How Long Does it Take to Learn Japanese? – A Reliable Answer

Japanese language learners and those thinking about beginning to study Japanese may ask themselves, “how long does it take to learn Japanese?” It’s a fair question and concern, and in this article, we spoon-feed you all you’d need to know to answer that question.

A girl with shoulder-length hair is staring at the board with her left hand on her cheek and her right hand holding a pen and a notebook.

Start from the top and work your way down for the whole shebang. Oh, and keep in mind that we’ll be mostly referring to non-Asian native speakers here, as students from places like Korea and China will be ahead of the game already!

How Long Does it Take to Become Fluent in a Language?

Just to be clear, before we even step further into this topic, you get out what you put in. And if you don’t use it, you lose it. Mastering any foreign language takes consistent practice and daily application. Ultimately, how fast you learn Japanese will be determined by your perseverance.

Moving along, the U.S. Department of State has officially estimated that it takes about 2200 hours for native English speakers to learn Japanese. That’s “learn” as in “be completely fluent.” That level of Japanese fluency would be considered JLPT N2 – level, which becomes a reward goal for many Japanese learners to strive toward.

N1 – level (which is end-game boss level) fluency would take even longer, at least 4400 hours for most non – Asian speakers. Even most Japanese people can’t pass the N1 exam, so it’s really setting the bar high!

Reaching Goals in Japanese

So let’s break down a few popular and plausible goals for Japanese proficiency in reference to time. These are averages if you were to study for about an hour a day. Here’s how long it’d take to learn Japanese in terms of the following:

Exchange basic Conversations with Friends

We’re looking at about three months before getting to this level. It takes time to assimilate vocabulary and get accustomed to unfamiliar grammar. The more exposure you have in the early stages (or later stages, for that matter), the better!

Understand TV shows, Dramas, and Movies

For shows aimed at the standard adult audience, it’ll likely take you at least one year to achieve this goal.

Read Novels in Japanese

This one gets a star since it requires you to know かんじ (kanji|漢字) very well. Kanji are Chinese characters adopted by Japan for language use – you know, those really complicated symbols you see everywhere.

Kanji is probably the single most challenging component of the Japanese language. Yet still, after only three years of hammering the nail, you can get there!

A note about Kanji

The essential かんじ (kanji|漢字) that all Japanese kids learn throughout grade school is known as じょうようかんじ (jouyou kanji|常用漢字). They number about 2,136. If you stop there, that is enough kanji knowledge to read any Japanese newspaper and most written material. However, there are plenty more kanji characters hanging around to be mastered if that’s your can of worms.

What is Fluency? Proficiency vs Fluency

Well, what does it mean to be fluent in a language anyway? The truth of the matter is, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get a unanimous consensus on the matter. Linguists have been debating over the word for ages!

While that is the case on the large scale, there is a prevailing and popular thought as to what language fluency really is. That is – when a person can accurately, effortlessly, and unwaveringly express themselves in a language.

Factors like pauses, speed, corrections, and general comprehension all tie into one’s level of fluency. Gaps in vocabulary are not a big deal, though (everybody has those)! One can also be a fluent listener of a language when on the receptive side of the coin.

Fluency

So basically, fluency is when someone can engage with a language void of apprehension or second-guessing. Words just roll off of the tongue and dance into the ears.

Proficiency

Proficiency, on the other hand, is a little bit different in that it’s more a scholastic measurement of Japanese language proficiency. Take, for example, an American who’s studied Japanese, is an awesome writer with a huge vocabulary, and has passed the N1 proficiency exam.

This fella would be considered Japanese proficient. If the same student found some difficulty in fluid conversation and stammered while they spoke, although proficient, they would not be fluent.

In short, fluency is about communicating smoothly, while proficiency is the ability to accurately utilize a language.

Social Fluency

Now, that being said, there is such thing as social fluency, which is the ability to handle social interactions as seamlessly as you would in your mother tongue.

Tons of learners gun for this kind of fluency since most people who study language do so for the purpose of communicating.

With social fluency, you can have a conversation with someone about day-to-day events – you wouldn’t be able to talk politics, however.

How Hard is it to Learn Japanese?

The SLS, also known as the School of Language Studies, provides foreign language courses for officials in the US government. They rank languages based on how long it takes to read “Professional Working Proficiency”… that’s a pretty high level. Anyway, the SLS ranks Japanese as a Category IV language, the hardest category they have.

The Foreign Service Institute, which trains members of the US foreign affairs community, also considers Japanese amongst the hardest languages in the world. We’ve got something to say about that!

While Japanese is by means no walk in the park, most people don’t find it all that difficult. Sure, if gunning for “Professional Working Proficiency,” you’ve got to learn all the tough grammar, かきことば (kakikotoba|書き言葉), or written-only words, and have excellent kanji!

We’d say most Japanese learners aren’t shooting so high, which is totally okay. The toughness of kanji aside, Japanese gets along pretty well, even more so than English, in our opinion!

Last but not least, remember that difficulty highly depends on your native language. Native Korean speakers will typically have a much easier time dealing with the oh-so-similar Japanese language than would a French speaker.

How Many Hours a Day Should I Study Japanese?

To see real improvements in any foreign language, you should be in study mode for at least an hour a day.

What’s most important is that you make sure to study daily! We can’t stress this enough–the brain’s bandwidth has a capacity just like any other muscle does. Consider any dedicated daily exposure to the language a success.

To truly accelerate, do at least one hour of book studying and at least one hour of conscious exposure. Such kinds of exposure can be watching anime or Japanese television, listening to Japanese music or podcasts, looking up recipes in Japanese… you name it!

As long as you’re tuning in to the language and not tuning out to “white noise,” your brain is synthesizing new pathways for new information!

How Long Will it Take to Learn Each Aspect of Japanese?

There are a few rather essential components within Japanese. Each has its own level of difficulty and, therefore, will take a varied amount of time to master. Here, we’ve broken down each component and ranked the average time to learn Japanese from fastest to slowest!

Japanese Pronunciation

Japanese pronunciation usually poses no threat to native English speakers. Nearly every one of the sounds made in Japanese is also made in English. Plus, the five vowels are “true” vowels that always make the exact same sound in every situation (just like Spanish, for anyone who’s familiar).

Not only that, but the overwhelming exposure of the Japanese to cool Japanese learners has already warmed up the ears of new recruits. You’ll get the pronunciation down in less than two weeks if you don’t have it down already!

The Japanese Alphabet

The Japanese writing system is a trinity: ひらがな (hiragana), カタカナ (katakana), and かんじ (kanji|漢字). There’s also ろまじ (romaji|炉マジ), which is just the alphabetized Latin representation of Japanese words.

Those bits above in () are examples of 炉マジ. Anyway, it’s not worth considering right now since it comes as second nature for any English speaker.

Hiragana and katakana consist of 48 characters each, totaling 96 characters in total. These two systems are considered the Japanese alphabet.

Technically, you don’t need any kanji to write/read any Japanese word. And so, if you learn 6-7 new characters a day, you’ll have the alphabet down pat in about two weeks. Not bad.

Japanese Vocabulary

You must know about 5,000 Japanese vocabulary to be considered fluent in the language. That’s a healthy number, but nothing earth-shattering… here’s some quick math the visualize the task: It would take you one month to learn 5,000 vocabulary words if you learned 167 words a day. That’s impossible.

But what if you learned just 8-10 words a day? Then, we’re looking at 5,000 words in under 1.5 years, which is really quick!

Also, keep in mind that learning vocabulary is like collecting coins in a video game–it’s just one of those things that you pick up along the way, and before you know it, you’ve collected a whole bunch!

One helpful thing when it comes to Japanese vocabulary is the clues inherent in kanji. See, while not all do, several Japanese words are pretty much always written in kanji form. As you progressively learn kanji, you’ll be able to read and even understand completely new vocabulary upon your first time seeing them.

Plus, Japanese verbs are pretty steadfast, and some of their conjugative forms appear in other words depending on the given inflection. That is to say, it’s far easier to remember the vocabulary of the different forms taken than it would be otherwise.

The Grammar

If we are to count everything, Japanese is chock-full of nuanced grammar at every level. Some grammar points and vocabulary are considered はなしことば (hanashikotoba|話し言葉), or words only used when speaking. Others are かきことば (kakikotoba|書き言葉) which we mentioned earlier as words only used in writing.

The majority can be used both when conversing and in writing. To really get a handle on all Japanese grammar would take several years of practice and exposure. However, becoming familiar with the most important Japanese grammar points will likely take no more than two years.

Most students assimilate new information from every area of a language bit by bit as they progress along. But all the information is out there.

Theoretically speaking, after developing a basic foundation in Japanese, you could study all common grammar points intensely and become a grammar master in under a year. But what’s the point of having grammar if your vocabulary sucks and you can barely read kanji!?

For more information on the different specific parts of Japanese grammar, we have some articles dedicated to each of them below.

Kanji

The nail in the coffin – Kanji. Kanji is complex, and there’s no way to binge eat it.

Judging by the popular consensus, the only true way to learn kanji is through consistent drilling and utilization – repetition over time. Even native-speaking Japanese adults who relocate and cease using kanji in daily life forget most of what they’ve learned sometimes.

If you were to study diligently for at least 3-4 hours a day, leaving ample time to develop kanji recognition, you could learn all the じょうようかんじ (jouyou kanji|常用漢字) in a matter of 2 years. For most people, it will take at least four years to get to that level.

Learning Japanese with Manga and Anime

Needless to say, watching anime and reading manga are amongst the savviest ways to study Japanese. But, most anime and manga don’t provide a realistic contour of the true outline of Japanese. In both manga and anime, characters tend to speak Japanese very informally.

It’s safe to say that these media forms have their own niche version of Japanese that has become standardized and “part of the package.” That’s partially why it’s so unique and captivating.

It’s a great idea to learn Japanese through something like anime, but remember just how shorthand it can be. Always double-check the standard rendition and context for a word before confidently adopting it as a part of your vocabulary!

Quick Tips to Learn Japanese Faster

If you’d like to go over learning Japanese more quickly, here are some additional tips so you can speed up the process.

Make Friends with Media

Get in the habit of listening to Japanese music or podcasts on the go. For practice with とうきょうべん (toukyouben|東京弁), the “Tokyo standard” Japanese dialect, check out NHK easy news. They’ve got listening and reading material to help you learn Japanese faster!

Get a Language Partner

If you’re not in Japan to immerse yourself fully in the culture, the next best thing would be to get a language partner! Find someone who wants to learn your native language and start communication. Nothing beats learning from a native speaker!

For more of these, we have an article dedicated to tips on how to learn Japanese fast.

The Importance of Immersion

This is the most effective yet, admittedly, the most brutal way to accumulate language skills.

Here’s a story on the matter:

One of our writers studied Japanese in college. His Japanese professor, Kura Sensei, was a rather young Japanese woman from Nara.

Upon deciding to master English one fine day, she moved to New York City completely alone and vowed not to speak a word of Japanese until her English became sufficient. And that’s what she did!

To boot, her English was near non-existent when she arrived. Times were tough. No digital translator came to her rescue. She’d mishear directions, misread signs, and wear the mask of “the babbling tourist” for quite a while.

Once, she even met another Japanese person who (obviously aware she was Japanese) begged her for directions. Kura Sensei played the fool. She did not break her vow, although she probably broke that stranger’s heart.

Years later, Kura Sensei had become a college professor with perfect English, accent and all.

Immersion within a society, culture, and people of a language is guaranteed to speed up your learning process. At that point, it’s either sink or swim – and most folks will do their best to swim.

It All Depends on You!

So, how long does it take to learn Japanese? Thus far, our assessments have been geared toward complete beginners with very little to no prior knowledge of Japanese. But not everyone is the same! If you’ve been studying for six months, you’ve gained momentum and will continue to progress at a faster rate than a newbie – the ball is rolling.

Also, everyone has their own personal goals. It will take much longer to ace JLPT N1 than it will to get good enough to make friends on the street.

Finally, your own self-drive and determination will play the biggest roles in your rate of success in any new language. So never give up! You’re getting closer to your goals one day at a time!

がんばっ てください (Ganbatte kudasai!)! ^^

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