December 8

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How Long Does It Take to Learn Japanese?

By Charles Hoshino

December 8, 2018


One thing a lot of beginning Japanese learners want to know is how long it takes to learn Japanese. Before I became fluent, I was always Googling for other peoples’ learning experiences and finding role models that learned Japanese in a short amount of time.

Now that I’ve learned Japanese, I’d like to share my own thoughts on how long it takes to become fluent in Japanese. The answer to these kinds of “How long does it take to do X?” questions is always “It depends.” Still, hopefully this blog post can be a guide.

How Many Years to Learn Japanese: A Rough Guide

Here’s the short answer: It will take anywhere from 12 months to 5+ years.

Japanese, along with Chinese and Arabic, is considered one of the hardest languages to learn. This is because of its writing system. At some point, you’ll want to learn the ~2000 “joyo kanji” recognized by the Japanese government. Because of this most people estimate about 4 years.

When I was learning, it didn’t take nearly this long. I was at JLPT N1 level in about 18 months and also capable of having fluent conversations with Japanese people.  I have friends who learned faster than I did, some of them getting really good in just about a year’s time.

I know this kind of answer is annoying, but it’s important to realize that learning speeds vary widely depending on your goals (do you want to just watch anime or  be a professional translator?), how you study, your environment, and many other factors.

So what factors matter?

Japanese Learning Speed: What Matters

Here are some things that affect Japanese learning speed:

  • Time. Are you a student without a job? I was when I was learning. That’s why I had so much time to study. This matters a lot, and if you’re a working professional it’s going to take you longer to learn.
  • Methods. What learning methods are you using? Passive? Active? Do you have a conversation partner? Are you using flashcards? SRS apps? Do you have a teacher or are you self-studying?
  • Motivation. How badly do you want it? Are you obsessed with Japan or just a casual? If you don’t love the subject, are you sure you’ll be able to keep going for months at a time?
  • Environment. Is your environment good for learning Japanese? Are you studying abroad or in the middle of nowhere? Do you have access to the Internet? Do you have Japanese friends? What about friends that you can study Japanese with? Are these friends motivated? Will they push you?
  • Intelligence. This isn’t popular, but some people are just smarter and faster at learning languages. One of my friends that got a 100% on JLPT N1 is clearly off the charts in terms of IQ–he went to the best high school in the entire United States.

If you’re interested in learning quickly see my thoughts on learning Japanese in a year.

The Bottom Line: Don’t Sweat It

Still, in general my advice is to now worry too much about how long it takes you to learn. Instead, I recommend (a) having fun while you learn and (b) incrementally improving your learning process.

You’ll get there when you get there, and it doesn’t make much sense to force yourself to learn at a pace that doesn’t fit you. Instead, I like to look at the realities of your learning and make small adjustments one at a time.

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