It Doesn’t Matter how long You’ve Studied Japanese for

What’s one of the first things you are asked after you introduce yourself (and after you are given a standard 日本語は上手ですね!) in a Japanese conversation? “How long have you been studying Japanese for?” A harmless question to some, a chance to brag for others, but unfortunately, a heavy punch to many others. The question often reminds you of the painful following truth:

I’ve been studying for X (high number) years, and I’m still not good at Japanese

The more years that are added to X without you becoming fluent, the heavier this language baggage gets. The heavier it gets, the further you dislike this question, and the more you feel pushed against a wall. This cycle is quite common with the “start and stop learners,” who go through years of (re-)starting and stopping their Japanese study.

Number Reset

You need to release your baggage. It has done you no good. This number is irrelevant. It is time to reset it. And to do this, you need to internally change your interpretation of the question.


How long have you studied Japanese for?


How long have you seriously and passionately studied Japanese for?

Haven’t ever studied Japanese seriously or passionately yet? Then all other numbers are void, and you start at 0, which means you are beginning fresh. Studied seriously at some points but with large mixtures of breaks and heavy slacking? Add the serious points together and remove everything else.

Freeing yourself with this new number

It will mentally strengthen you. And most importantly, it is not a lie. You aren’t tricking or deceiving yourself or anyone else. Answering the question with “years” is a figure that is misleading.

If you studied a measly 3 hours a week for a year, while it may feel like a year, it only adds up to 6.5 days of studying. That’s it. Now the point isn’t to micro-calculate everything down to the last minute. This is unnecessary, unless of course you are using a program like xpnavi. The point is though to show that however many X long years you’ve studied is probably significantly less time than you think.

So leave the false numbers behind. Keep it real. Free yourself. Become Neo and see the truth.

Your Japanese will forever thank you.

Are/were you a start and stop learner? What is your year total (irrelevant number) vs your real total (passionate and focused)?

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese. On a quest to become 日本語王 (king of the Japanese language).


It Doesn’t Matter how long You’ve Studied Japanese for — 26 Comments

  1. I’ve ended up confusing myself trying to answer this very question. Before I changed how I learnt Japanese, I didn’t really learn anything. I wouldn’t even say I studied anymore in a traditional sense, but you can’t answer such a question like that…

  2. What if you can’t muster up passion for anything? Not in an “I’m clinically depressed” way, but more in a “I don’t feel anything, or at least don’t feel anything particularly strongly” way?

    • Not trying to sound synical but perhaps you should find somthing else that you enjoy?

      The definition of passion:
      1.Strong and barely controllable emotion.

      If you have to “muster up passion” then its not really a passion is it?

    • The emotion part doesn’t matter for this question. What matters is whether you were studying in a way that causes progress. For many people passion is highly correlated with significant study, but it doesn’t need to be.

      Personally I prefer the feelings of content and satisfaction that I get from studying Japanese to the feeling of passion.

      • I’d like to know what these progress-causing methods of study are, because I have yet to run into them.

          • Then how exactly am I supposed to learn Japanese? If I have no control over if the method I’m using actually grants me progress, then I seem to arrive at the nihilistic conclusion that it’s all just dumb luck.

            • I think the answer to this depends on how you define “progress” and what you expect it to feel like. Or, to put it another way, you may already have found methods that were producing progress but didn’t recognize them for what they were. If you learned one new word today and didn’t forget any of the ones you already knew then by definition you made progress. I know that one new word doesn’t feel like much, but we’ve got to get something like 25,000 language elements (words, grammar, etc) into our heads, and for the most part they’re going to go in one at a time.

              The bad news is you could learn, say, 1000 words and still be completely unable to understand any native material you happen pick up. That’s because 1000 words is actually a tiny fraction of the language, although it seems like a big number compared to other things that people memorize. The probability that a random sentence will happen to contain enough of those words to be comprehensible is *really* small.

              But the good news is that, so long as you keep learning a word at a time, becoming fluent is pretty much inevitable. The strategies on this site (and others) can help make the process faster, more efficient, and more enjoyable but regardless it’s going to take years and you’re going to have to put in many hours every day.

            • That sounds about right, but even when I recognize all the words in a given passage, I still feel like there’s something missing that keeps me from understanding it. Grammar and vocab are not sufficient; there’s some third ingredient missing that (I think) would tie them together and give me the progress I desire (IE to read and think in Japanese with little to no reliance on Japanese, something I don’t believe will simply happen on its own).

            • You’re right of course, there is a third… I don’t even know what to call it, some sort of emergent, synergistic something-or-other that I just tucked away into that little ‘etc’ up there. You’re also completely right that it would be impossible to develop this by learning words and grammar in isolation. However, the remarkable thing is it does just happen on its own by learning these things in context, in combination with massive exposure to the language. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say it “just happens” because a considerable portion of our brains is committed to making it happen. It’s how we learned our first language, after all.

              I think the methods described on this site are well-constructed to take advantage of that. First off, plenty of immersion to subconsciously build up the groundwork. Then words learned in sentences, initially with an English translation to provide the meaning. I don’t know about anyone else, but for myself after seeing a sentence a few dozen times I stop even checking the English translation. I just know what it means, and I use the card only to test for pronunciation. Which, in principle, sets the stage for the J-J transition. Even with the setup though, as a few people discussed here, its necessary to live with a kind of vague sense of meaning and trust that continued exposure will solidify it in time. Oh, was the Anonymous on that thread you, or does the site give all Anonymouses the same picture?

              Regardless, the question was asked: “How would I know that I understood something if I’m not allowed to translate?” How do you know that you understand the word “democracy” or any other abstract concept? At least for me I just… know it. You get a vague sense of meaning from definition and context. As you see the word in more contexts the understanding gets refined — or corrected.

              In terms of concrete things you could try, the first time I read previously-unseen Japanese and understood it without mentally passing through English was pretty recently, and it was with Graded Readers. At first, sure, I mentally translated things, but I found that started to fall away pretty quickly. You could also create games to try to accelerate the move away from English. Narrate your daily events to yourself in Japanese. Make an Anki deck with pictures on the front and score yourself correct if your first thought is the Japanese meaning, and wrong if any English pops into your head. I have no idea if these would actually work, but they certainly won’t make your Japanese any worse. You can probably think of things like that which are better-suited to your particular goals and current level.

            • The problem, then, is in figuring out how to make it happen. Immersion may very well help, but without some type of seed, I doubt the brain will have much motivation to give up its own ways, no matter how woefully inefficient they may be. The same sort of thing happens in trying to accelerate it by speaking Japanese, even to myself; I have to start from English and then move into Japanese, which can’t be a good thing (I think there was an article here even saying as much). It’s simply telling my brain that it’s OK to jam Japanese into English logic.

              An example on my end of things: when listening to Japanese, I don’t know how I SHOULD understand it, but I do know how I understand it. I pick out words that I know, and then simply guesses at what the sentence I heard means in English. (Keep in mind that this distracts me from understanding the sentence that is being spoken while I translate in my mind.) This even happens with words I know I don’t have to translate, like 人 and 時々. On their own, I have a good chance of jumping straight to understanding (albeit without knowing how the hell I did it); throw them in a sentence, even with 100% words I already know, and I find myself converting the entire sentence to English. My conscious mind knows how dumb an idea this is, but my subconscious mind holds onto it because it knows of no better way. Without that better way, true understanding (defined in some concrete terms neither of us can ascertain) won’t come.

              (And for the sake of completeness, I am the same Anonymous, and am quite aware of the irony of using a generic moniker to the point that it specifically defines me in this context.)

            • If you haven’t already, go to J-J. It will take time, effort, self belief and passion but you will get used to it. After using Anki a lot for doing J-E there will be language ingrained in your brain that you may never stop translating, but that’s OK because by going J-J you will find yourself knowing what words mean without being able to translate them instantly into English. Also, the number of words you learnt in J-E will be outstripped by the words you learn in J-J because the J-J phase is until death – much longer than J-E. In fact, I defy you to translate words like おはぎ, カタカナ, 七味 or 生活科 with a simple one-word definition. Make it like this for every word.

              To address your goal of thinking in Japanese – it’s impossible. Thought precedes language because language is just the expression of thought. Make Japanese the first medium by which you express your thoughts. Talk to yourself in the bath or when nobody is around. Look at things around you, what people around you are doing and say what you see in Japanese as fast as possible, if you can’t say it fast enough, look at something else. I find the methods that work for me and then I work on making the method better. There aren’t methods waiting outside my front door shouting, “What, you didn’t know I guarantee progress?”. If you bought brain pills from the guy on the street corner and were surprised they didn’t work as labeled, don’t start complaining. You should be reverse engineering those brain pills, and a load of other brain pills that are on the market, finding which aspects work best for each one and then make a super brain pill that is specifically tailored to your metabolism.

              Finally, have confidence in yourself that you are understanding what you read or hear, even if you are translating it. Compare yourself now to where you were when you first started learning Japanese. I’m sure you’ve improved in some way. Maybe you need to refresh yourself on particles or look at common expressions that link ideas and sentences. And stop worrying about progress. When you say progress is “all just dumb luck” you offend me. Progress is a by-product of all the hard work I put in enjoying myself in Japanese!

            • “An example on my end of things: when listening to Japanese, I don’t know how I SHOULD understand it, but I do know how I understand it. ”

              I do a lot more reading than I do listening, actually, but I would say that this is both normal and fine.

              It’s easy to think that because you “know” the words and you “know” the grammar you should be able to figure out the sentence, but the fact is that “knowing” those things is not really a binary yes/no question, but rather a gradual one. The longer your mind needs to recognize each word the less time it has to figure out the sentence, which is why at the beginning listening tends to be just about picking up key words. Your brain needs to actually get used to processing the words fast enough before it has time to deal with the grammar.

              And on top of that, grammar too is like that. If your sentence is grammatically complex and requires understanding how to combine multiple grammar elements (which is something that grammar books tend not to try to teach, actually, instead assuming that one will just figure it out), you need to be able to understand each one clearly enough and fast enough to have time to understand how to actually put them together.

              This may sound very complicated when intellectualized like that, but the solution is just to be exposed to more and more japanese content. Words (and grammar) simply aren’t defined by either an english counterpart or even an entry in a J-J dictionary, they are ultimately defined by the ways in which they can actually be used, meaning that full understanding of a word (by which I mean the same level of understanding you expect from english words) will only be attained by finding that word again and again and again in “the wild”.

              This may sound hopeless if you take the, in my opinion wrong, view that knowledge is measured as a binary yes/no. Rather it is best to realize that the vast majority of one’s understanding at the earlier stages is only approximate, full of uncertainties and imperfections, and that these will slowly be chipped away at by finding those elements in more and more diverse contexts.

              Here’s an example of mine that springs to mind. At the very early J-J stage I made a card saying
              which I was using to learn 女子高生, if I remember correctly. For whatever reason my understanding of the card when I added it was “high school girls are often seen moving chairs around”, or something like that. It sounds weird for a good reason, namely the fact that it is the wrong interpretation. Apparently I completely messed up how to interpret the よく and the 位置. Recently when this card came up for review I realized it instead meant “the high school girl moved her chair to get a better look”. And the most interesting thing about the whole process is that by then understanding the sentence correctly was completely effortless and natural. Presumably along the way I have seen the troublesome elements in simple enough contexts that I got to sharpen my understanding of them to the point that a previously hard sentence now became trivial.

              Hope that helps.

            • Ah, I think we may have been talking cross-purposes. Like uvauva, I’ve been thinking more about reading than listening. I recall seeing a compelling argument that reading should lead the other skills (maybe it was on this site, anyone have a link?). In any case, my listening skills lag significantly behind reading, with one major exception I’ll get to in a bit.

              It sounds to me like you’re doing what might be called “intensive listening” in analogy to intensive reading. I did a quick search and it doesn’t look like this is something people talk about much, for example there’s just a two-sentence subsection on Wikipedia’s extensive reading page. Have you tried something more extensive? By which I may just mean “lazier”. That is, make no effort to understand just let the sounds flow and catch what you catch. I know this sounds entirely stupid, but I tend to listen to a lot of audio ripped from anime while at work. These are all things I’ve watched (typically subbed…), so I know what’s happening. Typically I’ll get obsessed with one series for a while and will play a few of its episodes a lot over the course of a week, and although I’m not making any real effort to understand I’ll find I just kind of pick up more with repeated listening, and it happens without English. Of course there’s a catch, since I can only hope to understand sentences made of vocabulary I know, and that’s still not much on the scale of things. In addition to that, there’s a “Drama CD” based on a series I’m particularly fond of that I play once in a great while, and every time I do I understand it a little better.

              Anyway, maybe you’re already doing this, but if not it might be worth taking a few hours of material you’re familiar with (audio from TV shows or the Japanese audiobook of a novel you like), playing it repeatedly, and listening passively.

              (Also, if Adshap happens to be reading this :) this might be a good topic for an article — how did you develop listening skills, when and how did you stop using English as an intermediate step?)

          • Actually, I think I have tried extensive listening in the past, but I saw that backfire HORRIBLY. Allow me to explain: while reading Japanese texts in the past (likely intensive, because I have no clue how to read extensively without simply darting my eyes across the text, absorbing absolutely nothing), I’d play Hatsune Miku songs, partially to get some listening practice, partially so I could study in something that wasn’t deafening silence. I’m particularly fond of videos in the hour counts, specifically because it means I don’t have to faff about with playlists. So I eventually stumbled across this video, which, as you can see, is one hour long and has something looking like a Vocaloid on the thumbnail: . I pumped up the tunes and jumped straight into my Japanese reading, only to be distracted by the realization that I could understand it because it was in English. This brought me to the startling conclusion that my previous method had only trained me to ignore Japanese rather than learn it; I had tuned it out as background noise, picking up absolutely nothing. Now, when I get music for Japanese reading, I stick entirely to video game soundtracks, since there’s little to no chance of a voice popping up there.

            • I’m sorry to hear these approaches aren’t working for you, and I say that as one Miku fan to another :) I’m not sure what else to suggest, maybe Adshap has more ideas if you can get a personal advisor session. I suppose you could also dive into the academic research on adult second-language acquisition and see if anything sparks any ideas. I hope you find the missing piece, and if you do I hope you’ll let us know what it is!

  3. This one is hard for me.
    I did Japanese as an undergrad and was always #1 in my class, never getting below 100%. I was progressing very well and Japanese was easy for me. But I only did what was necessary for class.

    After undergrad finished, I lived in Argentina for a while then pursued my masters in chemistry then went into the working world. 5 years after I graduated college I realized I hadn’t done any Japanese since. In undergrad I had only done what was required for class so I never thought to look at materials once school was over.

    So, I ended up starting over. Not from the beginning obviously since I remembered stuff very well. But what’s my number now? 2 years from when I re-started? (Now I’m at a higher level than college which is interesting thanks to sites like JLUp.) Or 6 years combined study? Or 11 years since I first started studying? It’s complicated and it always creates an awkward situation. If I say 2, people thing I’m bragging; if I say 11, they think I’m an idiot; if I say 6, they start wondering what happened to 5 years of my life. At least I’m getting better at explaining all of this in Japanese from the multiple repeated conversations I’ve had on this topic. :P

    • Perhaps it’s just best to say, I majored in college, but only really started intensely studying two years ago. Basically a summary of what you just said. Perhaps adding that you studied on and off beforehand.

      It’s hard to do small talk with people when you’re a complicated person! I know!

  4. I wouldn’t call myself so much a stop and starter as a coaster. There are periods of time where I charge up that hill with intensity, but then when I hit a wall, I might just hang out on that plateau for a while. I keep using what I’ve got, but not pushing forward in any real way until I find new motivation. Other times, I’ll just coast along, picking up things passively or doing a little light study, but there isn’t time in my life for anything more intense.

    I’ve reached the point, speaking-wise, where new Japanese friends dump the praise pretty quickly and are eager to correct my mistakes. I’ve definitely invested most of my time into conversation skills, so my husband has this over-inflated impression of my abilities and no employer is likely to be impressed.

    I’m currently only speaking Japanese to a 2.5 year old and an 8 month old on a regular basis, though. And the 2.5 year old will get frustrated at me and yell, “No masu, Mommy!” *sigh*

    Anyway, 17 irrelevant years, 3 immersed years, maybe . . . 5 years total of true effort added up? I don’t know. I just know that I haven’t ever stopped using Japanese on some level in my day-to-day, so at least I was still practicing the old, even if nothing new was being acquired.

    • Being in that kind of “maintenance” mode is great for periods with low motivation or where life just takes up most of the time. Keeping up with what you know makes sure you can fire your studying right back up when motivation comes back and life allows for it.

      Having a 2.5 year old with good language skills is great I’m sure. Children are so honest and straight forward :)

    • Yeah, coasting is a bit different than a complete halt, but the time counting aspect still holds true. So don’t be too hard on yourself.

      As Silwing said, having a strict-on-your-Japanese 2.5 year old is some great motivation!

  5. LOL, thanks for encouragement. I wasn’t clear, though. The “No masu, Mommy” is how he tells me to stop talking to him in Japanese. It’s usually right when I’m getting really warmed up, too.

    I do have a couple of children’s books that we only read in Japanese, so it always restores my hope when he brings those to me without prompting.

    Oh, and he has amazing language skills in English. People constantly expect him to be 4 years old. I usually fail to be proud of him, since it just seems normal.

  6. As far as I’m concerned, I started learning Japanese in September 2016, with a little bit of previous knowlede ;)

  7. My year number is < 1. My real number is about 3hrs * 150 days 450hrs, so roughly 450 to 500 hours of study. So about 20 days, I might say that because some days I studied significantly longer that this number is closer to 30 days.

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