The ultimate question. This is the first thing you’ll wonder before you even touch a textbook. Time is the most valuable resource we have in our life and we we want to know where it is best invested, and if the payoff is worth the cost. Am I about to answer the number one question in a clear and convincing way for all those studying Japanese? Maybe… In doing so, I have to briefly explain two important concepts.
“How long does it take to learn Japanese?”
● to gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience
● to come to be able
Too vague. This is why most people would prefer to ask question 2
“How long does it take to become fluent in Japanese?”
● capable of using a language easily and accurately
● effortlessly smooth and flowing
● having or showing mastery of a subject or skill
While better than the first question, Japanese is too vast and has so much packed into what the language actually is to be able to give any kind of proper answer. That’s like asking how long it takes to become fluent in life? So instead of touching on these wrong questions, here’s my best effort at answering the right question:
How long does it take to fluently do X in Japanese?
Everyone learns Japanese for different reasons and with different goals in mind. Your goal should not be “fluency” but “fluency in doing X in Japanese,” where X = your goal. The following are very basic estimates based on my experience of how long fluency in X (common goals) should take if you are using effective study methods from the start and putting in a decent amount of time on a daily basis where studying Japanese becomes a central part of your life.
If you don’t spend much time on Japanese or are using ineffective methods, add Y time to each number below, where Y = some magic formula which I can’t think up to provide any guidance.
- Reading novels aimed at elementary to junior high students: 1.5 – 2 years
- Reading Manga: 2 – 2.5 years.
- Reading contemporary novels: 2.5 – 3 years
- Reading internet discussion boards, blogs, articles: 3 – 3.5 years
- Reading the newspaper: 3.5 – 4.5 years
- Reading classic works of literature: 4.5 – 6+ years
- Watching Japanese Dramas/Movies: 1.5 – 2.5 years
- Watching anime: 2 – 2.5 years
- Watching variety shows: 3 – 4 years
- Listening to Japanese Music: 2.5 – 4.5 years (hugely varies depending on style)
- Watching comedians in Konto, Manzai, or Rakugo: 4 – 5+ years
- Conversations that are simple (weather, weekend, hobbies, likes, wants etc): 9 months – 1.5 years
- Conversations containing a wider range of topics: 1.5 – 2.5 years
- Conversations with multiple people at the same time on most topics: 2.5 – 4 years
- Conversations involving politics, law, science, the economy, etc: 4-6 years
- Technical conversations: 6-8+ years
- Writing simple e-mails, text messages, tweets, diary: 1.5 – 2 years
- Writing organized compositions, reports, and business letters: 3 – 4.5 years
- Writing advanced essays and anything in high academia: 4.5 – 6+ years
You’ve got the months and years, but people think in smaller amounts of time. Let’s go a little deeper.
How many hours a day does it take to become fluent in Japanese?
As many hours as you possibly can.
The first step in finding out what his number means to you is to analyze your daily schedule. The next step is to jam Japanese into every single opening that presents itself, every single day.
The below are estimates. If you can do more, you definitely should. If you can’t do this much, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to.
Casual learner: 30-60 minutes a day
Normal learner: 1-3 hours a day
Heavy learner: 4-6 hours a day
Who has these kind of hours?
Before you dismiss me as an idealist who is asking too much, please remember that these hours consist of passive and active learning.
A sample 5 hour day:
● 2 hours: listening to Japanese on your phone while commuting, eating, cleaning, showering, brushing your teeth, walking the dog, working out, etc.
● 1 hour: sitting down and watching 3 anime episodes
● 1 hour: doing flash card reviews
● 1 hour: reading a manga.
Put in whatever hours you can. Every hour extra in every day you spend on Japanese brings you that much closer to getting to fully feast in the rewards that mastering Japanese has awaiting for you. And boy is it a grand feast.
Everyone gives a different time amount to reach fluency
The answers here will probably vary with every other site and person you talk to. You’ll hear fluent in 3 months, 1 year, or 2 years. On the opposite spectrum, you’ll hear fluent in 5 years, 10 years, or a lifetime. What’s the truth? Why are opinions so scattered?
There is a reason for both extreme sides, with important merits. Regardless if it is true that it will take 1 year or 10 years, merely stating the length of time it takes brings about some good.
Short time period required
– Won’t get scared off.
– Feel it is something achievable even for you.
– Visualize and plan for the short term.
– Get you to be positive and actually start studying Japanese.
Long period required
– Prepare you for the inevitable multitude of challenges that await.
– Prevent you from becoming frustrated as to why you aren’t fluent yet.
– Create both short and long term goals.
– After you make the decision to start, you are more likely to continue.
Short versus long
While there are people who champion both ends of the spectrum, you usually find them in the following two groups:
1. Motivational Japanese learning Sites: “Learn Japanese Fast!”
2. Advanced learners posting on forums and comments: “Japanese takes a long time.”
Which is better?
It’s difficult to say. Both views try to focus on the positive benefits and usually have good intentions.
There are an infinite number of variables that effect how long it will take you to learn Japanese fluently, and even fluency itself is still such a vague concept. But people like a concrete number.
And that number should be?
3~4 years to Japanese fluency.
Is this true?
Who knows? It could be. Maybe. Probably not. But I like this number because it isn’t too short nor too long. 3~4 years years feels within reach but is still a good length of time. Yeah, you may have or will do it quicker, or you may have or will take much longer. But it is a friendly number.
Sure, it isn’t as catchy as “fluent in 3 months,” but I feel like it hits on an average reality for people. And regardless of whether it is true (which I’m not saying it is) or not, it’s a nice balanced number that hopefully provides the merits of both the short/long time periods above.
Now that you know the time commitment in more specifics (which may be more or less than you originally thought), you can plan more accordingly. Please remember that the above numbers are “fluency” and not the amount of time it takes to enjoy Japanese (which is significantly less).
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.