Is it possible to learn Japanese in a year? This was a question I asked myself a lot when I was learning Japanese.
For those of you that don’t know, I work as a Japanese translator, live in Japan and my wife is Japanese. I learned Japanese through a combination of courses and self-study.
When I was learning Japanese, I was obsessed with learning Japanese fast, so I think I’ve got some valuable thoughts on this subject.
Learning Japanese in a Year: My Thoughts
Here are my general thoughts:
- It’s possible, as long as you’re not looking for native fluency. When you’re learning any subject, it’s subject to diminishing returns. What this means in ordinary language is that it’s a lot easier to get semi-fluent (maybe even 10 or 100 times easier) than native-fluent. If all you want to do is understand anime or read basic books or have decent conversations in Japanese then, yes, it’s possible. I know it’s possible because I was having conversations within 6 months.
- You’ll need to be obsessive. When I was learning, I rarely did anything that wasn’t in Japanese. I changed my computer OS to Japanese. I watched only Japanese TV shows (anime and comedy). I read Japanese manga. I tried–not always with success–to only make Japanese friends (a hard thing to do in Florida). I talked to myself in Japanese.
If you break down Japanese into conversation and reading/writing, here’s what I think:
- Conversation. When I jumped into a study abroad program and lived with a Japanese host mother, we often talked for three or more hours a day. In that time, my Japanese improved more in a month than the rest of the year combined. The takeaway for me here is that you can get really good at conversation really fast if you immerse yourself. It’s not uncommon to see people get conversationally fluent in 1-3 months if they’re “forced” to–or force themselves to.
- What about Kanji? Kanji just isn’t as intimidating as people think. If you study 20 kanji a day, you can “learn” all of the joyo kanji in a bit over 3 months. Then, you’ll have the other 9 months to figure out how to use them in conversation, master the most common conjugations, etc. What’s more, you really don’t need all the joyo kanji to function in everyday life.
- Grammar. The same principle that applies to kanji applies to grammar. Despite all the forms you see in textbooks, most are never used in conversation. Heck, my wife (who is Japanese) doesn’t even know them. So a few grammar points–say, 100–can get you a whole long way to fluency. And it’s not that hard to learn grammar in a year.
So, long answer short, yes it is possible to learn Japanese in a year. Most people don’t study very hard and do it very ineffectively (by copying characters, etc.)–that’s why they still don’t know Japanese after half a decade. It’s like English education in Japan.
Still, now that I’m older, I think that young people often want to get good really fast for no particular reason. So, a more interesting question to ask than “How can I learn Japanese in a year?” might be “How can I guarantee I learn Japanese?” That might mean slowing down, focusing on enjoyment over efficiency, and being careful to avoid burnout.