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Foreign languages sound faster?

  1. Nov 29, 2008 #1


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    When I hear someone speaking a language I don't understand it always sounds to me as if they're speaking very quickly. But if I ask them to translate what they where saying, or even better, if I start to learn the language then it suddenly goes back to a normal speed.
    Does this happen to anyone else? The best explanation I could think of is that for some reason when we hear syllables that we don't recognize we assume them to be complete words.
    What do you think?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 29, 2008 #2
    When we speak, we slur the words together. When we know a language, the mind automatically sorts the words out and it doesn't sound slurred. However, when we don't know a language, we hear it as it really is: all mashed together. That makes it sound like the person is speaking rapidly.
  4. Nov 29, 2008 #3


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    Good question Daniel. I've learned Spanish quite recently and to tell you the truth I didn't get this sensation. When I was 18 I went to a trip in Peru alone (for about 35 days) so that I had to speak in order to live. I resided to some friend's houses and the families talked to me all the time. I couldn't understand most of it but I could catch the main ideas. However I didn't find they talked rapidly. Now that I speak Spanish at a near native language I find that people just speak it as fast as my mother tongue...
    When I hear Italian (I don't speak it) I don't find they talk rapidly neither, but maybe it's just me.
    But in your case it's a good question. Maybe I could ask my mother (she has a Ph.D. in linguistic from M.I.T.). I'll think about it tonight if I have time.
  5. Nov 29, 2008 #4
    imagine how we sound to them.
  6. Dec 1, 2008 #5
    It's like when I first learned german, I thought everyone was shouting at each other :smile: It just used to have an aggressive tone to it, especially with the guttural effects. After i learned a little more, it became normal and when I got a lot better it's beauty shone out a lot more.

    When I first heard flemish, compared to dutch, i thought it was very fluid and had a romantic language fluency to it (they use a lot of french words and phrases and are less guttural than Netherland Dutch speakers), but when I learned it, it lost that and became a lot more normal. Kind of lost it's romance a bit, but I still like using it.

    I mumble english and use a lot of colloquialisms with friends and it makes it a little harder for foreigners to understand all that we say, I try to annunciate and use simpler words and sentences when speaking directly to people who do not speak english as a first language.
  7. Dec 1, 2008 #6
    Exactly the same speed as they sound to us I suppose.

    And in reply to the OP, yes, everyone hears a foreign language to be faster.
  8. Dec 1, 2008 #7


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    yeah I agree. Especially Japanese and Spanish.

    I also agree with redargon that German has a very harsh tone for someone who doesn't understand the words (i.e. me)
  9. Dec 1, 2008 #8


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    They're not speaking faster, you're listening slower. Yes, it's normal. Since a normal speaking speed is faster than the speed you can process the language when you have to think about every word, it goes by too quickly if you're still learning and they aren't speaking more slowly for your benefit. And, yes, the other aspect of not knowing where the breaks between words are also contributes.

    If you're speaking to someone who is still learning your own language, you can take that into consideration too. Don't just slow down your overall speech, but consciously leave extra pauses between words so they can determine where the breaks are between words.
  10. Dec 1, 2008 #9


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    I totally agree with that... Still I don't understand why I don't have the feeling they're talking fast. I don't know Japanese but I tried to learn it and each time I listen to it I don't find they talk fast. The same apply with Portuguese and Italian (though I can understand them much better than Japanese even if I can't talk them). Maybe my brain is more focused on how fast we pronounce syllables than on the rhythm on which I can understand words and sentences. Nevertheless I don't think I'm different from anyone, so it's really strange to me. I'm very sincere when I say I don't experience this feeling that seems common. Yesterday I listened for a couple of minutes people talking in Turk and for me it was like they were talking at a normal rate even if I couldn't understand a single word.
    EDIT : By the way I just asked to my mother and surprisingly she told me she never heard of such feeling nor had it with any language.
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2008
  11. Dec 1, 2008 #10
    If two foreigner are meet, there is a method to communicate in wrighting.
    I almost can not hear english, and I almost can not say English.
    I my case, English is a literal language, not a vocal language.
  12. Dec 1, 2008 #11

    D H

    Staff: Mentor

    Sports announcers do speak faster than normal, in any language. A multilingual acquaintance judged his fluency in a language based on how well he could understand a sports announcer speaking that language.
  13. Dec 1, 2008 #12

    Chi Meson

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    I had always though that Spanish, in particular, sounded "faster" than other foreign (to me) languages. And this is something I noticed while learning Spanish in college: Take any phrase in Spanish, and compare it to the equivalent phrase in English and count the syllables in both phrases. There are nearly always more syllables in the Spanish phrase by about 10%.

    One sentence I made up just now seems to be an extreme example:
    "We should have bought that large yellow house across the street." [13 syllables]
    Now en Espanol:
    "Debemos haber comprado esa casa amarilla grande a través de la calle." [25 syllables]

    That was a "textbook" translation (via babelfish), so a native speaker would probably not say it exactly that way, and I deliberately picked a subjunctive past perfect (or whatever that was), but the general idea holds.

    So the words, phrases, and meanings come across at the same speed, generally, but more syllables pass by in the same time. I think that this only adds to the effect; the primary reason appears to have been covered.
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2008
  14. Dec 1, 2008 #13


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    I'm not sure I'd agree with this but you might be right.
    Note also that French for example (and Spanish is a smaller way) talked language is much different from the written one. Instead of gaining in speed it will get transformed into smaller words. For example in French you might read "Es-tu capable?" (Are you able?) while a man in the street would say "T'es cap?". Even if it's faster to pronounce the latter, the syllables are not told in a faster way. So ideas can be exchanged faster while a foreigner wouldn't note any difference in the talked language speed.
    Thus I'm not sure ideas flow at the same rate no matter how many syllables must be pronounced.
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