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Italians might speak faster but they’re not actually saying more than the rest of us | Torsten Bell


The pandemic has brought universal harm to humans. But this universalism has been combined with many believing in the exceptionalism of those they live among and the culpability of those they haven’t met.

In March, many in the UK told themselves we couldn’t possibly suffer like Italy, with its “more tactile culture”. Within Britain, we’ve focused on small differences in approach between nations, ignoring the near-identical huge failures in England, Wales and Scotland to lock down earlier or protect lives in care homes. Complaints about rulebreakers fleeing London last week tended to ignore rulebreaking elsewhere.

For a reminder that we have rather a lot in common, check out research into one of our big differences: language. We notice the pace of different languages – Italian is fired like a machine gun while Chinese emerges with leisure. But if we focus on what is being communicated, we’re all “talking” at the same speed – 39 bits per second, to be precise. Those languages that contain lots of information per syllable emerge more slowly from our mouths, while those that pack less meaning into each sound gallop along.

Wherever we live we’re constrained by a shared limit on how quickly we can produce and absorb information. So we might not all understand each other, but if this year has taught us anything it’s that we’re all in this together.

• Torsten Bell is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation. Read more at resolutionfoundation.org



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