All Language Resources is an independent review site. If you click a product link, we may earn money from a seller at no cost to you. Writing and analyses are author opinions. Learn More

How long does it take to learn Japanese

How Long Does it Take to Learn Japanese

How long does it take to learn Japanese?

Probably not as long as you might think!

Honestly, you can be having an in-depth conversation with a native speaker in as little as 3 months. I personally took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) Level N1, which roughly native speaker level, after 12 months.

But, as with anything, the length of time it takes to learn Japanese will depend on a variety of factors, including the amount of time you can devote to studying, the methods you use to learn the language and (most importantly of all) what your learning goals are.

Do you want to learn enough to follow along with your favourite anime without waiting for it to be subtitled? That won’t take as long as it will if you goal is to have conversational speaking skills. Being able to have a chat with your Japanese exchange partner won’t take as long as it would be able to study in a Japanese university.

This article will take a few different end goals as examples and look at how long it could take to reach them.

What does it mean to be fluent in a language?

‘Fluency’ is one of those woolly terms in language learning that means different things to different people.

Generally, ‘fluency’ refers to the ability to speak and understand at the same level as a native speaker.  

This article from the BBC cites Daniel Morgan, head of learning development at the Shenker Institutes of English in Italy who believes that fluency refers to how “smoothly” and “efficiently” a speaker can speak on “a range of topics in real time”.

The important thing to remember is that fluency does not mean ‘knowing all the words.’

For example, as a native English speaker, I would claim fluency in English. However ‘apothem’ is an English word that I didn’t know until I googled ‘obscure mathematical vocabulary’ for the purposes of this article! As someone who isn’t a mathematician, I don’t need to know the specific term for ‘the line segment which goes from the centre of a regular polygon to the midpoint of one of its sides.’ But that doesn’t detract from my general fluency in English.

 How long does it take to gain fluency in a language?

The amount of time it takes to becomes fluent in a foreign language depends on its relationship with your native language.

It takes less time to become fluent in a language from the same ‘family’ as your native language.

For native English speakers, for example, Dutch would by easy to learn because it is similar English. The fewer similarities there are between your native language your target language is, the harder it may be to learn.

Is Japanese hard to learn?

The US Department of State claims that Japanese is one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn, due to the numerous differences between the two languages.

The US Department of State estimates that it takes approximately 2200 hours to reach fluency in Japanese. By their matrix, fluency is defined as B2 level on the CEFR or JLPT N2.

Estimates for passing the JLPT N1 exam from scratch come in at around 4,800 hours.  

How can we maximise our hours?

Putting an hour number on language learning can be misleading.

For example, the anime ‘Danna ga Nani wo Itteiru ka Wakaranai Ken’ (‘I can’t understand what my husband is saying’) runs at 3 minutes per episode. However, watching 44,000 episodes of that show won’t make you fluent, despite reaching the 2200-hour mark.

However, if you use your hours purposefully and intentionally, you can hit the 2200 mark and hit your goals.

Here are some tips for doing that:

  1. Be clear about your goals: It’s important to know what you want to achieve with your Japanese studies. Whether you want to be able to hold basic conversations, read Japanese novels, or pass the JLPT, having a clear goal in mind will help you stay motivated and focused.
  2. Focus: When you know what your goals are, you will know the domains of vocabulary you need to focus on. It’s all very well and good being able to talk about your morning routine in Japanese, but if your goal is to watch anime without subtitles, that vocabulary will not be very useful to you. So learning it will be a waste of your hours. However, if you want to teach English to children in Japan, it will be very useful to know, so that you can use it as a reference point in your lessons. You don’t need to know all the words. (But if you’re interested, the Japanese word for ‘apothem’ is 辺心距離).
  3. Find a study method that works for you: Everyone learns differently, so it’s important to find a study method that works for you. This may be through traditional classroom instruction, online courses, or self-study using textbooks or language learning software. There’s no ‘best’ way to learn, it really is all about what help you to retain the information.
  4. Practice regularly: Consistency is key when it comes to learning Japanese. Make a schedule that you can stick to and try to practice every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
  5. Immerse yourself in the language: One of the best ways to learn Japanese is to immerse yourself in the language. This could involve listening to Japanese music, watching Japanese films or TV shows, or interacting with native Japanese speakers.
  6. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes: It’s natural to make mistakes when learning a new language. Don’t be discouraged by them – they’re a natural part of the learning process. Just keep practicing and you’ll get better over time. And don’t let them put you off practising. It can be easy to talk yourself out of trying because you don’t want to get something wrong. But offering an answer in class and being corrected (thus learning something) is a more productive use of your 2200 hours than sitting passively in a class and not learning anything.

Learning Kanji Takes a Lot of Time

According to the Dai Kan-Wa Jiten, there are 50,000 kanji.

Thankfully, no-one is expected to know all of them!

According to the Japanese Ministry of Education and Sciences, there are 2200 everyday kanji (the jôyô kanji) and realistically, those are the ones you need to be a literate person in Japanese society. So if you’re interested in learning kanji but are intimidated by where to start, that list forms a good base.

(Japanese society in general is aware of how many kanji exist versus how many people can read, so when the less common ones appear in books or newspapers, they often have furigana [small hiragana] above them to help you read what the word says.)

 A Japanese person who has completed a course of study at university can read an average of 3000 kanji.

A Japanese person with a PhD can read an average of 5000 kanji, but those will mostly be the more obscure words and phrases related to their field.

So, if you want to be able to read Japanese, you should start focusing on the jouyou kanji. If you were to focus on learning 30 per day, you could have all 2200 covered in 74 days (or about 2.5 months).

How Can We Make Learning Japanese Easier?

If we want to make the most of our hours, we need to make the learning process easier for ourselves.

1. Set Your Goal for Speaking Japanese

We’ve already discussed the importance of goal setting in this article, but your end goal is really the only thing that matters. When you know what your goal is, you know how to best plan your time to achieve it.

If your goal is to read light novels, then focus first on learning hiragana, katakana and the jouyou kanji. That way, you can read the words before you start looking up the meanings in a dictionary.

If your goal is to chat, think about what your hobbies are and learn the vocabulary for that. Music buffs might need the word ポップス (poppusu) meaning ‘pop music’ whereas a fitness fanatic is more likely to need the word スポジム (supojimu) meaning ‘fitness club.’

2. Break Down Your Goal into Daily Chunks

Yes, daily.

Languages are better learned in ‘small’ bursts every day, rather than just in a 3-hour evening class once per week.

How small is small? That depends on how much time you can commit.

Ten minutes per day going over flashcards while you’re waiting for the bath to fill is better than nothing. Those periods of ten minutes will add up to your hours.

An hour per day is better than ten minutes.

Three hours per day is better than one hour.

But remember, it’s about quality rather than quantity. Ten minutes going intently over your flashcards is better than an hour idly scrolling through Japanese Instagram and not engaging with what you’re looking at.

3. Speak and Write Japanese from the Outset

The productive skills (speaking and writing) are the most intimidating skills.

And they are the skills that learners often try to put off.

So if you start by trying to write the hiragana (and getting it wrong, because we all do when we start, even native speakers) or finding a language exchange partner and saying “Konnichi wa, watashi no namae wa…” then you can face the fear before the fear sets in.

Like anything, the more you write and speak Japanese, the easier it gets.

4. Make It Fun

Let’s be honest – we don’t want to do anything if we don’t enjoy it.

And as adult learners who aren’t being herded into a classroom every day, it’s very easy to put off things we don’t want to do.

So, find different things that you enjoy doing and do them in Japanese rather than English.

Changing the language of your phone is a good way to start this. You probably know the layout of your phone without needing the English labels for everything, so changing the language will help you get used to reading things you’re already familiar with.

Similarly, if you’re a gamer or avid TV watcher, change the language to Japanese. Games such as Pokemon work really well for this, because the language is very simple, and the story is relatively linear and so easy to follow. With TV shows, think about something you binge regularly and know all the words to already, and watch that in Japanese instead. You can begin to associate the words you hear with what you know the actors are saying.

You can use the same strategy if you like to read manga. Find your favourite tankobon of your favourite manga in Japanese and buy that in. You already know the story, you can compare with your English version, and this will make reading practice easy and enjoyable.

However, if you’re in the market for something new to read, take a look at Story Learning. The website offers a range of entertaining stories at different levels which will help you read right from the beginning.

5. Make Use of Dead Time

The research on how much time we waste per day is fairly inconclusive, but we can all identify time in the day that is either wasted or ‘dead’ (time such as waiting for bus, where you can’t do anything practical).

This time can be used for adding a little more Japanese in your life. Have a go at listening to a podcast on your drive to work. Read over a Japanese newspaper rather than an English one during your mid-morning break. Use your bathroom breaks to go over flashcards. (But don’t tell your boss we suggested that!)

It can be hard to justify time spent studying, especially if you’re learning Japanese for your own personal development rather than for professional reasons. But realistically, there’s a lot of time we waste during the day and which we can make better use of, if we were just more deliberate with how we spend it.

 6. Get an accountability partner

Accountability partners can be a great way to help you form new habits because they provide a level of support and accountability that can be difficult to find elsewhere.

When you have someone who is counting on you to follow through on your goals, it can be a powerful motivator to stay on track. Additionally, an accountability partner can provide encouragement and help you stay focused when you are feeling discouraged or unsure. Finally, having someone to share your progress with and celebrate your successes with can be a great way to stay motivated and engaged in the process of making new habits.

Maybe you have a friend who also wants to learn Japanese and you can support (or even compete with) each other on your learning journey. If not, there are plenty of online resources that can help you find a language learning partner you can support and be supported by.

So, How Long Does It Take to Learn Japanese

As you have seen in this article, that really is all down to you, and it depends on a combination of your goals, your availability, and your use of time. But with the right amount of time set aside per day, it is possible be conversational on Japanese within three months and fluent within a year.

If you’re finding it difficult to start, you can check out our “How To Learn Japanese” article to steer you in the right direction.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *