Which reads faster, Chinese or English?

Guangfu Rd., Jiali District, Tainan County, Taiwan

If there’s one thing that can dazzle my Western eyes, it’s 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.

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 isn’t a concern, convey that information more boldly. Given Chinese’s compact written form, I wondered how language density affected the speed at which people read.

My intuition told me that of two native speakers—one Chinese, one English—the 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. Chinese’s trade-off is its complexity, both in terms of the immense number of characters—tens of thousands according to some dictionaries, though only about 4,600 are commonly used today—and 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.

Chinese characters aren’t all unique, though. Similar to English words, there are some repeating themes among them. Each character, or hanzi, 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 average—only 1.5 characters per word, compared with 5.1 letters per word for English.

Dragon, in Traditional Chinese and English

So which is more quickly read, English or Chinese? Chinese’s high information density could work for it—more complexity could impart more meaning per glance— or against it—each character could require a longer stare to decipher. The answer is neither.

English and Chinese are, by and large, read at the same speeds. In one study, both languages were read at approximately the same rate—English 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 text—a sign the person is having trouble processing the words—to be about the same for English and Chinese.

What simple statistics on reading speed don’t convey is how dramatically different the experience of reading is for each language. When reading English, our eyes perceive 7–8 letters a time, whereas with Chinese we perceive only 2.6 characters at once. This span—known as a saccade—multiplied 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 that’s 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.

This jibes with the gist of a recent study on spoken language speed, which found that while some languages like Spanish sound faster than others, the amount of information imparted is the same. That’s 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.

Earlier linguists had suggested that Chinese might be faster to read because of a physiological quirk of our eyes—they 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 mentioned—the one that measured words read per minute—speculated 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. Cognition—not language—appears to control the rate at which we communicate.

Sources:

Sun F, Morita M, & Stark LW (1985). Comparative patterns of reading eye movement in Chinese and English. Perception & Psychophysics, 37 (6), 502-6 PMID: 4059005

Sun, F, & Feng, D (2010). Eye movements in reading Chinese and English text Reading Chinese Script: A cognitive analysis, Eds. Jian Wang, Albrecht W. Inhoff, Hsuan-Chih Chen., 189-205 ISBN: 9780805824780

Yan, G., Tian, H., Bai, X., & Rayner, K. (2006). The effect of word and character frequency on the eye movements of Chinese readers British Journal of Psychology, 97 (2), 259-268 DOI: 10.1348/000712605X70066

Photo by Tim De Chant.

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  1. I’m pretty sure that “reading span” and “saccade” are not the same thing. “Reading span” is a reflection of the attentional window, while “saccade” is just the fast ballistic movement of the eyes to shift the fixation point. The two are related but not the same.

  2. Molto interesante. I suppose that the comparisons you make are based on traditional chinese – at least that’s the impressione creat by showing “dragon” in traditional hanzi. Is simplified hanzi any faster, by any chance ?

    1. Good question. The main study I cited, Sun et al 1985, doesn’t specify. Yan et al 2006 used simplified, but didn’t make a distinction between the two in either the introduction or the discussion. Perhaps the difference isn’t significant enough?

      1. I appreciate that it’s purely anecdotally and that Japanese is a “middle-ground” of “semi-simplified” characters as opposed to the full traditional but from personal experience there is minimal to no difference.

        Would be fascinated to see studies however, having learnt 2 the potential differences have alway been a point of contest!

  3. Good article.

    90% of Chinese characters are radical-phonetic compound logographs but it still makes it darn hard to decipher their meaning and pronunication since such characters only convey this information in a general sense – there are few certainties. So it’s probably overreach to say that “proficient readers can decipher…of an unfamiliar word by deconstructing it” if, by ‘word’, you meant ‘character’ used in the previous sentence.

  4. “This jibes with the gist of a recent study on spoken language speed, which found that while some languages like Spanish sound faster than others, the amount of information imparted is the same. That’s because each syllable in a fast-sounding language like Spanish has less meaning than a slower one like English or Chinese.”

    As a fluent speaker of 3 languages with native-level proficiency in 2 (Effectively 100% level English and Japanese with proficient Chinese/Mandarin) I utterly refuse to believe this is the case.

    I can understand the difficulty in parsing the written characters leading to a relatively comparable amount of meaning processed for characters vs. English words in a written context… and agree. As in all 3, including the mixed / interim Japanese, I find the level of overall information processed per minute / hour of reading to be about the same.

    Yet in a spoken / listening context there is simply no comparison – Chinese, even spoken at a slower rate, by definition of its tone-based nature is more dense and the increased focus on context over English only magnifies this effect.

    I was with you all the way until here but I find it very, very difficult to believe that anyone could claim that spoken languages are even remotely comparable in efficiency… Even given the levels of understanding I have and the growth through them I have literally felt the efficiency difference and still do.

    I very strongly doubt that English from birth has left me deficient in listening to it spoken to a degree that would render my 5-6 years of listening to Chinese more efficient if this were not the case.

    1. I wasn’t saying that written and spoken are equally efficient, but that different languages will convey the same amount of information in the same amount of time over the same medium. In other words, written Chinese conveys the same amount of information per minute as English even though a reader of Chinese will process fewer characters per minute than a reader of English will process letters. The same concept applies to spoken language, though the rates of information will be different between spoken and written.

      1. Sounds fair but this is what I’m getting at – whilst I believe your conclusion for written content on multiple levels… as a spoken language even an intermediate understanding of Mandarin Chinese will lead to far more information density and thus (after very little time as a proficient speaker) far more dense and rapid communication.

        I quite literally find lengthy Mandarin conversations such as business meetings tiring but time-saving, I very much doubt it could be purely a perceived aspect of a language.

        It’s a ridiculous “ball-park” estimate but I’d hazard a guess at spoken Mandarin providing 2-3x the information rate of English, even without native proficiency. Given the additional tones I’d guess Cantonese further enhances that effect.

  5. “It’s a ridiculous “ball-park” estimate but I’d hazard a guess at spoken Mandarin providing 2-3x the information rate of English, even without native proficiency. Given the additional tones I’d guess Cantonese further enhances that effect.”

    這是我的車 = This is my car

    Hmmm, seems like English has one less syllable in that example.

    我有兩個孩子 = I have two children

    Hmmm, seems like English has one less syllable as well (and the common term used in Cantonese for children has one more syllable than Mandarin or English.)

    Just because a language uses tone in the systematic way that Mandarin and Cantonese does to disambiguate otherwise similar sounding sounds does not mean that it provides a higher information rate. Non tonal languages convey approximately the same amount of information in the same number of syllables, as my examples suggest.

    In addition, Mandarin and Cantonese have the obligatory use of measure words to help disambiguate the meaning.

    Quite frankly, on simple utilitarian grounds I would expect all languages to communicate information at approximately the same rate, and that they will all minimize the number of syllables required to convey frequently conveyed pieces of information.

    Please show me some examples that support your contention.

    (While long2 above is one syllable in Mandarin and Cantonese–long4 in Cantonese–the mandarin habit of adding zi to many single-syllable nouns lengthens the number of syllables that have to be uttered.)

  6. 雖然很多中國人誇獎我的普通話很好,但是[我]覺得還可以進步很多. (26 or 27 syllables)

    Although many Chinese exaggerate my mandarin abilities, I feel that I can still improve a lot. (28 syllables)

    Yes, the Chinese takes up less space on the screen or a page, but it is on the edge of readability for me while the English is fine.

    One of the funniest things I saw was a sign in Hong Kong years ago that said:

    險 危
    ger dan

    The sign was clearly meant to have been spray painted the other way around, but to the Chinese guy who did the spray painting, it worked just as well the way it is shown above, except the English made no sense.

  7. Native Chinese here. On “someone reading Chinese must dig into the structure of each character to decipher its meaning”, it’s not true for people who is proficient in the language.

    I can say we almost never need to dig into the character structure, except when we encounter uncommonly used characters. And when we do that, we are not only trying to find out the radical of the character which shows the context, but also the pronunciation of the character that helps understanding the phrase.

    When a certain level of proficiently is reached, we can remember the meaning of each character. For characters with multiple meanings, we know their meanings by reading the whole clause to understand the contexts.

    But for me personally, I don’t see much difference between the reading speed of the two languages. On writing though, English is a clear win.

    1. Indeed. The same claim could be made about languages that use a phonetic script (English is only approximately phonetic), that is, that you have to actually attend to every one of those letters in each word. However, there is good evidence that we recognize the shape of the word (think Fcuk.)

      The same is true for me now of the Chinese characters I recognize.

  8. While it may not read faster, it certainly takes up less screen real estate. In designing interfaces for mobile devices it’s always difficult figuring out how to present web app information. Things have to be spread out to multiple screens. I can see how Chinese could make better use of mobile devices.

  9. Some intuitive comments from a native English speaker with near-native spoken Chinese (some friends claim I have an accent; some say I don’t; I can give academic lectures in Chinese without preparation), but very, very slow Chinese reading speed:

    1) Reading the two languages seems to involve different cognitive pathways or processes. A character goes into the brain as a whole; I find my process of recognizing a written character very similar to that described by Guo Lin above. It’s a matter of knowing it instantly or, in my case, stalling on it for a while and then having it go in instantly. The stall is why my reading speed is probably a third or a quarter of Guo Lin’s, even though I probably know almost as many characters as s/he does. But the only time I dissect a character is when I don’t know it. And mostly I look for what is likely the phonetic part, so I can look it up in a dictionary under the sound. Looking up under the “radical” (the meaning part) is slower. But with an English word, I semi-consciously scan the letters, left-to-right. And the same is true when I read Spanish or German or French. What is interesting to me is that if I read Japanese, I scan the kana parts almost as quickly as I scan a word in, say German (which is my third-best language after English and Chinese).

    2) When I demonstrate to Chinese friends how slowly I read Chinese, they are always shocked, because I speak it so well. They usually assume the two go together. But they don’t. Written Chinese is the most difficult language I have ever learned, while spoken Mandarin is one of the easiest. This testifies further, I think to the idea that reading the written languages involves very different cognitive processes (which we have been learning in our respective native languages since the age of 3 or 4), while speaking any language involves more or less the same cognitive processes, a kind of proof of Chomskyan deep structure.

    3) As far as efficiency in the use of space, there are differences between languages; all you have to do is look at the instruction brochure for any internationally-traded gadget. But these are probably not duplicated by efficiencies in the use of time, as indicated by the studies above.

    4) I don’t think there is any difference in the speed at which one can recognize “traditional” and “simplified” Chinese characters. After all, many traditional forms are very simple. If we don’t dissect characters when we read them (and neither Guo Lin as a native speaker nor I as a proficient second-language speakers does this), if we recognize them in an instant process, then it shouldn’t matter if they are simple or complex. The advantage gained in the simplification is in the speed of writing. But nowadays many Chinese say they forget how to write a lot of characters (including simplified ones) because they type them phonetically on their computers.

    1. You mean like UNESCO, USAF, RN, POTUS?

      Or perhaps you mean it is like 特區 being an abbreviation for 特別行政區.

      Can you actually cite some examples of the usage of Chinese where they commonly encode concepts in one character. Perhaps concepts like modernization or internationalization? Sure, they take less syllables than English, but more than one syllable/character.

      I picked up a bag of 2-in-1 coffee sachets that are made in Taiwan and sold in 99Ranch stores in the US.

      The back contains the usual stuff. There is an English section with the required stuff and a Chinese section with much the same stuff, although there are some interesting differences (eg, the English section manages to encode the Net Weight in ounces and grams in the same space that the Chinese section does but the Chinese section only tells us about the weight in grams and requires that you be able to multiply*). There are also differences relating to regulatory requirements (eg, the English portion includes a long sentence against the Best Before date telling the customer to refer to the seal on the pack and specifying the format of the date, while the Chinese section simply says 18 months.

      Each section contains directions on product use. The English section takes up 3.5″, while the Chinese section takes up 5.75″, which is largely because in the Chinese section they included diagrams showing how to use the product (make a drink). Why do you think that is? (Oh, my, the Chinese have adopted Hindu numerals for numbers, I wonder why, and the ” symbol for Inches takes up far less space than a character does.)

      The English is not completely grammatically correct (there are lapses in my mind where a few articles are missing and a few unnecessary prepositions are inserted) but it conveys the correct information and can be understood by a 12 year old, I estimate. There are other interesting differences, like the fact that in the English, the Storage instructions takes two lines and includes a sentence directing customers to use sachets immediately after opening. These are split into two separate instructions in the Chinese, so it looks like the storage instructions are more dense, but they are not. Note also that the unnecessary use of conjunctions in English increases the number of words/syllables used (eg, “Store in cool and dry place and avoid from direct sunlight.” is more compactly said as “Store in a cool, dry place. Avoid direct sunlight.” )

      This does not bear out your assertion. Can you provide supporting evidence?

      * Yes, I realize that the average Chinese person is far more likely to be able to multiply than the average resident in the US (counting Citizens as well as legal and illegal immigrants).

  10. The real problem with Chinese writing (and Kanji, etc) is how much time the young must waste learning it. The characters are both hard to recognize (to read at any academic speed the reader must memorize thousands of the little buggers) and hard to draw. I read an academic article (sorry, years ago; no web link) detailing how much school-time is devoted to reading and writing in China, Japan, and Korea vs. the USA and several European countries. Western children (except for the mentally challenged) learn to read and write in the first few years of school. The Chinese et-al. are still drilling on characters in high school. What a pointless chore!

    Another thing: alphabetic systems are much easier for people with handicaps (blindness, arthritis) because such people can more easily manipulate a small set of writing symbols (Braille, typing). I realize computer advances have made it possible to “type” Chinese characters by typing phonetically while the computer recognizes patterns and offers corresponding hanzi,* but that’s a mixed blessing– for a few decades it looked like the Chinese might move away from their stupid writing system so they could use computers like Westerners, but now the civil service, composed of people who are good with characters, can continue to inflict them on the young.

    *wonderful cleverness, actually, but think how much better off the world would be if such cleverness were devoted to something useful instead of to propping up foolishness

    1. And now comes a clueless fool who doesn’t even bother to put his name to his opinions.

      There is considerable evidence that when it comes to reading English text, we do so by recognizing the shapes of the words. In addition, Chinese characters have structure, they are not just a meaningless jumble of strokes.

      In addition, students from China are wasting so much time learning these these “buggers” that they also can score highly on PISA tests (given in their own language).

      I also interact with Chinese people who have wasted so much time learning those fiendishly hard to draw characters that they also can deal with English.

      It would also seem that you have limited exposure to high school students in the US in great states like California, Alabama, Mississippi, etc, because they too have many students who have difficulty with reading and writing.

      Finally, do you also include Hangul as one of those worthless orthographic systems?

  11. I have at hand one data point that bears on this question.

    I have a copy of this computer book: Special Edition Using Samba
    http://www.alibris.com/search/books/qwork/6251570/used/Special%20Edition%20Using%20Samba

    and it’s translation into Simplified Chinese: Samba 开发使用手册.

    The English edition, which was written by literate English speakers and edited by staff at Que, has 671 pages of actual material and each page has text that covers approximately 7.25″ by 5.5″. The translated book is approximately the same width but taller, and has 502 pages with text that covers 8.5″ by 5.75″.

    When I calculated that out, I found that the English edition used 26,756 square inches while the Chinese edition used 24,535 square inches.

    It seems to me that any claims that Chinese conveys information at a significantly higher density than English can be put to rest. (However, I have not actually read the Chinese edition to check that it is conveying exactly what the English text conveys, and of course, the Chinese text will contain some English text, probably something like 10%.)

    I welcome more comparisons of this type.

    1. I think it is worth pointing out that, since languages are essentially spoken things, optimization will occur for conciseness in the spoken language, primarily.

      Chinese has simplified the range of sounds they use (yes, I am aware that Mandarin uses retroflex sounds and Cantonese uses ng at the beginning of syllables, or at least, older Cantonese speakers do), but compared to English (or even Thai) they use a reduced range of sounds-eg, clusters of consonants are long gone.

      This means, I believe, that even the 8-10% difference I saw in the written product can be accounted for by the greater phonetic complexity of English. Note, also, that written Chinese does not explicitly mark the tone. You have to remember the pronunciation and tone of every one of those characters (well, not strictly true, you can guess a reasonable number, although the tone is not so easily guessable). The point here is that optimization of the written form is secondary to optimization of the spoken form.

      I would speculate, however, that since written Chinese was reasonably well standardized a long time ago (ca 2000 years ago), it has had an impact on the spoken language. I am lead to believe that Middle Chinese was phonetically more complex than Mandarin (or Cantonese, which seems to retain more features of Middle Chinese than Mandarin, but also does not have any clusters of consonants, although I am far from an expert and could be talking rubbish, as I indicated above.)

  12. Very interesting article and follow-up comments.

    I’m making “blog calls” to each of the @scio12 attendees to say “HI” and give a shoutout on twitter (I’m @sciencegoddess).

    I look forward to meeting you in January!

  13. I can read and write in both Chinese and English fluently. One of the special things in reading Chinese is, you can skip a lot of words and still get what it means or guess it what it means before you even read the whole sentences because some individual words already give the meaning out so while I was reading Chinese I can skip a lot of it, thus it’s faster than reading in English. I think when we are reading English, we still have to scan through all the words. We can’t simply just skip words and get what it means. But the other interesting thing is, reading Chinese in a longer period is way more tiring than reading English. All english words only are consisted by 26 letters. But Chinese characters just has way too many. Even I am fluent in reading/writing Chinese, my brian must be processing very hard inside of me, and turning the visual Chinese characters into certain meanings, while reading enlgish doesn’t have much that trouble. So reading english can go longer way than Chinese. But again, few Chinese characters can express more meanings than the same amount of english words. In the end, I love both languages. And I feel I’m very lucky to know both of them well. There are a lot of information are hard to translate from Chinese to english, and vice versa. Knowing these two languages, I really feel I can communicate with people in the entire world. :)