A couple of weeks ago, as I sat in the Charles de Gaulle airport lounge on my way back from a Smarter Start workshop in Paris, I was idly eavesdropping on a football conversation between two Italians. I could do this because I speak and understand Italian fluently even though it’s not my native language. And the fact that I could do so was like a breath of fresh air in the midst of all the unintelligible French babble going on around me.
Now my French isn’t all bad and when I concentrate and focus on what’s being said I can usually more or less understand what’s going on. But I was struck by the thought that my understanding of Italian might be helped because Italians seemed to speak more slowly. I remembered having a similar thought concerning Scottish versus English while listening to Scottish janitors conversing in the Aberdeen Public Library.
Mulling things over I decided the “talking slowly” theory couldn’t quite be correct. First of all, I’ve heard many people complain that Italians and Englishmen speak too fast but it doesn’t seem to be a problem for me. And if you’ve ever heard a Geordie talk English, you’d know what fast really sounds like, but again, I don’t have a problem with that; probably because my uncle is a Geordie and I grew up listening to that every Sunday.
So why did the Italian sound slower?
The answer came to me just as we were coming in to land at Heathrow. Italian sounds slower than French to me because I know where the spaces are. This is no brilliant intuition from my part. A snippet of conversation with Caroline about language came back to me from last summer. Because of the ubiquty of the written word, we are accustomed to thinking about language as discrete chunks – words, sentences and paragraphs – all separated by spaces. However, with the exception of fullstops, commas and other punctuation, there are no discernable “spaces” in the actual audio we produce when speaking. Transforming the sound of speech into undersntandable words is nothing more than an exercise in pattern matching.
When we’re not familiar with the language, the pattern matching isn’t so effective and therefore we’re not so accurate at splitting up the audio stream into the correct combination of words that makes sense. In other words, we’re not so good at figuring out where the spaces should be.