –  Dominik Lukes Aug 22 '13 at 7:24
    
Well, it is still possible. This answer was focusing on the subtitles-vs-spoken differences. Which is a poor comparison. Even English subtitles can be more efficient that spoken English -- if the subtitler omits lots of stuff. –  Michael Paulukonis Aug 22 '13 at 13:13

English is efficient, especially when it comes to adjectives. :) Many different meanings are joined together, and you end up with adjectives with compound meanings, like samey

SAMEY similar and boring ▪ He has written five samey novels. http://www.learnersdictionary.com/search/samey

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