You hear it all the time—to an untrained ear, it seems like a Japanese speaker talks much faster than we expect.
Actually, it’s true—Japanese do talk faster—because Japanese has lots more syllables than English or most European languages. Consider an example:
Yuube juu-ji-made hatarakimashita.
I worked till 10 o’clock last night.
This simple Japanese sentence has 15 syllables:
ゆうべ じゅうじ まで はたらき ました
The English equivalent has just 8. That is a pretty typical ratio, with English having half or so as many syllables as Japanese. Consider simple greetings in Japanese:
Good morning. (3 syllables)
Good night. (2 syllables)
The syllables in Japanese are very short, so they can be uttered quickly and with very little mouth movement. Japanese talk faster to get out all those syllables, but the rate at which they communicate is about the same as anyone else.
To a Western ear, though, hearing all those short Japanese syllables takes practice. My brain is trained to pick up new English words of 3 or 4 syllables, maybe 5 at most. But in Japanese, a new word might have 8 or 9, even 10 or more syllables. Even if I listen closely, I have trouble picking up the last few syllables, and often wind up asking my Nihongo-Pro teacher to repeat a new Japanese word several times.
It’s definitely one of the challenges of learning Japanese, but also can be a lot of fun. Next time a friend asks you to say something in Japanese, make an impression with one of these Japanese syllable stews:
Atatakaku natta no dewa nakatta ka?
Didn’t it get warm? (lit., Isn’t it true that it got warm?)
Atta-ka, nakatta-ka, shirimasendeshita.
I didn’t know if it was there or not.