Speed-difficulty trade-off in speech: Chinese versus English

Mark L. Latash, Yao Sun, Elizaveta M. Latash, Irina L. Mikaelian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


This study continues the investigation of the previously described speed-difficulty trade-off in picture description tasks. In particular, we tested a hypothesis that the Mandarin Chinese and American English are similar in showing logarithmic dependences between speech time and index of difficulty (ID), while they differ significantly in the amount of time needed to describe simple pictures, this difference increases for more complex pictures, and it is associated with a proportional difference in the number of syllables used. Subjects (eight Chinese speakers and eight English speakers) were tested in pairs. One subject (the Speaker) described simple pictures, while the other subject (the Performer) tried to reproduce the pictures based on the verbal description as quickly as possible with a set of objects. The Chinese speakers initiated speech production significantly faster than the English speakers. Speech time scaled linearly with ln(ID) in all subjects, but the regression coefficient was significantly higher in the English speakers as compared with the Chinese speakers. The number of errors was somewhat lower in the Chinese participants (not significantly). The Chinese pairs also showed a shorter delay between the initiation of speech and initiation of action by the Performer, shorter movement time by the Performer, and shorter overall performance time. The number of syllables scaled with ID, and the Chinese speakers used significantly smaller numbers of syllables. Speech rate was comparable between the two groups, about 3 syllables/s; it dropped for more complex pictures (higher ID). When asked to reproduce the same pictures without speaking, movement time scaled linearly with ln(ID); the Chinese performers were slower than the English performers. We conclude that natural languages show a speed-difficulty trade-off similar to Fitts' law; the trade-offs in movement and speech production are likely to originate at a cognitive level. The time advantage of the Chinese participants originates not from similarity of the simple pictures and Chinese written characters and not from more sloppy performance. It is linked to using fewer syllables to transmit the same information. We suggest that natural languages may differ by informational density defined as the amount of information transmitted by a given number of syllables.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)193-205
Number of pages13
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience


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