How long does it take to learn Japanese? You are searching for a definitive answer to this question because you, like I, have been captured by the unique beauty of the Japanese language and culture and dream of speaking it on your next trip to Japan.
As a Japanese learner who started learning Japanese about a year ago, I won’t dance around the subject that Japanese is a hard language and could take long to master than some other languages. In this article, I will share with you how long it takes to learn the Japanese language, why it takes that much time and how you can learn it faster.
How Long Will it Take to Learn Japanese?
The amount of time that it takes to learn Japanese depends on the level of mastery that you want to reach. To give you a good reference, though, the US Department of State says that it will take approximately 88 weeks of learning, or 2200 hours, to be able to fluently understand and speak Japanese.
How Hard is it to Learn Japanese?
According to the US Department of State, Japanese is a Category IV language, right next to Chinese, Korean, and Arabic. Category IV languages are languages that are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers to understand.
This makes Japanese a pretty difficult language to learn, especially for those who aren’t familiar with a second language. If you want to truly master Japanese, you’re going to need to take the JLPT N1 test, the highest-level Japanese-language-proficiency exam which tests your ability to understand Japanese in a wide variety of complex situations.
According to Coto Academy, for those who have an understanding of Kanji (we’ll get into this later), you can expect approximately 2150 hours of study time. For those without an understanding of Kanji, you can expect approximately 3900 hours of study time.
One entire year is about 8760 hours. Therefore, you would need to put aside just under 45% of your year to study Japanese if you wanted to take the N1 exam within a year, a feat that is extremely difficult to accomplish, if not impossible.
However, passing the N1 exam within two to three years is a very feasible accomplishment! There are many stories of beginners who passed the N2 exam within 1-1.5 years and then went on to pass the N1 exam a year after that.
Is learning Japanese going to be a tough challenge? Absolutely. The N1 exam is one of the toughest language exams out there. But if you put aside the time to learn Japanese every day, you can become fluent and ace the N1 exam within a few years!
Learning Japanese as a native English speaker
Now, the reason learning Japanese as a native English speaker can be so hard is because of the lack of familiarity between the two languages. Japanese does not incorporate the same sentence structure, grammar rules, or writing style as English does–and the same goes the other way around.
However, this does not necessarily mean that Japanese is entirely harder than English. For example, Japanese phonology tends to be much simpler than English phonology. Japanese only has 5 vowels and 13 consonants while English has 12 vowels and 24 consonants.
But other areas, such as Japan’s writing system, can be harder to learn. Whereas for English, one can simply memorize how the letter looks, Japan’s writing system combines three different writing systems from around the world: kanji, hiragana, and katakana.
What exactly is kanji, hiragana or katakana? Check out this interactive page with click-to-play audio and explanations from LingoDeer.
How many Japanese words do you need to know?
Again, it depends. How proficient do you need to be in Japanese? For the JLPT-N5 test, the simplest proficiency test available, you’ll need to know at least 100 kanji and 800 vocabulary. For the JLPT-N1 test, the most advanced proficiency test available, you’ll need to know at least 2,000 kanji and 10,000 vocabulary.
We can also look at it from another angle. According to Japanese tactics, the range of words known for a Japanese native adult is between 25,000-30,000. For polyglots, it is between 1,000-2,000 words. That being said, Japanese tactics expects that to be fluent in Japanese, you’ll need to know a minimum of 3,000-5,000 Japanese words.
What is Kanji? Do I Need to Learn Kanji?
Kanji is a system of Japanese writing that uses adopted Chinese characters. One of three writing systems in Japan, Kanji is usually used to write nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Each Kanji symbol can represent a word or an idea, but these same Kanji symbols can have different meanings and pronunciations depending on the other symbols they’re matched with.
The Kanji alphabet has 216 radicals which combine together to make the structure of each kanji. This makes Kanji arguably the hardest part of learning Japanese because learning Kanji requires a great deal of memorization and practice.
If you’re just looking to learn Japanese recreationally, then you won’t be required to learn Kanji. However, for those who want to be fluent, they’ll be required to learn Kanji, especially if they’re going to take any JLPT test, and N1 requires testers to know 2,000+ kanji.
Learning Japanese in school vs on your own
There are certain advantages that come with learning Japanese in school. However, likewise, there are also certain advantages that come with learning Japanese on your own. Learning Japanese in school will provide you with a more systematic way to learn the language, a certain bonus for first-time students who don’t know where to start.
However, after students pass the learning curve associated with Japanese, some students may find it easier to study on their own since they can go at a faster pace than compared to a classroom setting.
Especially now thanks to online Japanese courses like the ones offered at LingoDeer, it’s much easier to learn Japanese from the very beginning. You can have a detailed guide on where to start and what to learn the entire way.
How Much Time Should You Spend Learning Japanese?
The amount of time you spend learning Japanese depends on your goals and your circumstances. If you’re looking to become fluent in Japanese within two years, then you would need to spend about 5 hours each day learning Japanese before taking the N1 test. (this is assuming you need 3900 hours to become fluent)
I recommend studying one or two hours every day minimum if you’re looking to take one of the Japanese Language Proficiency tests in the coming years. For the hardest tests of the JLPT, which are the N2 and N1, I recommend that you spend as much time as you can permit each day to learning Japanese since the N2 and N1 exams truly test your understanding of Japanese.
If you study for only a few hours a day, there’s a good chance that you’ll be ready to take the N5 test after a year, which would guarantee minimum fluency.
How to Learn Japanese On Your Own
If you don’t have a teacher who can teach you Japanese, you can always learn Japanese on your own. It may sound daunting to conquer a difficult language like Japanese on your own, but many have done it, including myself, so don’t let anyone discourage you from trying to self study Japanese. Of course, immersing yourself in manga and anime alone is far from sufficient. The best way to learn Japanese on your own is to follow a structured learning program with good explanations and exercises.
Best Resources to Learn Japanese
There are plenty of great resources out there to use if you’re looking to learn Japanese on your own. We are primarily looking at online resources which specialize in teaching Japanese.
Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide
Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide is the perfect free resource for those who prefer a more traditional sense of learning. The PDF itself contains 352 pages of information pertaining to Japanese grammar and vocabulary. You can also find it on both the Android and Apple app store and on Amazon as paperback.
LingoDeer Japanese Course
LingodeerJapanese course provides bite-sized lessons and structured learning. So beginners will not be overwhelmed, while at the same time learn Japanese effectively. The learning tips before each lesson pushes you in the deep end with the grammar but almost imperceptible as the streak goes and level build-up.
Lingodeer’s audio material could rival any textbooks’ MP3, and it is even easier to use because you can choose the audio speed you like (in IOS), another customize option is about Japanese writing system display. The course originally has all the content in romaji, hiragana, katakana and kanji. You can choose to turn off the romaji, if you want to focus on the Japanese writing system and memorize kanji.
It is also practical to practice conversation. The story module after each lesson review and extend the vocabulary you have just learned in authentic conversation. Travel phrasebooks and fluent modules provide useful phrases and sentences in a specific scene. So it allows you to practice applying what you’ve learned into practical situations created by native speakers.
LingQ gives access to thousands of hours of Japanese podcasts, audiobooks, courses, and more. You can learn Japanese through their courses and then apply it by listening to one of their podcasts or reading an audiobook.
LingQ also introduces you to Japanese culture, politics, sports, and entertainment so that you can immerse yourself within the world of Japan.
JGram is another Japanese grammar database, but this one is specifically designed for every JLPT you can take. For each level of the JLPT, there are different grammar points which you can go over.
JGram provides an explanation for each grammar point on the JLPT, including tons of sample sentences provided by other users. This is an older site that uses the old levels of JLPT 4-1 instead of JLPT N5-N1, but the grammar is still the same.
Tips for Learning Japanese
While Japanese may be hard, there are a great number of ways in which one can make learning Japanese an easier experience. In fact, applying all these tips together can make learning Japanese more fun than it needs to be tedious.
Learn Japanese From Manga, Anime, and Other Resources
While in traditional Japanese courses, you may learn simple sentences, greetings, and sayings, anime and manga disregard those who are not fluent in the language. This forces you to truly apply what they’ve learned if they want to understand what’s going on.
A word of caution should be noted, though. While Japanese can certainly be improved through anime and manga, it shouldn’t be a primary source of learning. You can find great anime and manga which can be applied to real life, but most shows and series aren’t appropriate for most of the situations that you’ll be put in.
Thus, as an avid learner of the Japanese language, I recommend that you turn to a reputable online course, a course which can prepare you for many of the different scenarios you’ll face in the real world.
How to Improve Japanese With Anime and Manga
How exactly do you improve your Japanese with anime and manga, though? First of all, improving your Japanese by watching anime and improving your Japanese by reading manga are completely different.
One question you should ask yourself is, “Does the anime represent real-life situations well?” A good example would be Kaze ga Tsuyoku Fuiteiru, a show about preparing for a marathon that could very realistically happen in real life.
The trick behind improving your Japanese through anime is not just watching the anime itself, but how you watch it. Instead of viewing an episode, watch one time through with the English subtitles on. After a period of time, come back and watch the same episode–this time with no subtitles. After a while, you’ll find that this method will help you parse together spoken Japanese!
Improving your Japanese through manga is different. After combing through Reddit, looking at how different people improved their Japanese by reading manga, I found that the most effective way for most users was to just read!
Learn about Japanese Culture
Another great way to learn Japanese language is to understand the culture. There are so many words associated with Japanese culture that a student won’t learn about when they’re studying Japanese.
A great example would be martial arts. Japan is home to many different types of martials, including but not limited to: karate, judo, aikido, iaido, and jujutsu. When you’re practicing one of these types of martial arts, you’ll be exposed to terms not normally covered in a standard textbook.
For example, in aikido, expressions like “Ichi-go Ichi-e” (each moment, always the first) and “Mannen Shohō” (Ten thousand years, first step) are learned by students. If you truly want to improve your Japanese, embracing different aspects of Japanese culture like their wide array of martial arts will introduce you to new terms, expressions, and sayings that you won’t find in a standard classroom setting.
Find Someone to Speak Japanese With
In my opinion, this is the most important tip of them all. If you can find someone to speak Japanese with, then this will drastically reduce the amount of time it takes to learn Japanese. Like with manga and anime, you’re applying what you learn to the real world; but when you speak Japanese with someone, you apply your Japanese in a more direct manner.
What if I Don’t Have Someone to Speak Japanese With?
If you don’t have someone to speak Japanese with, that’s no problem!
Not everyone has a language partner who’s available on demand, or you might not want to talk to a native speaker until you’re comfortable with your pronunciation yourself first. If that’s your case, the LingoDeer app allows you to practice speaking by shadowing its example sentences and dialogues. You can listen to the audio by read the native speaker, record your own reading and let the app play both to compare. This is a great way for improving pronunciation on your own.
You can always simulate a conversation between two people by yourself. While it may seem a little weird at first being the only talking, this still helps you apply what you’ve learned into conversation and thus, helps you understand the language on a deeper level.
Learn Japanese Online With LingoDeer
Another great way to learn Japanese easier is by taking a Japanese course online like the one offered at LingoDeer. It provides a traditional classroom structure with the lesson system available, but also allows you to learn at any pace you want.
And if you have no one to speak with, LingoDeer’s stories allow you to practice applying what you’ve learned into practical situations created by native speakers.
Final Verdict: So How Long Will it Take to Learn Japanese?
How long it takes to learn Japanese depends on how willing you are to learn the language. After all, learning Japanese is no easy task. There are three different writing systems that constitute the language, one of which you must master if you want to become truly fluent.
There are over 10,000 words that need to be learned to meet the minimum requirements to pass the and you’re going to need to put in countless hours if you want to be able to speak Japanese on a comfortable basis.
However, learning Japanese isn’t as difficult as you might make it out to be. If you’re willing to put in a couple of hours every day, you can become fluent within one or two years, a reality that comes with almost any other language you want to learn.
Furthermore, there are plenty of online resources like the Japanese course offered at LingoDeer which make it easier to learn the language. You can always supplement your learning with J-pop, movies, manga or anime and finding a language partner on HelloTalk.
That being said, expect it to take a few years on average to truly become fluent in the language. And if you need to just receive a basic understanding of Japanese, that could take just a couple of months.