Japanese—the fastest language in the world?

A smattering of articles reporting on "scientists' findings"

A smattering of articles reporting on “scientists’ findings”

A couple of years ago, there was a minor to-do in popular media on a study of speech rates. Scientific AmericanTime, The Economist, and many other outfits reported on a paper in the journal Language that seemed to indicate basic differences in speaking rates between languages. Apparently, Mandarin is the slowest, and Japanese is the fastest, and they decided that this is probably due to differences in sound inventories. It makes intuitive sense, and fits in nicely with the basic concepts in Information Theory. Listeners probably have roughly the same capacity for understand a certain amount of information in a given time frame, so If a single syllable carries less information, you’d want to increase the speaking rate in order to come up close to that capacity limit.

Yeah, but the devil’s in the details. There are some serious flaws in this study, so whether the hypothesis is correct or not, I don’t think the Language study provides nearly enough evidence for the rather strong claims that came out of popular media. What else is new, right?

First off, everything was done from a translation of a single, short English text. This is a damned small sample to serve as a basis for a theory of cross-linguistic information density on five sentences.

And then consider that it’s been translated from just one language, rather than, say, multiple passages written in multiple languages translated into each other. Why not have a passage each, one translated from Mandarin, one from Japanese, and so on? Japanese people don’t talk about the same things that English speakers do, they don’t structure their speech acts in the same ways, they don’t tell stories with the same structure. So right out of the gate, you’re not comparing natural, spoken Japanese with English, but Japanese that’s been structured along English lines.

More troubling for me, though, was the overall quality of the translation. Here’s the original English passage:

Last night I opened the front door to let the cat out. It was such a beautiful evening that I wandered down the garden for a breath of fresh air. Then I heard a click as the door closed behind me. I realised I’d locked myself out. To cap it all, I was arrested while I was trying to force the door open!

Now, I’m not qualified to comment on the other languages, but here’s the text that they used for the Japanese sample:

昨夜、私は猫Weにだしてやるために玄関を開けてみると、あまりに気持のいい夜だったので、新鮮な空気をす吸おうと、ついふらっと庭へ降りたのです。する と後ろでドアが閉まって、カチャと言う音が聞こえ、自分自身を締め出してしまったことに気が付いたのです。挙句の果てに、私は無理矢理ドアをこじ開けよう としているところを逮捕されてしまったのです。

All errors presented as in the published paper. There are a few annoyances here, but the biggest for me is the unnecessary inclusion of words and morphemes that pad the length. They’ve put 私は at the beginning of two sentences, adding four grammatically unnecessary and unnatural syllables each time. There’s also a lot of use of してしまった, which I’ll agree is probably appropriate to the intended tone, but it’s also a nuance that isn’t really present in the English version and again adds four moras (three syllables). ‘To cap it all’ is translated as 挙句の果てに (ageku no hate ni, seven syllables) where 更に (sara ni, three syllables) would be completely adequate. All three sentences end with のです, adding three syllables, but you could drop that ending entirely and maintain the same meaning with a less explanatory/polite tone, which I think is absent from the English original anyway. I’ll just assume the ‘We’ is a typo, or 文字化け or something.

I’ll grant that it’s an attractive idea, and there’s some intuitive merit to the idea that languages would differ on syllable rate in order to meet a more or less constant rate of information transfer. That seems logical. I just don’t think this paper demonstrates that sufficiently. If you want to make some kind of claim about Japanese speech rate, you need more than three poorly translated sentences.


English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Research
5 comments on “Japanese—the fastest language in the world?
  1. locksleyu says:

    Interesting article – I didn’t know about the study you mentioned and oftentimes wonder about the objective speeds of certain languages. Sometimes languages like Spanish seem faster than others, but I wonder how much of that is based on my bias that I don’t understand much of it. If I was fluent in Spanish possibly I would perceive it much slower?

    You have a strong point that they should done several data points where they started the original text in a different base language, and it sounds like the overall data size was too small.

    Having said that, I was very curious to read the Japanese translation and compare for myself. Admittedly, translation from Engilsh to Japanese is definitely not one of my strongest points, but I’ve read enough novels in Japanese to have a basic grasp whether something is relatively natural or not (or at least I’d like to think so (: ).

    In summary, I feel that the translation is pretty good and this specific translation is not one of the main weak points of the study in question. Here are my reasons:

    1) The overall translation is pretty natural, meaning that I doubt it was done using a computer translator or someone with less than (near) native Japanese skills. So that makes me doubt the entire passage less as a whole.

    2) The two instances are probably, as you say, 文字化け and I don’t think contribute too much to the overall result.

    3) I think the してしまった and のです parts are totally natural, or at least reasonably. Sure, you could technically get rid of the 丁寧語 and even abbreviate as しちゃった to get rid of characters, but based on the English tone being more formal than casual speech (it sounds like a storyteller is narrating), I think those two things are a good fit. Actually one could even argue for using である instead of です which would add an additional syllable.

    4) I disagree that さらに would be an appropriate replacement for 挙げ句の果てに, the latter being much more specific and formal/dramatic. Also, the expression “To cap it all” isn’t used much in conversational speech, much like 挙げ句の果てに。If the English was “And also”, or “Furthermore” I think さらに would have been fine, though.

    Anyway, I can’t conclusively prove my stance here but just wanted to give my opinion. (:

    Would be curious if a Japanese person could chime in on whether this is a good translation or not.

    One final thing – to make the study better it would probably be best to have a few translators (for each language) translate the original text as to even out these kind of issues.

    • gengojeff says:

      Thanks for your comments! You always give me something interesting to chew on.

      I think you’ve got some good points about the translation in terms of naturalness. Certainly I wouldn’t say that ~てしまった, のです or 挙句の果てに are either inaccurate or unnatural, although I think the 私は are at the very least unnecessary. However, they are entirely optional. Since the crux of the author’s claim is that Japanese communication *requires* more syllables and thus *must* have a faster speaking rate, it seems to me that they need to be really careful about not including any unnecessary verbiage. You could go either way on any of those points, but taken all together, it looks very much like the authors intentionally padded the length of the text in order to support their hypothesis. There are a number of roughly equivalent options for ‘to cap it all’ (4 syllables); they could have chosen しかも (3), それに (3), その上 (4), 挙句に (4), and probably many others that don’t spring to mind right now. Admittedly none are a perfect fit, but it seems to me that they sought out the longest one available, 挙句の果てに (7), and used that.

      That said, I don’t actually think that the hypothesis is wrong. It’s probably true that languages with simpler syllable structures are spoken at a faster rate–that’s what basic information theory would predict. I just think this evidence is so sloppy that it’s not really helpful in supporting the hypothesis.

  2. locksleyu says:

    Yeah, on second thought I do agree that the second “私は” does seem unnecessary.

    Nitpicky translation debate aside, I would hope that a study like this would involve hiring independent translators who have no idea what the topic of the study is. If they had information or where the researchers themselves, regardless of the morality of the researchers the end result is hopelessly biased.

    I haven’t read the study and don’t want to make any claims about these specific researchers, but given a long history of researchers fudging their results for recognition, your theory about choosing 挙げ句の果てに purposefully is 十分にあり得る.

  3. locksleyu says:

    Also one thing I forgot to write, is that I don’t think they should be “careful about not including any unnecessary verbiage”, because that could actually cause a bias in the other direction.

    Rather, they should go for a completely ‘natural’ translation, whatever that is.

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