LingQ

How Long Does it REALLY Take to Learn Japanese?

How Long Does it Take to Learn Japanese?

There are a lot of different variables to consider, however, for me it took me 18 months to reach a basic level of fluency where I could understand 95%+ of the language, read Japanese books without too many issues and be able to talk in Japanese with real Japanese people without any problems.

Learning a new language can seem like a very daunting task. When I first started learning Japanese, I too spent a lot of time trying to figure out just how long it would take me to “learn Japanese” or “learn a language”.

The thing is though that this question is pretty hard to answer as there are a lot of variables.

However, I am going to try and cover the majority of these variables in this post inorder to give you a decent idea as to exactly how long it will take for you to learn Japanese.

I will go into the hours needed further down this post but first lets discuss how long it will take to learn different languages in general.

How long does it take to learn a language?

The method you use has a huge impact on your results

I feel like this is something that is pretty obvious but I also think it’s something that is overlooked a lot.

Textbooks can be a useful resource if used in the right way but even then you can’t progress much further than a really basic level as they just don’t contain a large amount of the language in them.

If you spend a long amount of time with textbooks, or similar beginner based content, then you may find that you get high returns in the beginning but after a while you will see very little progress as you won’t be exposed to any new language that’s beyond the walls of the “beginner zone”.

To overcome this you will need to eventually reach out to other types of materials.

Personally, I highly recommend diving full-on into native reading and listening content as much as you can.

The fastest methods use some form of intensive immersion.

Immersion is by far the quickest way to get a language into your head quickly, but even then it will still take some time.

The reason that immersion works so well is because of the sheer amount of language you are exposed to on a daily basis.

Just to make things clear, when I say immersion I mean complete immersion in the language. A couple of hours of listening a day is not immersion. You can only really call it immersion when you are exposed to more Japanese than you are English during your daily life.

There are multiple reasons as to why immersion works so well but to sum it up quickly, your brain will start treating the new language as something essential to learn in order to survive.

Our brains are great at throwing a way useless information that comes into our attention.

Since the start of today you have probably already learnt and forgotten some information that your brain has deemed useless.

In order to get your brain to start paying attention to something, and actually begin to remember it, then you need to constantly be bombarding it with

1. the information itself and

2. the reminder that it NEEDS to learn and understand what it’s being exposed to.

This is where immersion comes in.

Having constant exposure to Japanese allows you to start noticing words, phrases, sentence structure etc. Given enough time your brain will start to naturally pick up phrases where you can understand the message behind what’s being said.

This is something that linguistics professor Dr. Stephen Krashen puts a lot of emphasis on and it’s something incredibly important in language learning.

Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis states that we acquire language, and develop literacy, when we understand messages i.e. when we understand what we hear and what we read. In other words when we receive “comprehensible input” (Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei Lectures).

Being constantly exposed to the language 24/7 gives you more chances to encounter situations where you will understand the message and therefore be able to learn some of the language.

As this process goes on, you will find it spiral out of control.

I like to use the metaphor of a snowball rolling down a mountain, getting bigger and bigger as it picks up more snow until it eventually turns into a avalanche.

This is exactly how language acquisition using immersion works.

You start of with a few small phrases and words.

Over time you will hear/see these, and other new words, when listening/reading. 

As more time goes on you will pick up a lot more of the language and start to understand a few basic sentences and as well as the majority of the languages “common use” phrases.

Things like “ow I hit my leg”, “I don’t know what you’re saying.”, “I have a headache.”, “I feel hungry.” etc.

Given more time you will find yourself understanding more words in sentences than words you don’t understand thus meaning that you will understand the majority of sentences you hear and read.

And thus the process continues inevitably until you eventually reach “fluency” where you can understand all of what you read and listen to without having to look anything up.

I think the only quicker way of going about this is by already knowing what messages you are going to understand before hand as you could therefore learn the minimum amount of language needed, however, this is impossible to do so the next best thing is immersion.

As for the second point, constantly reminding yourself, and your brain, that Japanese is here to stay is a massive part of the process.

Keeping Japanese in your daily life as much as possible allows you to build the habit of learning Japanese quicker which will in-turn reduce the time needed overall to learn the language and it will prevent you from quitting.

Also, spending as much of your time in Japanese all day everyday serves as a constant reminder that you are learning Japanese, which stops you from slacking away from your studies and, if anything, increases your motivation during the beginning stages, which I feel is very much needed in order to overcome the beginner and intermediate slumps that almost every language learner comes across.

Playing Mario Kart in Round One with my girlfriend 夏実 and her friend 桃子. Spoilers: I won :p

Learning a language is a life-long journey

You can’t “finish” learning Japanese.

What I mean by this is that, no matter how good you get, there will always be room for improvement.

If I take myself as an example, I’ve reached a decent level of fluency yet I still have various levels of improvement.

Due to learning a new language, I have also become very aware of my “native” English ability as well.

I am a native English speaker from the United Kingdom and I still have gaps in my language skills when it comes to my mother tongue.

Learning Japanese really helped me to notice that.

Of course, these areas that I am trying to improve in are very much “the icing on the cake” in the sense that I have a “usable level” in both languages (but of course my English is better than my Japanese).

It will take a certain amount of hours for you to reach certain levels in Japanese, or the language you are trying to learn, but just be aware that what you may think of as “finished” or “fluent” is very different to what the next language learner is thinking.

In order to get passed this problem I will be using a rough estimate as to how many hours it will take you in order to reach certain points in your language skill. This will be based on my own experience and you can find the numbers in the “How long does it take to learn Japanese?” section further below.

For now though I want to expand on the previous point a bit as there are some strange numbers for how long it takes to learn languages floating around the internet.

What the US Foreign Service Institute has to say…

I would also like to briefly discuss the language difficulty stats given to us by the US Foreign Service Institute as it’s something that a lot of other people are using as a guideline.

The US Foreign Service Institute splits languages into different groups based on “difficulty” and how many “class” hours it will take in order to learn a new language as an English native speaker. However, “learnt a language” is very vague and doesn’t tell us exactly what kind of level they mean so just bare that in mind as you take a look at these numbers.

Language difficulty according to the US Foreign Service Institute.

Category 1: 23-24 weeks (575-600 hours) Languages closely related to English

  • Afrikaans
  • Danish
  • Dutch
  • French
  • Italian
  • Norwegian
  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Spanish
  • Swedish

Category 2: 30 weeks (750 hours) Languages similar to English

  • German

Category 3: 36 weeks (900 hours) Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences compared to English

  • Indonesian
  • Malaysian
  • Swahili

Category 4: 44 weeks (1100 hours) Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences compared to English

  • Albanian
  • Amharic
  • Armenian
  • Azerbaijani
  • Bengali
  • Bosnian
  • Bulgarian
  • Burmese
  • Croatian
  • Czech
  • Estonian
  • Finnish
  • Georgian
  • Greek
  • Hebrew
  • Hindi
  • Hungarian
  • Icelandic
  • Khmer
  • Lao
  • Latvian Lithuanian
  • Macedonian
  • Mongolian
  • Nepali
  • Pashto
  • Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik)
  • Polish
  • Russian
  • Serbian
  • Sinhala
  • Slovak
  • Slovenian
  • Tagalog
  • Thai
  • Turkish
  • Ukrainian
  • Urdu
  • Uzbek
  • Vietnamese
  • Xhosa
  • Zulu

Category 5: 88 weeks (2200 hours) Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers to learn

  • Arabic
  • Cantonese (Chinese)
  • Mandarin (Chinese)
  • Japanese
  • Korean

“Difficulty” changes from person to person

In my opinion the numbers given by the FSI are not accurate at all.

Now, the reason for this may be due to the issue that I wrote about earlier.

I quite probably have a different definition of “learnt a language” to what the FSI does.

This is likely to be true as they don’t take give a proper definition as to what “learnt a language” means to them.

There’s also the fact that this data is based on class hours.

So what they are really showing us is a very rough answer to the question; “how many 1 hour lessons does a student need in order to have learnt a language?”

The thing is though, even with these amount of hours spent in classes, one will still be very far from being able to comprehend much more than basic conversation and they won’t be able to express themselves anywhere near as easily as a native speaker can.

I feel like the hours they have given are way too low.

I don’t know how they got this data but there is no way that anyone can learn French in 575 hours, sound fluent, understand native speakers and be able to read books for adults.

575 hours is just not enough exposure to the language to reach fluency.

There’s also the problem of categorizing these languages by difficulty in the first place.

Languages don’t necessarily differ in difficulty due to their differences between them and English. (That was a mouthful…)

The reason I say this is because classes tend to assume a “translate from English to [target language] in order to speak” approach.

When doing this it’s obvious to assume that languages that have similarities to English are therefore easier to learn because it’s easier for you to work out how one translates into the other.

But this is not how you should learn a language if you want to sound natural when speaking and writing.

Translating from one language to the other makes room for a lot of mistakes and unnatural speech.

Not only that but you will find that you will be incredibly slow when conversing with natives because you have to work out what to say by building everything in your head before hand.

If you learn Japanese via immersion, only using English as a slight crutch in the beginning, then you will develop your Japanese ability in a way that will allow you to speak effortlessly like you currently do in your native tongue.

In other words, you will say what you feel and not have to work everything out like a math equation.

This is the key and this is also why the above data by the FSI is completely useless and doesn’t help us when looking for the answer for “how long it will take to learn a new language?”.

What I am trying to say here is that it doesn’t matter what language it is you are trying to learn, If you are planning to learn them via immersion then it will take almost the same amount of time for you to get used to them, no matter how different or similar they may be from English.

After reaching a decent level of fluency in Japanese I decided to attempt to learn German as well.

I actually looked up how long it would take to learn German and came across the above data from the FSI, saw it and thought “damn, German is going to be easy to learn compared to Japanese!”.

Guess what?

After way more than 750 hours of listening, reading and studying the language, I still hadn’t made that much progress.

I couldn’t understand much more than basic conversation and I couldn’t read much either, let alone speak or write the language!

If I had spent the same amount of hours going to classes, would I have been any better off?

Probably not as classes are incredibly inefficient.

Reading the 遊戯王 manga in a manga cafe + pod hotel. 

Is it hard to learn Japanese?

When I started learning German, I actually found it harder than Japanese and ended up giving it up.

There are a variety of personal reasons for this which I’ve talked about before in another post; “Giving Up Learning a Language Can Be Good For You – The German Challenge Comes to an End“, so I won’t go too much into them here.

However according to the FSI German only takes 750 hours to learn while Japanese takes 2200 hours, so it just goes to show that difficulty is very much determined by the individual.

When I started learning Japanese, I REALLY wanted to learn Japanese.

At the time I was in a real bad place in my life and I developed this notion that if I could just learn Japanese then it would give my life some value.

I managed to produce massive amounts of motivation and found that learning the language was a lot easier than others made it out to be.

However, when it came to German, I came at it from a completely different angle.

I had already reached a basic level of fluency in Japanese where I could understand TV to 99% comprehension, I could read books without using a dictionary and I spoke in Japanese with my Japanese girlfriend everyday.

I was very cocky and this made me seriously underestimate the German language as well as how much effort I would need to put into it.

Of course I would have had to of put the same amount of effort in as I did with Japanese, I knew that, yet my ego got to my head and prevented me from thinking about things clearly.

As a result I ended up not spending as much time with German as I should have as I thought it’d be easy to learn.

Your attitude towards the language and your motivation for why you want to learn the language will have a massive affect on your progress and the time it takes for you to “get good”.

No language is any harder than any other.

It’s all about perspective, how much you want it and how enjoyable you can make the process.

Things are harder to learn when you don’t want to do them, hence why I found German harder than I found Japanese.

I really wanted to learn Japanese, yet German for me was more of a “because why not” kind of thing and as such I found it 100x harder than Japanese, despite it being a closer language to English.

Japanese itself isn’t even a hard language to learn even though it’s supposed to be the hardest language to learn for English speakers.

The main reasons people say it’s hard to learn is because of the grammar and kanji, but in reality the grammar is very simple and easy to pick up given enough exposure to the language and the kanji are as equally as easy to learn, provided you take the right approach.

If you want to learn Japanese then you will find it easier than you expect, you just have to know what you should be doing and make a start.

If you don’t know what to do or where to start then I highly recommend that you check out AJATT where you can get a better idea of what you need to do in order to reach a high level of fluency in a short amount of time. You can equally check out other blog posts on this site and my videos on my YouTube channel where I discuss language acquisition and make content to help people learn languages.

How long does it take to learn Japanese?

So we’ve taken a brief look at how long it would take to learn a language in general and have come to the conclusion that it depends on a lot of different variables.

However, provided that you take the right approach and don’t lapse on your studies then you will make fast progress.

Still, “learnt” and “fluent” are very vague terms and don’t help us at all when trying to find a good answer.

Instead it’s best to look at how long it takes to reach certain stages in your Japanese ability.

In order to do that I have written out some skills and goals along with how many hours it will take to reach them.

Please note that the following numbers are very rough estimates based on my experiences and that I can’t remember accurately when I “completed” each of these so it’s hard for me to give a precise number, some of them may be really off.

Also note that due to other factors you may reach these goals quicker, or you may take longer, than me.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter as long as you enjoy the process.

I will mention as well that I will keep this in terms of “hours” because 6 months/1 year/4 years etc means nothing unless you know just how many hours per day you have to spend in the language.

I will also assume 4 hours of active listening per 20 hours of passive listening as this is roughly what I did.

So here are a few goals you may have with your Japanese and how long it will take you to get to them in hours:

Hours needed to be able to comprehend listening and reading material (95%+ comprehension)

Listening

  • Anime aimed at younger audiences: 4000 hours of passive + active listening+ study
  • Anime aimed at teenagers and young adults: 6000 hours of passive + active listening + study
  • Anime aimed at adult audiences: 8000 hours of passive + active listening + study
  • Dramas and films: 8000 hours of passive + active listening + study
  • Podcasts and variety shows: 9000 hours of passive + active listening + study
  • Audio-books: 9500 hours of passive + active listening + study
  • Music: Song/genre dependent

You can’t really give music a number of hours due to the reasons I explain in the following post: Can You Learn Japanese with Music?

Reading

  • Manga: 300 hours of reading + study
  • Novels aimed at kids: 400 hours of reading + study
  • Novels aimed at teenagers and young adults: 550 hours of reading + study
  • Novels aimed at adults: 700 hours of reading + study
  • Classic literature and pre 1940’s Japanese: 900 hours of reading + study
  • Blogs and articles: 600 hours of reading + study
  • Newspapers: 600 hours of reading + study
  • University level reading material: 650 hours of reading + study
Hours needed to develop speaking and writing ability

Speaking

I don’t recommend outputting until you can comprehend most of the language first, otherwise you are liable to making and ingraining hard to fix mistakes into your speech and writing.

  • Simple daily conversation: 6000 hours of passive + active listening + study
  • Slightly complex conversation: 7500 hours of passive + active listening + study
  • Standard daily conversation (more complex, wide range of topics): 10,000 hours of passive + active listening + study + some speaking practice
  • Work related/slightly technical conversation: 12,000 hours of passive + active listening + study + speaking practice
  • Subject specific/technical conversation: 15,000+ hours of passive + active listening + study
  • Speech that will make a Japanese person’s jaw drop: 30,000+ hours??? of passive + active listening + study
  • Native level speech: 75,000+ hours??? of passive + active listening + study + speaking practice

Writing

  • Emails, text messages, short texts: 500 hours of reading + study
  • Blog post/article like content: 800 hours of reading + study + writing practice
  • Work related reports and business letters: 900??? hours of reading + study + writing practice
  • Essays, research papers etc: 1500 hours??? of reading + study + writing practice
  • Writing a novel: 5000+ hours??? of reading + study + writing practice

Now please bare in mind that these numbers are a rough guess based on my hazy memory and that everyone of you will be completely different to me and my experience.

You may have more or less time than me to study Japanese which will have a direct impact on the rate at which you progress as well.

You may also concentrate harder and get more done in a 1 hour time-frame than me.

If you can develop massive levels of concentration when actively listening, reading and studying to Japanese then you can make more progress in less time. I’d recommend checking out Deep Work for more on this.

Everyone is going to be different and that’s fine, as long as you keep progressing by putting in as much time as you can in each day then you will reach these goals in less time than you expect.

10,000 hours to fluency?

You may have also heard about the 10,000 hours rule discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

The rule essentially states that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” in order to gain a world class level in any skill.

It just so happens that I did about 10,000 hours of passive listening before reaching “fluency”, however, this is a mere coincidence as this is not how the 10,000 hours rule works.

Passive listening is just that, passive.

You can only get so much from it.

To obtain “world class level Japanese” you must do 10,000 hours of active listening, which will take a few years at least.

A lot of people seem to take the 10,000 hours rule as gospel but there’s a lot of research against the 10,000 hours rule and there’s also the fact that this rule is talking about reaching a “world class level”.

For languages this would mean obtaining native level fluency and beyond.

This literally means becoming just as good at Japanese as Usain Bolt is at running…

While some people do aim for this kind of level in there L2, most of us would be more than happy with being able to understand, and talk with, native speakers.

So how long does it take to reach “fluency” (not native level)?

I still don’t know what half of this food is but it was gorgeous. This was at an onsen hotel in 登別温泉.

How long does it take to become fluent in Japanese?

Personally it took me about a year and a half/18 months/10,000 hours of passive listening/millions of words of reading/hundreds of hours of study.

Yet after 18 months of being constantly immersed in the language all day everyday, my Japanese was still only at a basic level of fluency.

I hadn’t done very much speaking or writing at that point and, although when I started to I found that I could speak and write easily without having to think about it, I also found that I wasn’t anywhere near as articulate in my way of speech as a native might be.

However, I did understand the language, both spoken and written, to a very high level of comprehension.

In fact, I very rarely came across words I didn’t know when watching Japanese TV or when listening to podcasts.

I also found that I could read books that had no furigana and that where aimed entirely at adults.

This includes both fiction and non-fiction.

I also had no trouble speaking with my Japanese girlfriend either and so overall I considered myself to be “fluent”.

However there’s no way that I could compare myself to a native speaker.

There where, and still are, too many holes in my Japanese that need filling in.

I had reached a level that not many other westerners reach in a very short time frame and yet my output was nothing compared to a Japanese person’s.

I would like to point out that I didn’t do 10,000 hours of “deliberate listening”. If I did I would be better than a lot of Japanese natives right now but the reality of the matter is, is that I have a long way to go in order to be on par with a native (but that’s fine as language learning is a life-long project and with time I know I can get there).

There are a lot of other people I know that have used the same method that I used to learn Japanese and they too found themselves at a similar level within 18-24 months.

But do bare in mind that the term “fluency” is pretty much meaningless as it has a completely different meaning depending on who you ask.

Some people will say that you can get fluent in 3 months (pfft, yeah right) and others will tell you 5+ years (more reasonable).

The reason for this is because people see fluency differently.

If you want a solid answer though then I would say that it takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months of 24/7 immersion + study to get to the level of fluency that I mentioned above.

I actually made a video on my progress after studying for 18 months. You may find it useful in figuring out what kind of level I call “fluent” and you can then compared it with your definition to get a more accurate answer.

At the end of the day though, learning Japanese will take as long as it takes.

As long as you enjoy the process of continuing to learn new things about the Japanese language, and Japan’s culture, then you won’t have a dull moment and you will progress fast.

Setting yourself goals is a great strategy in language learning and it’s something that I highly recommend, but I wouldn’t pay too much attention to the bigger goals like “fluency” as they tend to just distract you from your studies and make you doubt your current progress. 

Instead, focus on the little things you can do each day to improve your Japanese and these small chunks of progress will eventually build up into a mountain of language ability.

How do I start to learn Japanese?

Alright, so we’ve discussed the numbers a bit and have hopefully come to the conclusion that it’s pretty hard to give a definitive answer due to the amount of variables that exist.

However, if there is one thing that will speed up the process for you it’s the method that you use.

So before you go back to your studies I would like to just provide you with some resources that I think will really help you into getting into the right mindset and method for learning Japanese as quickly as possible while also getting amazing results.

If you have just started to learn Japanese, or even if you have been learning it for a while, then I would highly recommend that you start off with this post: “How to Learn Kanji Fast: The Ultimate Guide to Remembering the Kanji” which will allow you to boost start your Japanese skills by getting the pesky kanji out of the way and get you reading native material in just a few months.

Other useful resources

The following blog posts, videos and websites should help you out for what to do next and if you want even more content from me personally then you check out my patreon page here.

All Japanese All The Time

Interviewing MattVSJapan About Learning Japanese/Languages | Tips For Learning Japanese

Antimoon

Language Learning Resources – Link Roundup

Maximize Your Listening | Strategies to Improve Listening Comprehension

Easy to Read Manga! Japanese Book Reviews #1

Get Thousands of Contextual Sentences for Language Learning (Sentence Banks)

I hope you found this post helpful,

Thanks for reading!

Click here for more information on learning languages

マット

By Matthew Hawkins
2018/06/29
Massive thanks to Diederik, Eric and everyone else supporting me on Patreon. You guys are awesome! 🙂
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Undergraduate Software Engineer and Language Enthusiast.