How Long Does It Take To Learn Japanese?
Learning a language like Japanese is an amazing process, and every stage of it can be very fulfilling. But time is money, and although we would all love to have limitless time to improve our language skills, the truth is that our personal and professional life leave little time to learn a language.
So how long will it take to learn Japanese?
This is one of the first questions anyone interested in language learning asks, and unfortunately, there's no easy way to answer it. Learning a language is a complex process that is different for each individual based on several different factors.
Let's take a look at these different factors and how they impact how fast you learn Japanese:
- Your Previous Language Learning Experiences
- The Language You Are Learning
- How You Are Learning
- The Time You Dedicate to Learning
- Your Attitude
- Your Motivation
1. Your Previous Language Learning Experiences
If you already speak a foreign language or were raised bilingual, you may save yourself some time as you learn Japanese. Bilinguals find it easier to learn a third language, as several linguistic studies have proven. This is because they are naturally more accustomed to being exposed to different languages. Fluency and skills in one language aid fluency and skills in another.
If you're not bilingual or multilingual, however, don't worry: Even that year of Spanish in high school or that business trip to Beijing was helpful.
One of the first steps to learning a language is learning a little bit about what makes up a language and the unique linguistic aspects of the language you want to learn. If you have already experienced studying foreign grammar, memorizing vocabulary, listening to different sounds and looking at different letters, your mind knows what to expect when faced with a new language. There aren't as many surprises and language learning becomes easier and faster.
Just being exposed to different languages--especially when one of those languages is the language you wish to learn--can make language learning faster.
2. The Language You Are Learning
Even if Japanese is considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, this fascinating language actually borrows plenty of words from English. These words can save you time when learning some Japanese vocabulary.
That's where Gairaigo comes in.
Gairaigo (外来語), or "borrowed words", are Japanese words with a foreign origin, normally English. These words, usually nouns, are written using the Katakana alphabet.
There are countless Gairaigo, but let's take a look at just a few of them:
- スーパ [sūpa]: Supermarket
- キス [kisu]: Kiss
- バター[bata]: Butter
- コンピューター[konpyūtā]: Computer
Now here's a handy tip! Many of these loan words can be easily turned into verbs just by adding する (suru) "to do".
- キスする [kisu suru]: To kiss
- ドライブする[ doraibu suru]: To drive
- アナウンスする [annaunsu suru]: To announce
- チャレンジする [charenji suru]: To challenge
- ターンする [tān suru]: To turn
You can also add the word for "person", 人 (jin), after country names to make nationalities in Japanese:
- アメリカ人 [amerika jin]: American
- カナダ人 [kanada jin]: Canadian
- フランス人 [furansu jin]: French
Pretty easy right? Imagine all the words you know already!
These words are definitely your friends and can make learning some Japanese vocabulary much easier and faster.
Here's a handy list of Japanese words that are easier to learn because they sound like English words or have English roots.
3. How You Are Learning
Your learning methods also play an important role in how fast you learn Japanese. If your language learning is limited to a classroom setting, then it will probably take you a little longer to learn.
If, however, you also are exposed to Japanese outside of classes, then you can cut down the time needed to learn it. Reading, listening to the radio or eBooks, writing, speaking, watching Japanese movies or anime, and travelling to Japan can all help to speed up your learning process.
4. The Time Dedicated to Learning
Naturally, how long it takes you to learn Japanese also depends on how much time you plan to dedicate to language learning daily, weekly, or monthly. Studies have proven that learners who are willing to dedicate an hour a day to language learning--whether that be by studying grammar, memorizing vocabulary, watching a movie, or reading a book--learn significantly faster than those who just attend a weekly class.
That's why online programs like Rocket Languages work so well for many language learners: they encourage frequent study and are easy to access on a daily basis. And that's also why full immersion is, by far, the fastest way to learn a language.
5. Your Attitude
You attitude also plays a huge role in how fast you learn Japanese. If you approach language learning with a positive attitude and see it as a fun and fascinating opportunity to broaden your horizons (and to sound like a native when you sing your favorite J-pop song), you'll be more open to learning. You'll be more motivated to study and learn as much as possible, and the entire process will be more enjoyable and, consequently, faster.
6. Your Motivation
It's no secret that staying motivated is key to learning a new language. There have been so many studies proving the importance of motivation in language learning. Staying motivated is the number one reason why many people have language success, and also the number one reason why some fail.
Reminding yourself why you want to learn Japanese, how it will improve your life, and everything good that can come from learning it can help you to stay motivated and, therefore, speed up the time necessary to learn it.
Getting Down to Business: a Timeline for Learning Japanese
The complex interaction between all of these factors determines how long it will take you to learn Japanese.
But you don't just want to know all of the factors, do you? You want a timeline. You want numbers. You want to know just how long it will take you to learn Japanese.
Luckily for you, there are several studies that sought to tell us just that.
But first, a disclaimer: In many of these studies, language proficiency or fluency is the bar set to determine whether or not the language has been "learned." As you may know, you don't necessarily need to be fluent to be able to speak a foreign language and to be comfortable interacting in that language. A low intermediate level can get you pretty far in Japan.
Keeping this in mind, it's important to take these studies with a grain of salt and remember that you can and will be able to interact in Japanese long before you're fluent.
Guided learning hours required to learn Japanese
Realistic estimates in the field of linguistics have studied the number of hours really needed to learn a language like Japanese. The Common European Framework for Reference for Languages, for example, uses the "Guided Learning Hours" framework to measure the amount of classroom time total needed to reach a B2 (high intermediate) level. It assumes that for every one hour of classroom time, learners will spend two hours of independent study time. In the end, this equates to a total of between 1,000 and 1,200 hours.
Let's take a look at this in several different scenarios:
Scenario and the time needed to have an intermediate level of Japanese:
1. One 3-hour Japanese course per week for 8 weeks, plus a weekly homework assignment (1 hour), plus independent practice of any type (2 hour). 3 courses per year. You will need between 25-30 courses. At 3 courses per year, it may take you between 8.3-10 years to reach an intermediate level.
2. One year of Japanese language learning in school. (4 hours per week + 2 hours of homework + 2 hours of independent practice X 12 weeks X 2 semesters). Between 5-6.25 years to reach an intermediate level.
3. Dedicated independent study (1 hour per day). Approximately 3 years to achieve an intermediate level of Japanese.
4. Total, active immersion (8 hours per day). Approximately 3 months to have an intermediate level of Japanese.
This calculation neglects so many factors, however, and still isn't a very accurate way of determining how long it could take you to learn Japanese.
The U.S. Foreign Service Institute Timeline for learning Japanese
In their study, the Foreign Service Institute examined a group of native English speakers between the ages of 30 and 40 who were studying foreign languages at their institute. The students' resulting levels were measured using the Interagency Language Roundtable Scale with the goal being to calculate how long it took students to reach "General professional proficiency" or higher.
According to the FSI, the closer a language is to your native language, the faster you will learn that language. They divided their findings into five basic language categories based on the languages' similarity to English, which determined how long it took learners to reach general professional proficiency or higher.
Let's take a look at their timeline.
Language Group I
- Languages Closely Related to English
- Afrikaans, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish
- 23-24 Weeks (575-600 Hours)
Language Group II
- Languages similar to English
- 30 weeks (750 hours)
Language Group III
- Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
- Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili
- 36 Weeks (900 Hours)
Language Group IV
- Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
- Amharic, Bengali, Burmese, Croatian, Czech, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian, Mongolian, Nepali, Pashto, Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik), Pilipino, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Thai, Tamil, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese
- 44 Weeks (1,100 Hours)
Language Group V
- Exceptionally difficult languages for native English speakers
- Arabic, Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean
- 88 Weeks (2,200 Hours)
Therefore, according to FSI findings, Japanese is in Language Group V and it will take you around 2,200 hours to learn it.
Japanese may be one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, but that makes it all the more rewarding!
This study can be used to help you estimate how many hours it will take you to learn Japanese and calculate how many weeks--or months, or years--based on how much time you want to dedicate per week.
Keep in mind, however, that the quality of your study is more important than the quantity. Immersion experiences or daily practice can significantly limit how long it takes for you to learn Japanese.
Check out our Top 10 Japanese hacks for some ideas on improving the effectiveness of your study time.
Don't be discouraged. You can and will learn Japanese faster than you expect. There are even cases (as the internet will surely tell you) of people who learn it in less than a year.
Now that you know how much time it takes to learn Japanese and which factors can help you achieve your goals faster, it’s also important to keep in mind that language learning is synonymous with practice. That means that reaching a certain level doesn’t guarantee that you will keep it for the rest of your life.
Taking care of your Japanese is like taking care of your pet: you have to feed it, cuddle it, and take it out for a walk every once in a while.
In the end, YOU decide how quickly you become fluent in Japanese and how good your skills remain. With the right attitude, dedication, situation, and motivation, any language is within your reach.