Becoming Fluent In Japanese In Record-Smashing Time
Fluency? Everyone wants that. Fast. As fast as possible. Why go slow when you can go fast? How fast is that? How fast can you become fluent? I’ve talked about it a bit. But these were averages when I wrote the article.
If you put your all into it, how fast can you do it now?
Many people who study Japanese are competitive. Japanese is a game after all. A major motivation is reaching fluency faster than those before you. Stand out. Be different. Accomplish the unaccomplished.
This trait is admirable. And should be treated as such.
However it often receives mixed reactions from everyone else learning Japanese. Go to a Japanese learner community and say “I will become fluent in Japanese in a year no matter what!” and you will receive some friendly or unfriendly “advice” about “reality.”
I’m going to tell you something different. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t learn as fast you are trying to. I’m not telling you this because you are right and and you will be able to reach your lofty goal. I’m telling you this because it’s not impossible.
Japanese learning is evolving
The speed to Japanese fluency has changed and is continuing to change over the past several years. Becoming a record smasher is the new norm.
A record smasher is someone who not only breaks the previous record before him, but absolutely destroys it. He does what was said by everyone was impossible. This happens all the time, in every field of physical and academic pursuit. It doesn’t matter what was considered normal, or great, or expert. A record smasher looks at the highest level and laughs as he blasts far past it.
My favorite example is the record smashing done by Takeru Kobayashi at the Nathan’s hot dog eating competition in 2001. The previous world record was 25.5 hot dogs, accomplished by giant-gut-sized Americans. One day a tiny Japanese man came in, and everyone around him double or triple his physical weight chuckled at this obvious joke. Kobayashi shattered the record by eating 50 hot dogs.
Eating hot dogs is not the same thing as learning Japanese, but the principle is the same. Kobayashi came across new training techniques that no one had ever considered or attempted before, and it allowed him to do what no one ever thought could be possible. These new techniques, or “game changing techniques” are what allow for record smashing.
But learning Japanese is different………………….. you say?
Nope. It’s not. Are you kidding me? Remember my post joking around that learning Japanese is impossible if the year was 1990? In the past few decades there have been so many game-changers introduced into language learning that the numbers are in a constant state of shift.
Learning Japanese to fluency, without living in Japan (and even if you did live in Japan) used to easily take a decade. And then the game changers started rolling in.
- The Internet (as a whole)
- Online video streaming
- Social media
- Cheap/fast flights to Japan
- SRS (Anki, etc.)
- Instant electronic dictionary apps
- Jalup (*wink*)
While these are not necessarily all game changers to everyone (especially the methods), they are to many, and this list is not all-inclusive.
When I have said the cliche “you have the ability to learn Japanese faster than anyone before you,” I’m not just trying to boost your ego. I’m basing this on fact. And this needs to be embraced, not looked down upon. Which brings me to a major point when it comes to record smashing.
Japanese learner pride needs to be pushed aside
I considered myself fluent somewhere around 3-4 years. I originally exclaimed to everyone I knew from day one that “I will become fluent in a year. Just watch!” This didn’t happen, but 3-4 years was pretty fast. When I started studying, people were telling me to expect 5-10 years. When I said I would do it way faster, I was laughed at. But I never let that stop me.
Since I started studying, many of the above game changers have been introduced. When I see people reaching high levels in less than 2 years, I don’t repeat what was done to me. I don’t laugh and say “stop kidding yourself.” I am intrigued and want to know more.
Pride has a way of trying to jam its way in. So you worked your ass off for 5 years, putting your heart and soul into it, and have finally achieved your amazing level. Then some hotshot newcomer comes in and does it in half the time. Your reaction? Disbelief, annoyance, jealousy, frustration.
Initially, I wasn’t immune to these feelings. But I soon realized it accomplishes nothing, makes you blind, and only prevents you from moving forward, becoming even greater.
The best thing you can do?
Learn from the record breakers
One of the major reasons I love Jalup is I enjoy sharing everything I’ve learned, and my Japanese journey. The other major reason? Everyone sharing what they are learning with me (and others).
Experts can and should learn from beginners.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve studied Japanese for 10 years and am at a self-satisfying kick-ass level. My Japanese learning hasn’t finished, and if I can go faster, and more efficient because of new techniques the newbies are using, I will do it. I continually add the new game-changing techniques to my own methods, develop my own new game-changing techniques, and thrive on the competition.
Remember that hot-dog competition where everyone laughed at Kobayashi? What technique do you think all the other competitors eventually started using? And Kobayashi was eventually dethroned by his own method.
I challenge you
If you can become fluent in 2 years, bring it on. If you can reach my level that took me 10 years in 5 years, I want you to. I’m not the top Japanese learner, and I’m glad I’m not. The better you become at Japanese, the less people that you meet that are better than you. And the less you have to strive for.
Being around Japanese learners who are better than you makes you want to become better. When you are the best out of all the people around you, you become complacent. I’m lucky to have a few friends who surpass me in various ways. I like being around them. They keep me humble no matter how high I go. I’m still aiming for more, so I am thankful to them. If that competition comes from someone who should’ve been years behind me, great. I welcome you.
To everyone out there smashing through records now: keep up the amazing work. Don’t let other people tell you that you are wrong. To everyone who doesn’t like to see people doing what you worked your ass off in half the time, try a different perspective. Learn from them to improve yourself.
Remember that game changers affect everyone, even those not aiming for ultimate speed. Not everyone puts (or should put) learning Japanese in record breaking speak in their top priority. People learning Japanese should learn at the pace they want to, and feel most comfortable with. However, if you can shave several months of time off of learning just by looking at what all the beginners are now doing, you only have something to gain by that. You don’t need to learn Japanese in 2 years. But if you can learn Japanese in 4 years instead of 5, why not?
Go out and smash
Everything here is about excitement. Enjoy the possibilities, the changes, and what is to come. Go out and break some records. And when you do, talk about it here on Jalup, so that everyone can enjoy it as well.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
What I consider fluent is the ability to talk to people, make up your mind and understand spoken Japanese with ease.Think it can be achieve within a year or two for sure.That being said, I studied for 6 months, 2 hours/day. Managed to finish N5 level by that time. The last 1 month have been sessions of 3-4 hours/day and I cannot stress this enough but the more time you put in the better. I just have now so much time to review stuff I previously learned, do exercises, listen to podcast/genki exercises, practice speaking Japanese, chat with people.I think in another 5 months I will be done with N4. Still, I wont be able to achieve fluency but anyone who can put more hours, more dedication into learning I’m confident they can do it fast.
Nice, good luck! I love reading posts like yours; I have trouble finding any time at all because I have too many hobbies and find it very hard to prioritize… It feels like sometimes I just need a reminder, like your post!
Well said. More time just makes everything better. You’ve nearly doubled your daily study time, which I guarantee will yield you impressive results.
I admit I am guilty of thoughts of disbelief when I hear people proclaim they will learn the language in a short amount of time. It is kind of frustrating, but at the same time kind of inspiring. Very good post, it gives me a lot to think about, thank you.
Mission accomplished. These thoughts are completely normal. Just make them empowering, not discouraging.
I have been waiting for this kind of post for a long time (read my author’s box).
“If you can learn Japanese in 4 years instead of 5, why not?”
A funny story. Back when I was deciding how many new cards to do each day, I decided on 5. After completing them, I felt bored and increased the cards to 10 and so on, until I was looking at 40 cards. I do this everyday now. I start from 5 , and increase cards as I feel it. You won’t believe that it is waaaat different feeling that doing 50 cards/day. It is like doing small sets of 10 pushups for 4 sets, Instead of trying to do all 40 in one.
Always setting the bar high for everyone!
One of my favourite things about this site (except for the whole method which suits me amazingly well) is the positive tone. I really love how much of a safe-zone this is. Whenever I leave this site after doing a little reading I feel refreshed and ready to face any challenge thrown at me :)
Very happy to hear that!
Like the previous commenter, I really admire the positive attitude of this post (and website overall). The Japanese learning community I have experience in real life has been supportive, and now that I’m out of university it’s good to know there are still people who are encouraging. I would definitely encourage beginners to keep “smashing” through learning speed records, especially at the times when you feel like you’re not making progress.. those are the roadblocks that can keep people from wanting to maintain Japanese in their life.
What has been a measure for your fluency? JLPT?
I think JLPT is a good way to know where your at in your studies and what level you are on the grand scheme of Japanese learning. I cannot agree more with you, those roadblocks are going to kill your motivation. Just keep going, if you lack motivation, watch 水球ヤンキース
hahaha should give you plenty ;)
This is the standard I’ve used for my concept of Fluency:
Following the Jalup scale for fluency (10,000 sentences) with my current pace of 30 cards, I should hit that by late December early January which is 1 year and 1 month. The only reason I can maintain this pace is thanks to the amazing anki feature called study reviews ahead. I wished I had discovered it sooner, it can let you have a fast pace with low reviews, or completely avoid anki avalanche. I think I won’t achieve 10,000 this fast because once I finish intermediate I am going to start immersing a lot so anki time will be cut unless I make my lazy bum wake up earlier to do anki.
So the Jalup scale for fluency actually isn’t 10,000 sentences.
Part of the Jalup scale for fluency is “Over 9,000 sentences!”
However the other parts include:
Can have conversations about most standard topics
Intonation, pronunciation, and inflection are excellent
Are very versed in Japanese culture and the language behind the culture
Can write about advanced topics in a very fluid matter
Can understand Japanese TV (90%), Manga (90%), Novels (85%), Japanese News (80%),
So there is a lot to reach fluency on this scale. Most people who reach 9000+ sentences spend most of their time on native materials in order to meet all these other goals (this is a natural process of importance on Anki fading away)
How do you quantify your progress toward that 3000 Kanji goal? I add important ones to my RTK deck as I come across them, but there are also more rare Kanji I recognize and don’t add. I’d guess that I can recognize something like ~2200 and I don’t often see unfamiliar ones (except in proper names). Anything outside the scope of my RTK deck is just an estimate, so I don’t think there’s any way for me to know. How did you arrive at the number 3000?
Not Adam obviously but rtk book 1 and 2 are 3000+ kanji combined. Maybe do the all in one kanji deck on anki shared? You can power level (or just plain delete) through the first 2000+ I assume.
I think what he means of that the 3000 Kanji figure is too much.
3,000 was the estimate based on a low average of what the average Japanese person can recognize after graduating high school. It doesn’t need to be in Anki, just when you see it, you know it. Because of this, if you are doing it outside of Anki there is no way to quantify your number, it’s more of a feel. For example, read the news and see how often you come across unfamiliar kanji.
Does this seem too high to you? Maybe 2500 sounds better?
I have myself been wondering about 3000 kanji for fluency and felt it was a bit high. Reading your comment above about your motivation, I don’t necessarily think it is too high, but perhaps it should be made more clear that it is not necessarily 3000 kanji learned to the same level as through RTK, vocabulary and ability to write.
Thanks for the feedback. Added a small note at level 40 hoping to capture this sentiment, and decided to end it on 2500+ instead of 3000.
It’s hard to say, as it seems like there’s no real consensus on just how many characters a JP HS graduate can read. Even in answers from natives, I’ve seen estimates as low as 2500 and as high as 4000+.
To expand on my comment above, I’m in the upper 50’s level-wise, and chiefly encounter unfamiliar kanji in one of 3 areas:
-Names of people and places
-Classical/Archaic dialog, like deity/emperor speak, incantations for spells, etc
-Specialized subjects like biology, religion, military, etc
I think all of those things are valuable to learn, but I’m unsure to what extent I’d lump them into the Level 65/”fluency” bucket, vs the deeper knowledge of specific subjects you’d build up on your way to Level 75+.
At least based on my experience, I’d adjust the level targets like so-
Level 30: ~1950
Level 40: ~2050
Level 50: ~2200
Level 65: ~2500
Thanks Matt. I adjusted them fairly close to your suggestion and decided to end fluency on 2500+
I know this is an old article but I really enjoyed reading it and it struck a cord with me.
I have been studying Japanese for 6 months and daily use Genki textbooks, Japanesepod101, Rosetta Stone and flashcards. I also listen to music, watch movies in Japanese, listen to the Japanese news on youtube daily and read Japanese childrens books. I study for about 3-4 hours a day and my self progress has shattered what I had originally expected myself to achieve at this point.
You can achieve anything if you provide your mind enough ways to digest a subject and apply it routinely.
Awesome read, thanks, Nath.
That’s really great to hear about your progress. When people work their ass off on something they are super passionate about, good things can happen.