Why Do Japanese People Talk So Fast?

When you’re listening to Japanese, does it ever sound extremely fast to you? Perhaps around 21% faster? Well, you’ll be happy to know that a few smart people (Pellegrino, Coupé, and Marsico) did a study on this and more, showing that Japanese speech really is faster. It’s really quite interesting and it may even help you to gain some extra perspective on the Japanese language which will help you to get better at it overall. As Walter Sobchak is known to say: “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS, LARRY! THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW YOUR JAPANESE SYLLABIC RATES!”

The Speedy Speech Of Japanese

i am the walrus big lebowski japanese

In this study (A Cross-Language Perspective on Speech Information Rate) the authors spend a lot of time comparing and going over eight different languages (one of course is Japanese). They took a look at translations of the same text in all of the languages and compared their syllabic rate (number of syllables per second), their information density (how much information is packed into said syllables), and then the rate at which information is communicated. The Vietnamese language was used as the “outside” reference language, which is why it’s “1.00″ in the table below. You can use that to compare the speeds and rates of everything else.

Language Information Density Syllabic Rate Information Rate
English 0.91 6.19 1.08
French 0.74 7.18 0.99
German 0.79 5.97 0.90
Italian 0.72 6.99 0.96
Japanese 0.49 (slowest!) 7.84 (fastest!) 0.74 (slowest!)
Mandarin 0.94 5.18 0.94
Spanish 0.63 7.82 0.98
Vietnamese 1.00 5.22 1.00

I’ll mostly be comparing English and Japanese, since those are the two languages being used on Tofugu, but you can do the same with any of the languages above, I’m sure.

Information Density: The Japanese language has the lowest information density (0.49). This means you have to say more in Japanese to say the same thing in English, which has a very high information density. In fact, English’s information density is nearly twice that of Japanese!

Syllabic Rate: This refers to the number of syllables per second. Japanese is the highest here, just beating out the fast-talking Spanish. The hypothesis of the study is that languages with a lower information density (like Japanese) will make up for it by speaking faster. Looks like that’s one of the things that Japanese does in fact do, though we’ll see that it doesn’t quite equal up to the rest.

Information Rate: Now let’s combine Information Density and Syllabic Rate to get the “Information Rate.” Compared to all the other languages in this study, the Japanese language actually communicates information more slowly than everyone else. It is four standard deviations away from the norm which is quite a bit considering that the second slowest, German, is only 1.5 standard deviations out.

So, basically we can see that even though the Japanese language is faster than everyone else, it still doesn’t get as much information across in the same amount of time. So why is this? Is the study missing some information? Are there other reasons for the lack of information in Japanese speech?

Is Japanese Really The Slowest Language?

like your opinion man big lebowski

Let’s start with possible reasons why the data could be inaccurate. For starters, one could say that it doesn’t go into the way spoken Japanese has a lot of omissions based on context. One example is the phrase 私は (わたしは). A lot of beginners constantly use わたしは because in English we usually do refer to ourselves when talking about ourselves. In Japanese, though, this can be omitted if it’s already apparent. There’s a lot of things like this in Japanese, and it’s possible the study didn’t take this into account.

Even if the study did run thousands and thousands more sentences, I don’t think it would make a huge difference. All languages have this sort of things, especially when you start talking about casual speech. Although running more sentences through would probably increase Japanese’s Information Rate, I don’t think it would make a huge difference. Whatever the case, it’d be hard to prove either way, especially considering how all languages lose syllables when becoming more casual.

jackie treehorn big lebowski

What’s more interesting, I think, is looking at reasons why Japanese does have a low Information Rate. Possibly a slower one than the study itself presents. Here’s some things I came up with, though I’m sure there are more reasons.

  • At least in neutral and formal Japanese, every verb has a lot of syllables, and most sentences have verbs in them. At minimum, each verb has three syllables (でます[3], みます[3]), though often times it has more (あそびます[5], はたらきます[6]). In English, most verbs are two syllables, and that’s including the “to” (to eat, to see, to work). That right there jacks up the syllable count quite a bit, especially over time.
  • The Japanese language is very indirect. As you learn more Japanese, you’ll start seeing that the less direct you are the more polite you’re being. The less direct you are, the more words you have to use to get around the point (aka more syllables).
  • The Japanese language also has fewer available syllables. In fact, on that list, it has by far the fewest with 416. The next lowest? That would be Mandarin, with 1,191 (nearly triple what’s available in Japanese). Guess what English has? A whopping 7,931 available syllables. No wonder English is considered one of the most complicated languages in the world (seriously, Japanese is easy). Fewer syllables means you run out of words. This is probably why Japanese has so many homonyms, but it’s also why Japanese words tend to be longer and have more syllables in them. When vocab words themselves have more syllables, no grammar in the world, no matter how casual, can increase your information rate enough to compete with other languages. Sorry Japan, you’re slow.

So, I for one think the findings of the study are probably correct. If anything, they’re giving the Japanese language a little too much credit in terms of its Information Rate. But overall I don’t have any problems with the findings. Everything there makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

So Should You Care?

big lebowski nihilists

Other than just being interesting information, I think it should also affect your studies as well. Although I suppose I’ve always noticed that Japanese tends to be faster than English, I never really thought much about it until reading this study. With this information in mind, it makes you realize that you should probably focus a little more on talking speed than you may have originally thought. You need to talk 21% faster than you talk in English if you want to sound fluent.

When you’re studying, spend a little extra time getting your speed up. If you’re reading a sentence, don’t stop when you’re able to read it at an adequate rate. Stop when you can read it faster than you think it should be. If you learn to speak faster… well… you can always slow down. It’s very hard to go from slow to fast, though.

So, to sum things up, the Japanese language is fast. But, in terms of information conveyed, it’s kinda slow. In those regards, Japanese is both easier and more difficult to learn than you probably thought before reading this article, which hopefully means it all evens out nicely (but you come away with some valuable information).

And don’t worry, Walter is fighting for you.

face down in the muck big lebowski

So did anyone else think that the Japanese language seemed a little too fast for its own good? Let me know in the comments.

  • Alice Hackman

    When you say ”
    This is probably why Japanese has so many synonyms” I THINK what you mean is homonyms, yes? It’s kind of surprising to me that English actually has more syllables than Mandarin! The poor person who had to count. What a job.

  • linguarum

    And of course, you have to take into account regional variations in language speed. I have no real scientific data to back this up, but I’ve always found it interesting that no matter what language, what country, it seems people in the north talk faster than people in the south. People in the southern United States are known for their drawl. My Japanese friends tell me people from Okinawa speak slower than people in Tokyo. My Mexican friends say that people speak slower in southern Mexico. I’m sure somebody out there has an exception to this rule, but it’s amazing how often it proves true. Or maybe it’s nearness to the equator – in the southern hemisphere, do people in the north speak slower? Anyway, people definitely speak slower or faster based on where they’re from, and that’s another factor that could throw the study off. 

  • Tjy

    Interesting! One slip-up though… Japanese has a lot of HOMONYMS (words that sound the same but have different meanings) rather than SYNONYMS (words that sound different but mean the same thing).

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

     ooh, that is what I meant! ty ty!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

     oh! Yes! indeed I do. Thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/arleas_ Lee Rolfing

    I’ve always thought that Japanese was a slow language.  The Japanese themselves must know it’s slow or else they wouldn’t be shortening everything like パソコン instead of saying Personal Computer, or エアコン for air conditioning. Their own family mart becomes famima (not sure about that) and Pocket Monsters = Pokemon?  Yeah, they’re compensating for something. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/pinkusupaida Elin Ekdahl

    Just tell me about it. I’m in tokyo studying japanese right now and four months into the course our teachers really start pushing us to get up our speed.. like.. so much speed you almost don’t know what you are saying, haha. It’s getting better the more you practice though!

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    To me, the Japanese speech rate doesn’t seem as fast as Mexican Spanish.

    I wish they’d done more than eight languages, and from a wider variety of language families.

    It is worth noting that Japanese is the only language represented in the table that has neither closed syllables (i.e., syllables ending in a consonant sound) nor clusters (blends).  This is why it has the fewest possible syllables, as you point out, and that in turn is a major reason why it has a high syllabic rate and low information density per syllable.  Most of the other languages on the chart are Indo-European languages, all of which have a more free-form syllable structure.  It would be interesting to see comparisons against other languages that have no clusters (e.g., Hebrew) or clusters but no closed syllables (can’t think of an example right now), or neither (e.g., Hawaiian).

    It’s also interesting that the two languages on the list with the lowest syllabic rates are also the only two tonal languages on the list.  I can’t help but wonder whether that’s significant, or a coincidence.  I wish they’d compared more languages.

    @facebook-1567001652:disqus 
    >But what I would like to know, is who counted that English has
    > 7,931 syllables, I mean.. What a job aye?:

    You wouldn’t count them all.  You’d multiply the number of initial consonants and blends times the number of vowels and diphthongs times the number of final consonants and blends.  However, when I prime factor 7931, I discover that it’s 7 times 11 times 103, which seems wrong.  There are more than 11 and fewer than 103 possibilities for all three numbers.  For both consonant positions there are WAY more than 11 possibilities.  So something’s a trifle fishy there.

    > I’ve also had a lot of Japanese people tell me it’s easier for them to learn Spanish.

    Spanish is a particularly easy language to learn, just in general.  It’s even easier for native speakers of other European languages, including English, because of all the cognates.  For native English speakers, Spanish is probably the easiest foreign language (except possibly for some English-based creoles, e.g., Tok Pisin).  It’s *way* easier to learn than German, for example, even though German is technically more closely related to English.  Spanish is easier because its grammar and phonetics are simpler.

    > I bet Arabic language in the top of Information Density and Rate.

    I’d be interested to see a study comparing it.  Since its syllable structure is less free-form than most European languages, I suppose it would probably fall somewhere in the middle (in terms of information density per syllable).  That’s a guess, though.

    > If I had to guess, I’d throw Hawaiian into the slow information rate ring.

    Almost certainly.  Like Japanese, it’s another one that has no consonant clusters *and* no closed syllables *and* not particularly many phonemes.

    On the other end of the scale, I’d like to see numbers for some Slavic languages: Russian and Ukranian and Croatian and so forth.

    > In written form though, Japanese is shorter in terms of characters

    Yeah?  Let’s count bytes of UTF-8.

  • mrquadrant4

    I’m curious where Tagalog would fit in the rate and density rankings.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    This is an awesome wealth of info!

     > Let’s count bytes of UTF-8

    lol wp wp

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Me too :( I wish they did more languages, especially a broader spectrum of languages. I guess these are the more popular ones…

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

     Even with things shortened it can be long. ブラッド・ピット (5 syllables) = ブラピ (3 syllables) = brad pitt (2 syllables).

    But yeah, that’s a great point. Definitely gets way longer though when you’re converting over non-Japanese words.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

     That would certainly be an interesting study – I wonder if someone’s done that…?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1434168513 Juan Fernando Castellón

     The pronunciation structure is similar. In spanish we rarely run consonants against each other as done in English (i.e. the word “stop”, “skeleton”). There is a consonant vowel syllabic system, as is done in NiHonGo. And with a few exceptions (R, L, ñ, and the trilled R), Spanish can be written using Katakana. I’m a native Spanish speaker, and I’ve been told by Japanese people that my pronunciation is quite accurate.

    Regarding speaking speed, I think it’s important to listen closely to natives and work up to conversational pace, but please Koichi, drill this into your students: Speed is a byproduct of accuracy.繰り返して下さい: Speed is a byproduct of accuracy! (速度が精度の副産物である。)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1434168513 Juan Fernando Castellón

     He said homonyms, should have said homophones. Words that sound the same, considering that Japanese is generally an Ideographic language when written in Japanese, I don’t think the word homograph is appropriate in this application.

  • http://profiles.google.com/shahiirosan shahiir mizune

     what i mean is how many words you put in a formal sentence. You tend to use the word “koto” almost every time. you have long parrticles like “nakerebanarimasen”.

  • elisabel

    It’s in the comic panel where the guy says “Dios mio …. pA*ndejo” instead of “pE*ndejo.” (Sorry I misspelled the misspelling.”)

  • Rab

    Wow I never thought about how many different sounds we have in English. Comparing it to asian languages I’m familiar with though, we do have a lot of composite consonants like sh ch ts tch, and longer ones like schr she etc… that must add up, since you generally don’t get a syllable until you have more than one vowel. And in most cases, more than one vowel separated by one or more consonants. Funny to think I was ever worried about Thai with its 5 tones, and Japanese with its phonetic and symbolic characters :)

  • http://about.me/WolfHavenXIII Wolf Haven

    One of my language partners often talks really fast (by even Japanese standards), and weirdly enough I can hear her perfectly, since Japanese has so few syllables it seems to break down easier for me even when it’s fast, well, compared to english. So I don’t think the listening part isn’t too bad… It’s more when you have to speak. You would think with such few syllables it would be a breeze but things like 与えられた (ataerareta) or 流され続けて (Nagasaretsuzukete) show up and trying to say it fast becomes like a tongue twister lol.

    P.S. Those two words are Bad Apple!! lyrics (I also plan to master Asterisk by Orange Range)

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Yeah – I feel sorry for people who have to learn English :(

  • Dy~

    Characters are flat,
    The love story was absent,
    My thoughts on Twilight.

    Somehow I don’t think I’d pass :D

  • http://www.facebook.com/mtiburcio Mark K Tiburcio

    I wonder where Tagalog (Filipino) would be. If anything, it could be similar to Japanese in all three categories. But I’m not sure because Tagalog words hardly have the vowel “E” in them…thus they’re left with the 4 other vowels. Oh, and for some verb conjugations, they have to repeat a syllable to change the tense. It’s quite interesting!

  • Guest

    I never really thought Japanese sounded fast.. of course, I wasn’t just learning it so I could crank out a better load while watching anime.  I guess a little academic dedication can get you a little further than mom’s basement.  Enjoy the JET program and the rest of your life watching the door at Walmart.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I’d be curious too! This study obviously should have done more languages!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Just think! YOu can greet people at Wal Mart with an いらしゃいませ〜!

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Really? Japanese people talk fast? That’s the first time I hear about that.
    Personally I don’t have the feeling they do.
    On the other hand everybody tells me I’m talking too fast, so ….
    And not only in my native language (I’m German) which I don’t get to use at all as I live in Japan and work in an English and Japanese speaking environment.
    It seems that even in English and Japanese I talk superfast.

    Interesting post, though. Thanks!

  • raygungirl

    (This sounds really nerdy of me because I have a Lost in Translation avatar photo, but I’ve actually only seen the movie 2 or 3 times ever…)

    Here is the actual translation of what the Japanese director says and it’s a lot more complicated than that. In fact I think the joke is funnier if you know what the director says:

    DIRECTOR (in Japanese): Mr. Bob-san. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whiskey on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words. As if you are Bogie in “Casablanca,” saying, “Cheers to you guys,” Suntory time!

    INTERPRETER: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?

    BOB: That’s all he said?

    INTERPRETER: Yes, turn to camera.

    (Translation from here: http://www.weareawake.org/suntorydirector.htm)

  • Thespecialninja

    “It’s also interesting that the two languages on the list with the lowest syllabic rates are also the only two tonal languages on the list. Ican’t help but wonder whether that’s significant, or a coincidence.”

    It kind of is significant. Since tones are used, it lowers the amount of syllables you need because it’s the same word/spelling with a different meaning.

  • Tashippy

    i’ve tried listening to Japanese language podcasts at 2x speed so i a) hear more words per period of time and b) learn to hear faster than i need to to make it easier to catch up in listening at natural speed. reading this article makes me feel like maybe there was more to my doing this than those. But then, remembering that this method only came upon me by accident, when I pressed the 2x button on my iPod, reminds me of how not-thought-out this was. I don’t know if it does me any good, but it makes my brain feel funny if i do it for a while. i even start speaking faster (thinking faster?) in English.

  • babingcolot

    Hmmm..it’s amazing that some people really doing this study of comparison..=)Anw before knowing this study actually existed, i ever wonder why Japanese people always speak so fast (at least compare to my language, Indonesian).But after learning Japanese, it all makes sense that they have to speak faster than other language to deliver their message.I can only afford to think simple, so i use simple examples (in this case i compare it with english).To say the word ‘eat’, in Jpnese took 3 counts ‘ta-be-ru or ta-be-masu’..in English it only takes 1 count ‘eat’.To say ‘I, You, She’: english 1 count, japanese 3 counts ‘wa-ta-shi, a-na-ta, ka-no-jo’To say ‘go’: english 1 count, japanese 2 or 3 counts ‘i-ku’ or ‘i-ki-masu’To say ‘please’: english 1 count, japanese 3 or 5 counts ‘o-ne-gai’ or ‘o-ne-gai-shi-masu’Well..it’s only a few examples, but i guess that’s why Japanese people ‘like’ to speak alot faster to be able to deliver their message using the same amount of time to take using english language..=)Anw my language is Indonesian, compared to English, i guess it’s lower on all 3 categories.Indonesian grammar is similar to Mandarin, but some of the words use more syllables, and the speaking rate is lower than Mandarin.I think most of Indonesian speak slowly, only some of us like to speak fast. But when we speak fast, others usually say ‘u speak too fast, i can’t really get that’..ha..it’s interesting though, i guess we Indonesian should speak faster like Japanese do ^___^Btw from this study, can we conclude that a language with the highest info rate + density and lowest syllabic rate is the most ‘effective’ language? (in this case is Vietnamese)Lowest effort (of speaking), but able to deliver highest content (of speaking)…..well at least it’s from my point of view though..ha ha..=)Thanks for putting this study on this site..makes the language learning more interesting! ^,^

  • Larry

    I studied Spanish for a couple years in high school (a very long time ago) and I bought an LP (told you it was long ago) of songs in Spanish. I think the singer was Vicki Carr. Anyway, listening to it over and over really helped my listening comprehension. Now, I really like to watch Japanese musical programs which display the lyrics at the bottom of the screen. It helps both my listening and reading comprehension.

  • trentbent

    cool. any recommendations for such musicals?

  • Larry

    I don’t have any particular recommendations, but if you live in Japan or have access to TVJapan on cable, etc, you should be able to find musical programs which match your taste. The display of lyrics isn’t universal. You can also find some videos on YouTube. My particular favorite genre is enka.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eldayuchia.chang Elda Yu-Chia Chang

    I reckon the ancient Japanese would give a totally different result – such as the poetry. Although there’s no point doing so since they aren’t spoken nowadays.

    But I’m sure it would be another interesting study to compare the old/classical languages and how they gradually transform into the “modern” languages.
    Thanks for sharing tho~

  • jl

    As for syllables in English, you can’t count them by simple multiplication as you suggest.  Here’s an interesting summary: .

    In short, if you multiplied “initial consonants and blends times the number of vowels and diphthongs times the number of final consonants and blends”, you should get 15,831 possible syllables, but not all possible syllables are actually used in the English language.  To calculate the number you would likely write a program that scans through one or more pronunciation dictionaries and picks out all unique syllables.

  • Guested

    Ever heard a Puerto Rican talk? I’m Puerto Rican, know the language pretty well, and I’m still like…huh? Slow down!

  • Distantsungrrl

    A great post. Just to add, an example of a language with clusters but no closed syllables could be Georgian, not sure, but it def sounds like that.  Check if out anyway.

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    Does that explain why announcements on trains in Japan in Japanese tend to go on for quite a while? I remember listening to a train announcement on a JR West train (non-Shinkansen) as it approached Hiroshima Station and the announcement in Japanese seemed to go on forever….

  • Caro

    I feel like an analysis like this could also be influenced a great deal by regional variation. In the US, New England-ers speak a great deal faster than people from the South. Japanese from Kansai also speak faster than people in Kanto (although the difference is less pronounced, I think)

  • Kristina Rosano

    I’m a native american-english speaker… and japanese doesn’t seem to be much faster OR much slower than English to me… but then again, i’m probably looking at it differently…

    When I speak in english, my syllable count will usually go as high as a native japanese speaker’s count when they speek japanese… But when I am unsure of myself, trying to say something in just the right way as to get my point across accurately, or using words I am unfamiliar with, my speed goes down dramatically! When i try to switch to japanese, which i am not yet fluent in, my speed (both in speaking and listening comprehension) also goes down. However, certain phrases, concepts, and words in japanese (as well as some song lyrics :p) that I am familiar with and confident in will come out as quickly, if not faster, than a native speaker. I have noticed that native japanese speakers will have the same issue when they speak english…

    I guess what I am trying to say is… i think that auditory rapidity is subjective, influenced by the speaker’s fluency in the language in question, confidence in what is (and how it is) being said), as well as the physical capability of the speaker (such as thought-processing/data-crunching speed and tongue dexterity).

  • Caleb

    “The Big Lebowski”!

  • http://twitter.com/CerebralInsaniT 夜一In the Flesh♀♀

    I can attest to this. My Japanese teacher speaks extremely fast. She admits that she speaks faster than Japanese people normally do. Her reasoning is that if we’re able to do it too, we’ll sound more fluent. Thus far it seems to be true.

  • arayan

    doesnt less syllables also mean simpler ?

  • arayan

    btw, the same monkey pic made me thing it was the same user posting over and over again, so i just ignored his posts, until i found out it wasn’t the case

  • Anthony ONeal

    How is “information” being defined? Your analysis also runs afoul of the “Standard Average European” problem. It seems to contain a lot of languages, which makes Japanese look like an outlier among languages. It would’ve been more interesting if, instead of including 5 different related Indo-European languages, they had included more languages from other groups. For instance, Japanese is Altaic and Agglutanative, it’s actually related to Turkish. If another Altaic language, such as Turkish or Mongolian had been included, we could maybe have some greater insight into whether their metrics disadvantage such kinds of languages, or whether Japanese was truly alone.

  • Judith

    I’m from South Africa, ie the Southern Hemisphere. Unfortunately I can only speak two languages: English and Afrikaans (a derivative of Dutch) so I can’t attest to any of the native African languages. My gut feel would be that in the south English is spoken slower than in the north (where I am from), but Afrikaans is spoken faster.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lava.princeton Lava Yuki

    I always thought u had to say more in english, since we have to include personal pronouns and all the particles to sound fluent. While in Japanese, u leave out pronouns and can sometimes omit certain particles. U can even get away with just saying the verb!

  • Vert

    Koichi, I think I love you; this article will forever remain in my mind because you used Big Lebowski pictures and quotes. I’ll never be able to watch the movie again without thinking about Japanese.

    What an interesting thought…

    plagiarismdetect

  • MavsWorld

    Another interesting difference between English and Japanese is that Japanese is a syllable timed language (well mora timed), whilst English is a stress timed language. Therefore, speaking quickly in English is different to speaking quickly in Japanese.

  • Nelson Rodrigues

    As a portuguese person, Japanese doesn’t seem that fast to me.