Don’t Try and Talk Fast Just to Sound Better
You would love your Japanese to sound more natural. To do this you continually try to overcome that slow beginner Japanese. You want to kick ass. You want to talk like Abe Hiroshi (my hero) or Kitagawa Keiko (super popular and beautiful actress).
When you first start talking in Japanese it will be incredibly slow. It should be. This prevents you from making mistakes that stick with you. You will probably pause a lot, sound awkward, and take time to get to what you are actually saying.
The obvious goal is to talk faster. However this leads to a fatal error. People studying Japanese assume: If you can talk faster you sound more natural. But it is actually the opposite.
The problem starts when you first start studying Japanese. Everything sounds fast to you. You have a difficult time following the pace of a conversation. You have an even more difficult time talking at a normal pace. You watch Japanese videos and you notice that men talk fast and women talk faster. You begin to assume that to sound more natural, you must talk faster.
This is not completely wrong. If you are talking like わーーたーしはがーーくせいーでーーすー, you are probably talking too slow.
Japanese is not a fast language.
English is a very fast language. American English is even faster. However, your native language doesn’t sound fast to you.
Until your Japanese reaches a higher level, Japanese sounds very fast. The lower the level you are, the faster it sounds. As you improve, the language starts to sound slower. This is an illusion. You are merely able to keep up better.
It will be quite a shock when you’ve raised your Japanese to a considerable level, and then are told by a Japanese person, “Your Japanese is too fast. It doesn’t sound natural.” What?! I’ve worked so hard to improve the speed of my Japanese, and now you are telling me it sounds too fast!? You guys speak fast, I was just trying to match you.
What causes this crazy phenomenon?
You overcompensate with speed because it is an important goal to pick up the speed of your Japanese in the beginning. Unfortunately, this feeling tends to stay with you too long. You eventually stop noticing it, and it starts to feel natural to speak fast. You become more fluent, and it no longer feels fast, similar to the way that when you speak in your native language, it doesn’t feel fast.
Who does this affect?
You may be thinking that you only have to worry about this once your level rises. Since you are talking slow in the beginning levels, there is no fear of talking too fast. This is not true. Just because your overall Japanese is still sluggish doesn’t mean some phrases you’ve used over and over again are not. For example, you probably know introductions quite well. So you may end up introducing yourself in super fast Japanese, feeling proud that at least some things you can say very fast. Problem!
It affects higher levels more, since everything you say will be fast.
What do you do?
Slow down! Of course it isn’t that simple since you’ve already developed a habit. You’d think that slowing down from talking fast would be easier than speeding up when you talk slow, but it is not. You will have to make a conscious effort to slow down your pace.
Do not become an unnatural fluent Japanese speaker
You’ve put so much time and work into your Japanese. You’ve made it to the World Cup, don’t start playing with your hands. I’ve heard a number of fluent Japanese speakers who don’t have natural Japanese. I personally have dealt with this problem. In the about area of this website, notice I list myself as fluent (level 65+), but not as native (level 80+). One of the areas that I need to improve on is decreasing my talking speed.
Do not push this issue off. I think that if you keep this in mind as you progress from the beginning, you won’t have to deal with it later on like I and others have.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
You make a very good point. Even in your native American language it’s better to slow down. The best public speakers have a nice, even pace with several pauses. Easier to understand no matter what your language.
Very true. But even in just casual speaking, Japanese tends to be slower.
I think for English natives, used to stress-timing, syllable-timed languages like Italian or mora-timed languages like Japanese naturally sound faster because of the more even rhythm – the “machine-gun” effect. Maybe a musician has an advantage learning these languages.
I had to look up what a “mora-timed language” was, but I think you are right about that. I would be curious if being a musician provided an advantage.
for speaking I’ve noticed, I just keep copying from where I listen from. Dramas,animes,moveis,games. I’m able to keep speaking/copying at the same speed they are. But I always feel that, keep the same speed as natives is key.
Mimicking speed is definitely a good idea.
I don’t find average speaking speed in Japanese all that fast, and they tend to pause a lot. I can speak this way just fine. What really gets me is when they get excited. Then a super long phrase (or two) with absolutely no pauses comes out rapidly. I can understand them just fine, but I can’t for the life of me get my mouth to move at that speed without pausing personally. I can speak at that speed with pauses in between (natural ones, not awkward ones) if I desire, but I’m not even capable of speaking at that speed for long spurts without messing up my words. Maybe it IS all an illusion and it’s not really fast at all, but it feels fast. (Note: I’m not talking about regular speech, but when they are getting excited, like really getting into telling a story or something). Is this just me?
Good point about excited speech. They definitely do pick up the pace then. Especially women. But this is probably similar in English as well?
Well that would explain it. Being a female who studied abroad at an all-girl’s high school in Japan, my main immersion time was not around a lot of males speaking Japanese, and I still don’t have many male Japanese friends (though I can understand them just fine!). So guys don’t pick up the pace as much when they get excited… interesting.
Well, my personal opinion is that in English, rather than picking up the pace, when we get excited we talk a bit faster but this is augmented by that we pause a lot for emphasis while excited too. I think what makes excited English speech hard to understand is that some people stop enunciating like they usually do when excited, and slur more words together. This is, in my opinion, even harder to understand that really fast excited Japanese, but I would consider the two separate phenomenons. Of course, this is purely my speculations here. No really evidence to back anything up, so feel free to give a differing viewpoint!
Try to listen as a foreign learner would to anyone talking when they are mad (another form of excited). Speech becomes extremely fast, even in English. Think of a mad rant by someone. Sure, to your ears it’s just a bunch of natural speed words without much of a pause, but the pace of speech picks up drastically.
A car cuts you off on the freeway, your friend in the passenger seat suddenly yells, “what the hell is he doing!?”. But, at least if you’re American, this comes out as “‘the hellse doin’!?”!
I used to get in fights with my ex-Japanese gf, at which point she would downgrade into pure area dialect and very fast speech. When I would tell her I couldn’t understand her she’d get even more upset saying I do understand her because I understand her normal Japanese.
Very good post. I suffer from a similar problem at a different point. Currently I’m at the point where I can talk, but I still have to think about what I want to say if it’s not something I talk about regularly. However, to compensate for my noob sounding Japanese I’ve adapted the habit of talking extremely fast in the things I talk about on a regular basis. So, this ends up with me trying to talk at my regular extremely fast speech about something I’ve never talked about before, using vocab I’ve probably only ever used once or never.
Recently, I’ve been trying to slow down all my Japanese speech and work on articulation and cutting out pauses. It’s a hard habit to break, talking extremely fast. But I have noticed slowing down really helps improve those times when you’re venturing out on new cliffs. You can maintain a more even pace rather than rush a few words at a time, stop to think, rush the next few, repeat.
I think another thing you didn’t mention is that casual speech sounds even faster than normal speech. This affects you because you then start thinking speech among friends needs to obtain hyper speeds. But, a lot of this is illusion as 1) speech becomes slurred and 2) slang is introduced. For example, instead of the ~てしまう form, or even the more casual ~ちゃった form of the same pattern, casual speech degrades into ~ちゃう, which can come out very fast and is easily missed. This gets really confusing when ~ちゃう is used for both ~てしまう and ~+なる. Now your brain is stuck on ちゃう trying to figure out which it was used for while the speaker just keeps on going.
All this can really make you feel like the language is much faster than it actually is. And you try to compensate in your own speech. I think your post is spot on. Great advice.
I disagree that Japanese is not a fast language and that American English is faster. There was a study done where they had 59 speakers reading the same text aloud in 20 languages, and Japanese was clocked in as the fastest, followed by Spanish.
How did they all read the same text if it’s in different languages?
I partly disagree with this study. Why? Because this line: “The languages that were spoken more quickly were less dense with information, and the languages that were spoken slowly were correspondingly denser.”
Meaning although japanese might sound fast (to an outsider, as discussed in the article), it will be processed faster and consequently feel slow (to a veteran, again as discussed in the article). I think that this is the definition of speed of language. Not the spoken rate, but language density and how it is understood by the people. Do you have experience with formal language? It takes ages to get a simple message across. Try saying かしこまりました and “certainly”. You HAVE to say the former faster or the other person would get bored.