If theres one thing that can dazzle my Western eyes, its the main drag of any Taiwanese town. On my recent trip to Taiwan, I saw billboards and signs for local shops that dripped from buildings with so many hues Benjamin Moore would blush. Once my mind had adjusted to the mishmash of colors, I noticed the Chinese characters, or rather their number. On each sign, there were strikingly few.
English and Chinese are, by and large, read at the same speeds. In one study, both languages were read at approximately the same rateEnglish at 382 words per minute and Chinese at the equivalent of 386 words per minute. A statistical tie. Another study found the percentage of times a person moves backward in a texta sign the person is having trouble processing the wordsto be about the same for English and Chinese.
So which is more quickly read, English or Chinese? Chineses high information density could work for itmore complexity could impart more meaning per glance or against iteach character could require a longer stare to decipher. The answer is neither.
This jibes with the gist of arecent studyon spoken language speed, which found that while some languages like Spanish sound faster than others, the amount of information imparted is the same. Thats because each syllable in a fast-sounding language like Spanish has less meaning than a slower one like English or Chinese. Spanish speakers have to run through more syllables to get the same point across, thus sounding faster.
Thinking about how we think about landscapes
Compared with English, Chinese is a dense language. Its complex characters can convey considerable information in a very small amount of space, or where space isnt a concern, convey that information more boldly. Given Chineses compact written form, I wondered how language density affected the speed at which people read.
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Perception & Psychophysics, 37(6), 502-6 PMID:4059005
Chinese characters arent all unique, though. Similar to English words, there are some repeating themes among them. Each character, orhanzi, consists of strokes and radicals. Strokes are single lines or curves, of which there are about 20. Radicals are constructed from several strokes, and there are about 200 of them. Characters are built by varying the presence and number of strokes and radicals. This has its advantages: proficient readers can decipher both the meaning and pronunciation of an unfamiliar character by deconstructing it. While some characters constitute an entire word, others are multiple characters strung together, much like words in English. Still, Chinese words tend to be short on averageonly 1.5 characters per word, compared with 5.1 letters per word for English.
Earlier linguists had suggested that Chinese might be faster to read because of a physiological quirk of our eyesthey thought the square shape of Chinese characters fit the most acute region of our retina (the fovea) better than long, string-like English words. But the authors of the first written language study I mentionedthe one that measured words read per minutespeculated that reading speed is instead limited by a cognitive bottleneck. The fact that both reading and speaking seem to follow to the same rules suggests they were right. Cognitionnot languageappears to control the rate at which we communicate.
Yan, G., Tian, H., Bai, X., & Rayner, K. (2006). The effect of word and character frequency on the eye movements of Chinese readersBritish Journal of Psychology, 97(2), 259-268 DOI:10.1348/000712605X70066
What simple statistics on reading speed dont convey is how dramatically different the experience of reading is for each language. When reading English, our eyes perceive 78 letters a time, whereas with Chinese we perceive only 2.6 characters at once. This spanknown as a saccademultiplied by how long we fixate on it equals reading speed. Since readers of English and Chinese tend to fixate on a saccade for the same amount of time, naïve multiplication would lead you to believe that Chinese is read more slowly. After all, a reader of Chinese processes fewer characters per saccade than an English reader, and each saccade lasts about the same amount of time in both languages. But thats only if you ignore information density. Written Chinese is dense, so though comprehension of characters is slower than letters, meaning is conveyed at the same rate as in English.
Sun, F, & Feng, D (2010). Eye movements in reading Chinese and English textReading Chinese Script: A cognitive analysis, Eds. Jian Wang, Albrecht W. Inhoff, Hsuan-Chih Chen., 189-205 ISBN:80
My intuition told me that of two native speakersone Chinese, one Englishthe Chinese speaker could zip through an equivalent passage in less time because each character says more. But information density can also work against a reader. Chineses trade-off is its complexity, both in terms of the immense number of characterstens of thousands according to some dictionaries, though only about 4,600 are commonly used todayand the fact that nearly all of them are more baroque than any letter in the alphabet. This means someone reading Chinese must dig into the structure of each character to decipher its meaning.
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