Why does Spanish go so fast? Three key factors + a solution to sharp your ear

Spanish students always have the same complaint: Spanish goes way too fast! This is especially true for speakers of Germanic languages, such as English, Dutch or German. In this article you will find all you need to tackle down this problem: a precise, science-based answer to that question (split in three different key factors) and also a doable solution to sharp your ear and overcome this listening issue.

It is not an illusion; Spanish goes indeed faster than other languages. In fact, its word count will be higher if we take any piece of text and we translate it into both English and Spanish. Even though it may take around the same time to express that idea out loud in both languages. Shocking, huh? Below you will find three key factors to consider, in order to understand why your Hispanic friends always seem to be in such a constant state of rush when using their mouths for communication. Hopefully, this article will also make it easier for you to follow better that speed of speech in the future.

DENSITY AND VELOCITY

The velocity means the speed at which words are uttered. It can be counted by the number of syllables or words per minute, among other ways of measuring.
On the other side, the density of a language is the amount of information in each unit of meaning (like syllables, words, or sentences).
A study made by Peregrino, Coupé and Marsico for the University of Lyon (2011) showed that, out of the seven languages taken into account, Spanish is the second fastest, but it also has the second lowest informational density. That is to say, Spanish requires a larger amount of words to express an idea, if compared to English, German or even Italian. Thus, its users need to employ more syllables to convey a certain meaning. But in Spanish not all words are of supreme importance, so some of them are simply pronounced quickly, to get to the point as soon as possible.

Table taken from the study carried out by Peregrino, Coupé and Marsico for the University of Lyon in 2011.

HIGH REGISTER

In addition to needing more words to express the same meaning, it is possible to add that, in general, Spanish has a very high register.
Register is understood as the set of variables that modify the form of the speech. Different words are constructions are used when talking with friends and when lecturing a History class, and those are two different registers.
But even in its most informal context, Spanish tends to have a higher register than other languages. Its users are usually trying to employ high-register manners almost all the time. Besides, Spanish generally tends to be very friendly. In that attempt, it ends up plagued with empty words which only function is to create empathy. It also over uses periphrases to generate kindness. That high register also makes up a high word count, but the density of its meaning is frequently quite light. So a lot of words need to be said before the idea is fully presented.

LOW NUMBER OF SOUNDS

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language. A phoneme is, for example, the sound of the letter “a”, which can in turn be pronounced front, central or back. Spanish has only 24 phonemes, whereas Dutch has 39, English 45, and Lithuanian 59. The short amount of sounds makes it easier, and even necessary, to speak faster.

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So far we have the root of the problem. But if you keep on reading, you will find a great idea to try to solve this issue and improve yourself over time, with practice and a good deal of dedication.

SOLUTION: MAKE IT SLOWER!

I know this doesn’t seem to make any sense if you aim to speak as closely to a native at some point, but it actually does. Just because you don’t understand everything now doesn’t mean you will never understand anything: the more you listen, the more you get used to it. It is better trying to understand at a slower pace first, and keep on speeding up to a normal speech over time.

-If you are talking to a person, simply speak slower yourself, and mention: “más lento, por favor” from time to time. The most likely thing to happen is that your counterpart also begins to speak slower, or to a more-easily-to-understand tempo. Conversations tend to be an exchange. If your receiver is also a good sender, he or she will understand and adapt.

-If you are listening to a video or a podcast, there are actual ways to control the speed. For example, in YouTube you can go to Settings > Playback Speed and select anything below normal. The same with Spotify Podcast: you go to Change podcast speed, and select anything below normal. It is a great practice to listen this first slowly, and then at the normal pace. That way, your brain will start making associations and getting more and more used to it.

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Good luck understanding Spanish and its F1 speed. Don’t forget to bear in mind these explanations and possible solutions next time you face a speedy-language situation.

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