How Long Does It Take To Learn Japanese?

It may come as no surprise that Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn. While it’s not completely unconquerable, one thing that anybody wanting to learn Japanese will need is a great amount of patience. But just how long does it take to learn Japanese?

There are a few factors that will determine the amount of time it will take to get you through the basic phrases into an advanced level of learning. Like many languages, the speed at which you progress will depend entirely on you, your habits, your learning style, and the language resources you use.

Let’s explore each of these in more detail below.

Learning Goals

The first thing you need to think about is what you actually mean when you say you want to learn Japanese. Do you have an upcoming trip planned? Perhaps you want to be able to find your way around the streets of Tokyo or order at restaurants confidently? Or, are you looking to master every aspect of the language?

Working this out will be one of the biggest determining factors in how long it takes you to learn Japanese. Obviously, picking up a few conversational phrases will take a lot less time than learning to read and write kanji.

What’s kanji? – I hear you ask. Kanji is a Japanese script comprising multiple relatively complex characters used in Japanese writing. As such, they are one of the hardest elements to learn. Learning Kanji will require a great deal of memorization and practice.

Certain elements of the Japanese writing system, such as Hiragana, are easier to understand as they are considered to be ‘entry-level letters’. Learning to write kanji is even more time consuming. However, if this is the language-learning road you want to take then you’ll definitely end up with a more rounded level of fluency.

Put simply, there are four main skills to learning any language and Japanese is no exception. These are listening, speaking, reading, and writing. If you want to master all four elements, then learning Japanese will take much longer than simply learning two of them.

Study Time

The amount of time you have available to practice Japanese will also play a vital role in how long it takes you to learn the language. It may seem obvious, but it’s entirely true – the more you practice, the faster you will learn.

If you’ve only got a couple of hours spare each week, then it will take a lot longer for you to learn Japanese. This isn’t only because you’ll learn new words and phrases at a slower pace, but also you’ll be more susceptible to forgetting what you’ve already learned.

Conversely, if you can dedicate a couple of hours each day to learning Japanese, you’ll be introduced to new words and phrases at a faster rate. Your memory will also work harder and it will be easier to retain the information you’ve already picked up.

However, it’s still worth remembering that Japanese is an incredibly hard language to learn. On average, dedicating a couple of hours each day will bring you to an advanced level of speaking in about 3 years.

This is advanced speaking, though, and you’ll still be able to communicate effectively in Japanese using some basic phrases in six months to a year.

Your Native Language

Languages evolve over time. This is why there are so many similarities between English and French, for example. If you are a native English speaker, languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese will be a lot easier for you to learn than Japanese. The intricacies of a language like Japanese will feel very unfamiliar and, as such, this is a hurdle that will add to the amount of time it takes to learn Japanese.

It’s not only speaking that will be unfamiliar to you, either. The Japanese writing system, grammar, and sentence structures are all very different from European languages. This makes it harder to follow reading and writing exercises when you start a Japanese language course.

If you’ve studied an Eastern Asian language before, you’ll find it easier to understand the linguistics and pronunciation, which means it will take a shorter amount of time to begin understanding Japanese.

Formal Pronouns

As with all languages, there are formal and informal pronouns to learn. In Japanese, formal pronouns are always preferred, and this is what makes Japanese such a famously polite language.

Formal pronouns are known as ‘keigo’ in Japanese, and it’s very important to master them if you’re going to be speaking Japanese in business meetings or conversing with people who rank higher than you (such as government officials).

To put things into simpler terms, keigo basically takes a word that you’ve already learned and completely changes it, depending on who you’re speaking to. For example:

  • The standard formal word for “eat” is “taberu”
  • The keigo word for “eat” is “meshi agaru”

They each have the same meaning, but they are entirely different words when keigo is used.

Keigo also has two forms, which means it takes even longer to learn. One form of keigo is used to praise and speak highly of other people, while the other form is used to speak humbly about yourself.

Both of these forms are used at the same time, so you also have to make sure you don’t accidentally switch them so that you’re speaking highly of yourself and humbly of somebody else!

With this in mind, if you need to learn how to use keigo because you’re going to be speaking to some high-ranking people, then learning Japanese will take almost twice as long. Essentially, you’ll have almost twice as many words to learn!

How Long Does It Take To Learn Japanese?


Considering the number of things you need to think about when learning Japanese, including basically learning two languages at once when using keigo, it’s fair to say that it’s going to take quite a while to master even the most basic phrases.

However, to give you a rough estimate of how long it takes to learn Japanese, we’ve broken down the specific reasons why you want to learn this wonderful language:

  • If your aim is to talk to a Japanese-speaking friend and hold a basic conversation in Japanese, you can expect to learn basic phrases in 3-6 months.
  • If you’d like to be able to read fictional books of manga comics that are written in Japanese, a year’s worth of studying will be required.
  • In order to watch Japanese movies, TV shows, or read native-level fiction material then you’re looking at around 3-5 years of learning time.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that the time it will take depends on the amount of effort and spare time you’re able to put into it.

Learning Japanese: How To Speed Up The Learning Process

So, now we know that it can take anywhere up to five years to fully master the Japanese language. And, to get it done in this time, the average learner will need to allocate about 10 hours per week to studying.

In a world where we’re all becoming increasingly busier, however, putting this much time aside each week can be a real issue. But there are a few ways you can put in the study time without taking any extra time out of your schedule!

Here are a couple of tips that will help to speed up the learning process:

  • Download a Japanese-learning podcast that you can listen to on your daily commute, while you’re at work, or simply while you get on with some household chores.
  • Follow the Japanese news using a website such as NHK News Easy. This is a great website for beginners as you can listen to narrated audio while reading. You can also pair it with a translator extension, such as Rikaikun, which allows you to hover over certain Japanese words and translate them into English.
  • Take a free trial with Japanese language resources such as FluentU
  • Find a Japanese tutor with sites such as italki

Conclusion

As you can see from what we’ve outlined above, there isn’t a definitive answer to how long it takes to learn Japanese. It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not quick, but if you can dedicate enough time to it you can expect to be at a confident, conversational level within a year.

If you want to learn all of the intricacies of keigo and learn how to read and write kanji, you should expect to spend up to five years studying.

However, while it may seem like a time-consuming process, there is no denying that being able to speak, read, and write in Japanese is an undoubtedly impressive skill. It’s also a lot of fun, and you’re guaranteed to learn some really exciting things in the process.

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