Do you think that Japanese people speak really quickly? Is it too fast for your current level of comprehension? If you said yes to one of those questions, then I’m going to help you improve your spoken Japanese by picking up the pace!
Before we get into the step by step process you can use to take your Japanese up a notch, I wanted to spend a little bit of time talking about a few things, such as:
- Is Japanese, in fact, spoken faster than English?
- Why do people always think foreigners speak too quickly?
- What is the language speed paradox?
- How can you get faster at speaking and understanding Japanese?
This article focuses on the spoken part of Japanese, since you can take as long as you want when reading the language.
Let’s get right into it!
Is Japanese, in Fact, Spoken Faster than English?
If you are a native English speaker, you probably feel that native Japanese people speak way too fast. But did you know that most of them actually think that English natives (You) are the ones who speak too quickly?
It’s probably not a surprise that the people who are beginners at something think that the pros move way too fast, but there’s actually some studies that have been done to see which languages are faster than others.
You can find the specific details in this post, but the gist of it is that spoken Japanese is about 20% faster than English!
Some of this has to do with the fact that languages have different flows from one another. Some of them are more choppy and abrupt, whereas others are smooth and seem fluid.
English is dominated by words that end in consonants, which forces people to stop more often when pronouncing words in the language (as compared to Japanese).
So now you have the answer: Japanese is faster!
But that information actually doesn’t actually help you at all, because you’re actually interested in improving your comprehension, right?
Let’s look at why everyone thinks the rest of the world speaks too quickly. The secret lies in this next part.
Why Do People Always Think Foreigners Speak Too Quickly?
Generally speaking, “fluency” is defined as being able to hold regular conversations without slowing them down.
Speed is an important factor because when you’re fast, it basically means you understand what you hear instantly.
But even when students know thousands of words, and hundreds of useful phrases, they still feel like natives speak at the speed of light!
The reason is due to the study methods used.
Most students learn from a book or a course. Books are the written word, so they literally have no speed. You could spend 10 minutes on a single sentences while you work on understanding all of it.
Courses that teach you Japanese are usually geared towards beginners and lower intermediate level people (because there’s a lot of them). So most courses have the speakers talking at a slower than normal pace.
After all, they want you to grasp everything that’s being said so you can understand 100%. A simple way to do this is to slow it down for the learners.
And all of a sudden, it makes sense why students always feel that natives speak way too fast: Because the students have primarily been using slow Japanese to learn the language.
I personally think that this is fine in the beginning since your focus at that point is to get used to the sounds of Japanese and how words fit together in sentences.
But just because “slow Japanese” worked for you at first, doesn’t mean it will continue to work as you advance.
It’s like when you learn to drive a car and your parents have you go 20 miles per hour so you can maintain control of the vehicle.
It’s a good idea, but if you never increase the speed to 65 mph, then you’ll never be able to drive naturally on the highway like everyone else does every single day.
That brings us to this perplexing situation I’ve dubbed “the language speed paradox.”
What is the Language Speed Paradox?
The majority of all language learning material is presented to the student at a slow pace so that they can understand everything and follow along.
But when we talk to our babies, and when young children watch cartoons on TV, it’s all at real-life-speed.
Do you get what I’m saying?
We slow the material down for adults (who have smart brains), but use a regular pace for the youngest people on the planet; the ones who understand next to nothing.
And that is one reason why kids can speak and understand normal speed language, and adults very often times can’t.
Because kids are used it it. They didn’t have a choice!
But adults do have a choice, and they choose to take it slow and comprehend it all.
And so the question becomes, do we abandon the study materials designed for adults and instead try to learn a language like kids?
I think that question misses the point. You don’t need to throw everything you have away, instead you need to add one thing: Start lifting bigger weights (it’s a metaphor).
How Can You Get Faster at Speaking and Understanding Japanese?
Let me give you that weight lifting metaphor:
Let’s say that you work in a warehouse and your job is to move 25lb boxes from one location to another.
You’re pretty good at it, but you still have to exert yourself, and you can’t really go above 25lb.
So you decide to hit the gym regularly in order to build extra muscles to make your job easier.
The question is, which weights should you workout with? Is it the 25lb ones? They are the same weight as the boxes after all…
The answer is you should use heavier weights than the boxes you move at work!
If you lift 50lb weights at the gym, then 25lb boxes at work will feel really, really light. Your job will become so easy that you barely have to think about it, or exert yourself, to do a great job.
It’s the same with language. You will never reach native level speed by using slower than native level materials.
If you use at-native-level materials you will eventually get up to that point and be okay.
But if you use above-native-level materials, even though it will be hard at first, you will eventually grow to the point where the native level stuff (which is the end goal) becomes easy.
If you want to train at-native-level, then all you need to do is fill your time with stuff that’s aimed at natives:
Then if you want to train above that level, you can do one of two things:
- Increase the speed of what you’re listening to (if it lets you)
- Exactly repeat the words you hear Japanese people saying
Option #2 is called The Shadowing Technique, and man is it tough when you first start out!
You have to mimic the sounds, the speed, the intonation, the pauses, the inflections… every single thing!!!
If you are able to stick with it, then you eventually get to the point where you are listening and repeating at the same time.
Practice this enough and you become really good at it, just like lifting 50lb weights.
Then when you go back to the native level stuff where you are just listening, or just speaking, it will seem easy to you since your workout routine typically involves doing both things at once.
It’s kind of a weird feeling to listen to something and think it’s too fast, then practice shadowing it for a while, and finally go back and listen to it again without trying to reproduce it and this time feeling like it’s so easy to understand!
This method is probably a little too advanced for beginners, but it’s just what the doctor ordered (that’s me 😉 ) for people who are ready to play the language game at full speed.
I’ve Only Just Scratched the Surface
To sum it up: You should train above the level you want to perform at.
We’ve seen this kind of thing before! Remember when Goku (Dragon Ball Z) took off the weighted clothing when it was time to get series about the fight?
He wore it so that training would be harder, and therefore fighting for real would be easier.
Anyway, getting back to the method I mentioned, there’s so much more that could be said (and has been said) about The Shadowing Technique.
It’s not something you hear a lot about in the classroom, but it can absolutely improve your ability to speak and understand Japanese that (right now) feels like it’s just too fast.
The good news is that you don’t have to figure it out all on your own.
There are Amazing Books and CDs that are specifically designed to teach Japanese through Shadowing that you can take advantage of to get yourself to that next level in the language.
And there is a really good Japanese course that teaches it as well.
But that’s a topic for another day. Thanks for reading!
What are your thoughts on people who speak really quickly? What techniques have you used to improve your speed with a language?