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:
- some languages really are spoken more rapidly, and some more slowly, than others as a natural result of the way their sounds are produced.
- we get the impression that some languages are spoken more quickly than others because of some sort of illusion.
- 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