The language you speak changes how informative you can be

Olivia Goldhill:

Not only does the language you speak differ in its tone, syntax, and speed, it also changes the way you convey information.

Linguistic researchers studied 17 languages from around the world to track differences in “information rate”—how quickly a spoken language gets its point across—and ranked them accordingly. The study, published in Science this week, found that despite their many differences, languages have fairly similar rates of imparting information, though they achieve this rate in different ways.

The 17 languages studied contain a huge variety of speaking styles: Some have contrasting tones while others do not; Japanese and Spanish have 25 phonemes (distinct units of sound) compared to 40 in English and Thai; and there are a few hundred distinct syllables in Japanese, versus almost 7,000 English. There are also significant differences in the information density of each language, meaning the amount of information contained per syllable. However, the authors found that information density tends to be balanced out by speech rate (how quickly the language is spoken), meaning that, overall, humans get the some amount of information across in roughly the same amount of time.