Different Languages Convey Information At Similar Rates

Researchers in Hong Kong have found that all languages convey information at similar rates, regardless of whether they are spoken faster or slower.

AsianScientist (Nov. 18, 2019) – A team of scientists at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) report that the rate of transmission of information is around 39 bits per second for all human languages. They published their findings in the journal Science Advances.

Human language is incredibly diverse and expressive, allowing for vast amounts of information to be conveyed among individuals. However, are some languages more efficient than others?

This was the question posed by researchers led by Assistant Professor Christophe Coupe at HKU, who analysed a total of 17 languages from nine linguistic families in search of an answer. The languages they assessed were: Vietnamese, Basque, Catalan, German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Serbian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Yue Chinese/Cantonese, Thai, Turkish, Finnish and Hungarian.

The research team used 15 different short English texts, which were translated into all the languages of the study. Ten native speakers of each language then had to read these texts aloud for several times, and the duration of their final reading was measured.

Some languages were first found to be spoken faster on average than others: their speakers produced more syllables on average per second. Japanese and Spanish for example, with 8.0 and 7.7 syllables per second respectively, were 50 percent faster than languages like Vietnamese and Thai (5.3 and 4.7 syllables per second).

The researchers also estimated the average amount of information carried by syllables in each language and found a trade-off between information density and speech rate: ‘information-light’ languages were found to have higher speech rates, while ‘information-dense’ languages showed the opposite tendency.

“Languages with higher speech rates are not necessarily more efficient than ‘slower’ languages, since languages also vary in how they pack information, given their phonology and grammar,” explained Coupe.

These findings suggest that all languages convey information at similar rates, although they may look very different in terms of structures or speech rates. The studied languages all gathered around an average information rate of 39 bits of information per second.

“Interestingly, this rate is close to the so-called theta rhythms of neurophysiological activity measured in cortical areas, and thus reinforces the idea that theta oscillations may guide speech perception. This points to the possibility of universally shared constraints, both at the cognitive and at the functional level, of human beings in their language capacities,” said Coupe.

He noted that languages are equally efficient because all human beings share the same cognitive capacities and have the same need when it comes to communication. Such arguments may help to address old but still deep-rooted ideas of superiority or inferiority of some human groups, he added.

The article can be found at: Coupe et al. (2019) Different Languages, Similar Encoding Efficiency: Comparable Information Rates Across the Human Communicative Niche.


Source: University of Hong Kong; Photo: Shutterstock.
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