Science Questions

Is English the most efficient language?

Mon, 28th Sep 2015

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Les asked:

Is English the most efficient language?


Psychologist Ginny Smith took a stab at answering Les' question...

Happy wordsGinny - So, with the speed thing, that’s actually an illusion. If you ask someone who speaks another language, they’ll say that they think English people speak very quickly. That’s because our brains actually segment words as they're being said. If you look at a recording of someone speaking a sentence, you'll notice that there actually aren't that many gaps. Where there are gaps, they're not always between words, but we hear gaps. But that is just something that our brain is doing. So, when you're hearing a language that you're not familiar with, your brain isn’t putting those gaps in and it makes it sound like they're talking 19 to the dozen. Actually, they're not talking any faster than I am now. It’s just because you don’t understand them.

Chris - We do get quite a lot of emails. A lot of people in America write to me and say, “You guys speak really quick on your programme. You need to learn proper English.”

Kat - I really do. My mother is always like, “Slow down dear, you speak far too fast.”

Chris - It’s also proportional to coffee intake in my case certainly. The more coffee I've had, it can get quite fatiguing to listen to myself back again afterwards. Gosh! I have had rather a lot of coffee. In terms of whether or not the language is compressed though in terms of being linguistically efficient, what do we think about that because certainly, I know, compared with the German for example, a lot of management meetings in German companies, they are held in English because they have found actually in typical German efficiency terms, they can save a lot of time by not actually speaking in their own language. It’s the scientific language isn’t it – English – internationally.

Kat - I think that’s really fascinating. I mean, German words are these enormous composite words, certainly in a language like that where you have Forschungsgemeinschaft instead of ‘research’. 


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Actually, that's very incomplete. I speak 5 languages besides English and all of them have much more useless baggage and are thus less efficient. For example, French noun genders - what do you gain by knowing that farm is feminine? And yet you have to adjust adjectives to accommodate this, i.e. toutes les fermes. This adds a considerable cognitive load not to mention storage and paper when considering book publishing. Over hundreds of thousands of words in a book - you'll find many more pages are needed, unless you sacrifice precision and meaning. Furthermore the University of Lyon did a study in which they determined spoken English was about 10% more efficient than French and lead all the most popular languages in the world. See paper: FIFY! ;-) Psyman, Mon, 21st Nov 2016

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