To be considered fluent in Japanese, you need to learn somewhere from 1500 to 2500 kanji characters (it depends on who you ask). Learning so many kanji can be terrifying. This is why it’s better to focus on learning a few kanji each day instead of worrying over the big picture. But how many kanji should you learn each day?
Let’s break down the problem. We can first ask ourselves two questions:
- How many kanji do I need to learn?
- When do I need to learn them by?
We will answer these questions in a later section. First, lets look at why learning 2000+ kanji is a lot less scary than you think.
Why learning kanji is easier than you might think
Let’s say you want to learn 2000 kanji. This can seem intimidating. However, things are a less scary when you break down your big goal into little goals. The Navy SEALs call this “eating the elephant” (because the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time).
Assuming you want to learn 2000 kanji, here are some numbers that might surprise you:
- If you learn 20 kanji a day, you can learn all of them in 100 days (just over 3 months).
- If you learn 10 kanji a day, you can learn all of them in 200 days (just under 7 months)
- If you learn 5 kanji a day, you can learn all of them in 400 days (just over 13 months)
- If you learn just 2 kanji a day, you can learn all of them in 1000 days (less than 3 years)
For most people, these learning periods are a lot shorter than they expect! This is because we generally (a) overestimate how much we can get done in the short term but (b) underestimate how much we can get done in the long term.
This means that if you focus on learning just a few kanji a day (eating the kanji elephant), you can learn all the kanji you need in a relatively short time!
How many kanji do you need to learn?
Now let’s look at how many kanji you might need for Japanese fluency. Knowing this will help you set learning goals for yourself.
To be considered fluent in Japanese, people often say that you need to learn around 2000 kanji. There are, for example, 2136 government-mandated joyo kanji that Japanese people are expected to know. Similarly, the N1 level of the JLPT exam wants you to know 2000 kanji.
In practice, however, I think you need far less than 2000 kanji to be fluent. Most Japanese people can only write less than half that number (they can read them, though). Plus, there’s a lot more to fluency than knowing kanji. Languages are more about speaking and listening than they are about knowing the writing system!
However, everybody needs a goal, and you can do worse than setting yourself a goal of 2000 when you start out. You can always change your mind later.
Let’s pretend we set ourselves a goal of learning 2000 kanji. The next question to ask is “When do I want to learn them by?”
Set yourself a kanji-learning deadline
The next step is to set yourself a deadline. Having a deadline or goal will help you stay motivated and focused (although obsessing too much about it can be unhealthy).
Ask yourself questions like:
- When do I want to be fluent in Japanese? Why?
- Is my goal realistic? How long does it take the average person? The above average person? Do I have enough time to dedicate?
So what’s a reasonable length of time for learning all the kanji you need? Well, as we saw in the section above, something from 1-2 years seems like a reasonable length of time.
Once we know (a) our deadline and (b) the number of kanji we want to learn, it’s time to break things down into bite-size daily goals. Most people do this with what I call the “naive linear method.”
“How many kanji per day?” with the naive linear method
The naive linear method of daily kanji learning goes something like this:
“Oh, I want to learn 2000 kanji. And I have 400 days to learn them. So let me just learn 5 kanji a day and I’ll be fine!
In other words, most people just divide the number of kanji they want to learn by the days they have to learn them. This can seem reasonable at first, but there are some problems that you can run into in practice.
Problems with this method:
- It ignores what you are capable of. You can’t just set yourself an arbitrary goal of 20 or 50 or 100 kanji characters a day and expect to achieve it. You need to consider what is actually possible for you to accomplish. Do you have enough time to study X kanji a day? Enough motivation? Where is the proof?
- It assumes perfection. Most people underestimate how hard it is to be consistent. There will inevitably be days where you are unable to meet your daily kanji learning goals. If your goal is to average 5 kanji a day, you may need to set a daily goal that is double that number! Remember, averaging 5 kanji a day is not the same as learning 5 kanji every day. Humans are not robots; we can’t be that consistent.
- It ignores diminishing returns. The first few hundred kanji you learn are much, much more important than the last few hundred. Kanji have diminishing returns: the less commonly-used the character, the less useful it will be. Learning X kanji each day assumes that you will place the same emphasis on kanji in 10 months as you will today. In reality, you will probably slow down your kanji learning to focus on other things.
A better approach than the naive linear approach is what I call the “auto-regulated approach.”
“How many kanji per day?” with auto-regulated kanji learning
The term ‘auto-regulated’ is just a fancy way of saying, “The system regulates itself.” In this case, instead of tyrannically setting a daily kanji goal for yourself, you look at what you are actually capable of doing, and use that as feedback for how many kanji to learn per day.
Here are some characteristics of auto-regulated kanji learning:
- Variable daily learning. On high-energy days, you might learn 3-4x how many kanji you learn on low energy days. This is more human and more natural. Let your energy dictate how much you do.
- Constant reflection. Each week or month, look back on what you accomplished, how you accomplished it, and what you can do better. This is like doing science! You’re reviewing the past to think about better ways to approach the future.
- Goal updating. Most of the time, we don’t know if a goal like “learn 2000 kanji in 20 months” is a good goal. Is it realistic? Will we still want to learn kanji after we know the most important 1000 or so? It’s hard to say. With auto-regulated learning, you accept that your goals will change from month-to-month.
At first, auto-regulated learning can seem chaotic. But I think it is more attuned to human needs and realities. As I said above, humans are not robots; we need randomness and variability.
In a sense, the naive linear method is a form of tyranny. You are forcing yourself to do something without knowing if it is realistic or even good for you. The tyrant learner says, “I want to learn 50 kanji per day no matter what.” The auto-regulated learner says, “Ok, I have averaged 10 kanji per day for the last week, and I had a lot of energy left. Let’s aim to do 15 a day next week.”
How many kanji to really learn per day
So the real way to answer the question “How many kanji per day?” probably works like this:
- Choose a preferred kanji learning method. For some common methods, search for “KKLC,” “RtK,” and “WaniKani.”
- Spend a week learning at your own pace. Set aside a time of day (or multiple times each day) to spend learning kanji. Don’t rush, but focus on studying kanji during that time.
- Track kanji learned. During that week, track the number of kanji you learn. It’s important to do this so that you do not lie to yourself about how much you are actually learning.
- Reflect and revise. At the end of the week, look back on how many kanji you learned. What did you average? Could you have done better? How can you adjust your habits/lifestyle to learn more effectively?
The best time to start
So, when is the best time to start learning kanji? The best time, I think, is now. Planning can be a form of procrastination. Instead of reading more blog posts on how many kanji you can learn, why not kick off a kanji study session right now?