The English sentence 'He runs' comprises two syllables. The Spanish sentence 'Corre' comprises two syllables. Both sentences mean the same thing, both sentences take about the same amount of time to say. (For the sake of the question, suppose they take exactly the same amount of time to say.) However, the English sentence comprises two words, whereas the Spanish sentence comprises only one.

Can a native Spanish speaker comprehend the meaning of 'Corre' faster than a native English speaker can comprehend 'He runs'? More generally, all other things the same, does the number of words affect the time it takes a person to understand an utterance?

  • Please define what a 'word' is ;)
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 16:30
  • Ha. Yeah - I've seen the debates about that. How about, anything you can find in the dictionary that isn't a phrase.
    – Hal
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 16:40
  • I think what you're trying to say is that corre carries more (grammatical) information than runs by itself. Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 4:30
  • @user3898238 Yeah, that's closer to it. I know that the time it takes to say something affects the amount of working memory we use when thinking about its denotation. For example, Welsh speakers, whose numbers take much time to say, can only recite five random numbers; whereas, Chinese speakers, whose numbers take the least time to say, can recite nine random numbers. (The correlation held across all the tested languages, so it's not an ethnic difference.) Evidently there is such a link between the words we use and the resources need to think with those words. (cont) –
    – Hal
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 17:21
  • I wanted to know whether the number of words might similarly affect the resources used. After all, it seems plausible that "corre" would link directly (so to speak) to ⟦he runs⟧; and that comprehending "he runs" would necessitate comprehension of its two constituents, and then relating ⟦he⟧ and ⟦runs⟧.
    – Hal
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 17:21

1 Answer 1



Theoretical linguistics would have many different ways to answer your question. There are two basic foundations in your question; "comprehension time" and "equal".

"Equal" To compare two utterances, you could divide it into words. But you could also divide it into any of these(if not more);

  • Phonemes
  • Phones
  • Morphemes
  • Morphs
  • Semantical meaning
  • Ortographical letters
  • Syntactical usage

(In that sense your two utterances are not equal in the first place.)

Some of the things I have listed will have much bigger effect on "comprehension time" than word division.

"Comprehension time" This would take a lot of resources to make a scientific test. I anticipate a lot of individual differences for "comprehension time", which is determined by many other factors than language alone. To compare "comprehension time" between two languages, and eliminating all other factors, would be a major task.

The result you possibly can get, if you actually manage to eliminate every "polluting" factor, would be difference in milliseconds. This small difference will never be bigger than the risque of "polluted" data, and therefore you could never possibly come to a scientific conclusion to your question, other than no.

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