Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Understanding native speakers is a struggle when you start learning a language. Everyone sounds like they’re talking a million miles an hour, and you feel like you’ll never keep up. That’s because your brain has to work harder to process the new language. (It gets easier, I promise.) Yet some languages really are spoken faster than others. And Spanish is one of them!
It’s All About the Syllables
Researchers at the Université de Lyon conducted a study with 59 male and female volunteers who were native speakers of one of eight languages (English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, and Vietnamese.) Each volunteer read 20 different texts in their native language into a recorder.
Once the recordings were complete, researchers counted all the syllables in each word and analyzed how much meaning each syllable contained. In English, for example:
The word bliss has one syllable, but signifies a euphoric type of happiness.
The word to is also one syllable, but is less information dense.
A single syllable, like the short i sound in jubilee has no meaning on its own.
Using raw data, researchers determined two critical values for each language: the average information density of each syllable and the average number of syllables spoken per second in everyday speech. Vietnamese, with its information-dense syllables, served as a reference language and was assigned an arbitrary value of 1.
Researchers discovered that the more data-dense the average syllable is in a language, the fewer the syllables are spoken per second, resulting in slower speech. Below is a breakdown of a few other languages in the study:
Mandarin has the highest density (.94), and is spoken at an average rate of 5.18 syllables per second.
English also has a high information density (.91), and is spoken at an average rate of 6.19 syllables per second.
Spanish has a low density (.63), and is spoken at an average rate of 7.82 syllables per second.
Japanese has an even lower density (.49), and is spoken at an average rate of 7.84 syllables per second.
As you can see, Spanish speakers do, on average, speak faster than English speakers. (Although English-speaking New Yorkers may give them a run for their money!) But don’t let that deter you from learning the language. Remember, it’s much easier than slower Mandarin.
How to Improve Your Spanish Listening Skills
If you’re tired of asking people to slow down and repeat themselves, there are several podcasts that will help you sharpen your listening skills on your own. Here are a three to check out:
News in Slow Spanish
Broken into European and Latin American dialects, News in Slow Spanish covers international news. Newscasters speak at a slower pace to help learners improve their listening skills. The podcast includes Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced levels, along with sections on grammar and expressions.
A Zero to A Hero
Launched by the language learning app Babbel, A Zero to a Hero is a Spanish-language podcast for beginners. The hosts are Hector, a native Spanish speaker, and Catriona, a Spanish learner. You follow along with Catriona as she learns Spanish with you.
Coffee Break Spanish
Like the name states, Coffee Break Spanish offers quick lessons on vocabulary, grammar, culture, and even history. Lessons range from Beginner to Advanced, with the complexity of the lessons increasing at each level. It's a great way to get some practice in when you're crunched for time.
Practice Makes Perfect
Like any skill, learning a new language takes consistent practice. The more you listen to Spanish, the easier it will get. If possible, set aside at least 10 minutes a day to practice.
In addition to practicing with podcasts, you can:
Listen to Spanish-language music.
Switch the language to Spanish on Netflix.
Watch Spanish language T.V. or Youtube videos.