How do Japanese read?

When I read slowly, an internal voice in my mind reads the writing aloud.
When I speed-read, that voice is not there and I absorb what I read visually.
Ordinarily I’m somewhere in the middle.

When Japanese read, do they have an internal voice that reads the writing aloud, or do they directly understand visually what they read, without internally reading aloud?

And if they do more the latter than the former, does that mean that Japanese speed-read at a greater extent than us?


I visualize and internally read aloud all the time, regardless of language or speed. So based on these differences between us and other people I’ve spoken to, I would expect it to be variable per individual for Japanese as well.

I’ve never spoken to any Japanese person about this.


Yeah, sub-vocalization is important for accurate reading comprehension regardless of speed. Good speed-readers (aka people not claiming ridiculous reading speeds) do not eliminate that sub-vocalization because that can lead to lower comprehension or even completely wrong comprehension of what is being read.

A good article on this topic:


I usually read at a speed of around 350 words per minute when I wanna read quickly which is fairly fast, not a real speed-reader but at least decently above average. I still hear the voice as well. I wouldn’t say I actively listen to it anymore, but I just perceive it and understand what it says, if that makes sense.


I image they would read Japanese like we read English. Granted I am not Japanese so I can’t give it from their viewpoint, but when I read Japanese if i try to read fast I won’t read it out load in my mind I will just see the kanji and kana and now the meaning of the sentence.


I had a few people in my past tell me there was something slightly wrong with me for always having that little voice in my head when I read - thank you for linking to that article. I always felt, despite being a slower reader than them that my comprehension was better, and now I know why.


I don’t hear a voice in my head when I read – I kind of swallow the words whole by shape. I find the same thing with kanji – I don’t look at all the components to read it, I absorb the entire word form as a pattern almost. I can’t do that with kana-only words as yet, though.

I also cannot visualise, which I think has something to do with this word-swallowing, along with being an editor/proofreader for more than two decades.

…so I’m an outlier, and you probably shouldn’t listen to me.


I don’t see why people in Japan would be any different than anywhere else.

Whether I take four straight lines and make HI or 口 it’s still a word, with a meaning, and a way it can be vocalized.


Meanwhile, I don’t understand how people can read without that voice in their head! :sweat_smile:


I’m in the no sub-vocalization camp, for both english and japanese. I read about 300ish wpm (at least when reading novels, I have no idea about just browsing the internet or anything like that) and never sub-vocalize. I’m actually quite bad at reading passages out loud for that very reason, and the effect is only worse in Japanese due to kanji being perfect for just inhaling mentally. On the subject of comprehension, I would consider myself to be in the high levels of the distribution. But comprehension is something that naturally improves the more you read. So to say how the Japanese read, it’s probably not much different than us, it’s just a matter of experience.

I do actually sub-vocalize sometimes when reading japanese but that’s only to check that I actually know the reading, when I don’t bother to do that I probably double my speed (from like 10 to 20 wpm lul).


Well I am also of the opinion that thinking that Japanese read just like we do is just an assumption, since none of us are Japanese. Nor would the experience of one Japanese individual be enough to assume that all Japanese do so in the same way.

This question came to me while thinking about how we derive meaning from icons and emoji.

For instance, when we see :open_umbrella:︎ or :relaxed:︎, some of us may not hear their internal voice saying aloud the word umbrella (or paraplu, or ombrello, or whatever it may be in the language your internal voice may be talking to you at that time), or smile. Or we may not hear it every time. We may just understand the meaning of :open_umbrella:︎ or :relaxed:︎ without vocalising it internally. The same is true with road signs or traffic lights. I don’t know if anybody vocalises internally a no-go road sign or a red light. All the same we understand what they mean.

Let’s exclude kana’s from our conversation that are often more similar to the letters of our alphabet. They may have an intrinsic meaning beyond their pronunciation in some cases, but more often than not they probably don’t. Although some kana’s - think of な or も - are used as particles and have an intrinsic meaning beyond the phoneme they represent. But let’s put kana’s on one side for now.

Kanji are also like icons and emoji and have meaning that transcend how they may be read. In fact they may share the same meaning in Chinese and Japanese even when they are read differently. So when we see 犬 or 猫 do we instinctively think of :dog2: or :cat2: or do we have an internal voice vocalising inu or neko. More importantly what do Japanese usually do when they see 犬 or 猫? The same question stands for Chinese.

If they think of :dog2: or :cat2: before (or instead of) their internal voice vocalises inu or neko, then it is not unreasonable to wonder if their process of understanding a text may be faster than ours and possibly different in nature.


This might not be the same thing at all, but when I’m reading code, whether it’s javascript or assembly, for comprehension I read it in my head as English even though you could say it’s not English. Also I asked this exact question to my Chinese friend and he said that when reading, even though it’s more compact, ultimately he processes the ideas at the same speed. The throughput of ideas doesn’t change, even though the script and representation of stuff is more compact, essentially.


I don’t think you can compare kanji to emoji, since kanji do have a set reading that also changes in context (and can change the meaning of a kanji).
Also, take something like 猫舌. I doubt that Japanese imagine :cat2: :tongue: and then go “oh right, this means ‘aversion to hot foods’”, that seems lengthy and complicated and (I suppose) would take way too long. While it is true that some kanji are pictographs, most of them aren’t and they differ from something like emoji in that they not only convey meaning, but also sound/reading.

I get why it might seem like an assumption to say Japanese read just like we do, but I think it’s an assumption to think Japanese read inherently different from everyone else.


These emoji are symbols though; kanji have an extra step to it; the kanji are tied to pronunciations (a word), and the word is connected to a concept. The emoji are connected straight ahead to concepts, there’s no middle ground. (The kanas and other phonetic-ish writing systems are connected to sounds rather than words, which are then connected to words, which are there connected to concepts. Kanji and kanji compounds can also have that extra step.)

Emojis have a distinct, single meaning. Kanji do not. That distinction is what makes emojis so interesting for linguists and semiologists.


As someone who doesn’t usually subvocalise in any language I speak so long as I know the vocab and the grammar, I have to say that the reading is a bit shallower, but with enough practice you end up catching the key words that tell you whether or not you should pay attention there. I don’t need to read “he said” in my mind every time a male character says something in fiction; I remember the shape of the word and fill it in mentally while I read the rest.

But sometimes I do subvocalise, if I encounter something I can’t fill in, or if there’s something I didn’t understand, or if the writing is especially beautiful. That’s when I want or need to engage more deeply with the text.

A lot of the text in life is really, really inane, and filled with fillers, and honestly there’s no need to engage with it further than just make sure that it’s not something I should be paying attention to. It allows me to spot the things that are important more quickly, and with stronger short-term memory of how things are connected (which is weaker when I subvocalise; I might understand individual sentences better, but remember and understand how what I’m reading now connects to 3 pages ago? If I subvocalised all 3 of those pages I’d 1. become mentally exhausted, 2. take over 15 minutes to read those pages, 3. have an irritated throat, 4. more likely to be distracted by something). If I had to vocalise even the text that’s written on the back of the milk carton (it changes sometimes!), I’d probably go mad with frustration within a week.

So it’s not like it’s an either/or skill; people who don’t subvocalise don’t necessarily don’t have the ability to subvocalise, it’s just that we choose when, what for, and why to utilise it.


Yeah, I tend to skip over those and only go back if I realize I missed something.

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That’s non-subvocalised reading right there. :wink:

I do the same thing with a/an, some prepositions (just making sure the general shape isn’t weird), conjugations … I know English well enough to be able to fill those in. I’m still getting what’s going on, but with less effort given towards the part that I already know will be there.

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Is it though? I’m not taking anything in; I’m just skipping it.

If something unexpected and/or with a different shape shows up, would you still skip it? If yes, then you are skipping. If no, you’re speed-reading.

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I think I’d probably skip it, but I’m not sure. I’ll have to see if I can figure out what I’m doing next time I read English without biasing myself by consciously thinking about it. :laughing: