Is Spanish spoken faster? Or does Spanish just sound fast?

How does the speed of spoken Spanish compare to other languages?


We’ve all been there. Sitting across from a friendly person in a bar (or a not so friendly cashier with ‘0 Patience Points’) and what they say sounds like machine-gun fire in a language you’ve never heard of, never mind one you’ve actually tried to study. Spanish tends to get a bad reputation for being spoken really quickly but is Spanish spoken faster than any other languages? Let’s have a look.

According to a recent study, the ‘speed’ of a language is mostly subjective and the languages that are spoken fastest actually are less ‘information dense’. Basically, it’s mostly in your head but the faster they are the less there is to pick up.

The joint investigation by University of Leon and CNRS, studied the ‘speech tempo’ of seven of the major world languages - including English, German, Japanese and Spanish - and found some pretty amazing results.

The way you measure how fast a language is spoken - or ‘speech tempo’ in the scientific lingo - is to measure the amount of syllables spoken in a given period of time. However, the good news is that not every language carries the same amount of ‘information’ in each syllable. For example, English and German speakers don’t speak as ‘quickly’ as, say Spanish speakers, but each syllable carries more ‘meaning’. Or, in other words, English speakers say more without making as many different sounds. On the other hand, Spanish - which is the second fastest language in the study after Japanese - has very low ‘information density’ in its syllables so, although the words are spoken quickly, if you listen carefully you can pick up the gist of what’s being said more easily than you can if you’re somebody who’s trying to learn English with a fast talker.

This is where Big Bad Spanish comes in especially useful. All of the correct answers you choose in the game (plus those which aren’t exactly “correct” but will send you down a branch of a storyline) will have responses voiced by native speakers who take no prisoners when it comes to Spanish learners. They’re going to speak at their normal rate so you have to think fast and try to catch the gist of what they’re saying. This is perfect practice for ‘real life’ situations as the ‘average joe’ on the street a) doesn’t realise he/she’s speaking very fast and b) doesn’t much care about slowing down so you can understand where the bathroom is. The more you play the game the more you’ll understand from each different speaker until, finally, no matter who you come up against, what they say will become crystal clear.

Obviously, “Spanish,” just like English, is spoken differently by native speakers all around the world. Whether it’s their local dialects (think of the difference between US English and Australian English) or simply a different accent, the idea of ‘one single Spanish vernacular’ simply doesn’t exist.

This brings up the question: “Which is the fastest Spanish-speaking country?” and there’s a lot of debate on the subject. Colombian Spanish is often used in telecommunications and for television voice-overs due to the fact that it has a slower ‘speech tempo’ than some of the other accents/dialects and there is less ‘word eating’ too. ‘Word Eating’ is a kind of bizarre initiation process any Spanish learner will have to go through but don’t worry, there’s nothing dangerous or disgusting about it. All it means is that certain letters and syllables aren’t pronounced clearly, they’re “eaten” by the speaker. For example, the word “gonna” ‘eats’ the end of the word “going” and the entirety of “to”. Castillian (from mainland Spain) and Puerto Rican Spanish are infamous for this. For that reason, we’ve decided to have the voice-overs used in Big Bad Spanish performed by native speakers from the various Spanish-speaking countries around the world.

Learning ‘Book Spanish’ is a lovely notion, but imagine only ever having learned how Queen Elizabeth of England speaks and you go on holiday to Hicksville, Louisiana. What Big Bad Spanish teaches you is to adapt to different accents and also to some of the turns of phrase and even slang that you’re definitely going to encounter on the street. It’s a much more ‘realistic’ learning experience than memorising your guidebook and it’s a hell of a lot more fun.

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