How To Learn Japanese Fast
Speed Learning Japanese: Is it really possible?
The 21st century has brought more than just new technology and globalization. It's also brought with it a more fast-paced and impatient society than ever before, a society that no longer has the time it once had to sit in a language class and study a textbook. Learning a language like Japanese has become increasingly important in our globalized world, but who really has the time it takes to learn it? We want to learn Japanese, and we want to learn it as quickly as possible. 90 days, 30 days, 10 days... But is it really possible to speed learn Japanese? Today, we'll take a look at what it actually means to learn a language and whether or not you can really learn Japanese in just a few weeks or days.
- Can I really learn Japanese in just 10 days?
- Defining Language Learning Levels
- Japanese Language Learning Timeline
- Tricks to Learn Japanese Fast
Can I really learn Japanese in just 10 days?
Most of the "learn a language fast" advertisements seen online promise incredible results like "learn Japanese in 1 month," "2 weeks" or even just "10 days." They typically don't go into great detail about how they'll actually help learners achieve this, which leaves most wondering, "Is it really possible?" Yes and no. First of all, anything is possible with the right method, motivation and dedication. Some language programs will definitely prepare you with practical language elements within the timeframe they promise, but you will definitely not be fluent. You won't be able to talk with anyone about absolutely anything in Japanese, but you will know some of the basics that can help you survive in Japan without being completely lost. Likewise, 2 months, 2 weeks, or 10 days isn't really indicative of the amount of time and work you need to put in to learn Japanese. These timelines are merely attention-grabbers that aren't promising you "instant skills," but are rather promising the basics in as short a time as possible. This can be done through the use of learner-friendly teaching methods and by teaching you the most practical vocabulary and grammar first. It will, however, take much more time to be able to fully converse in Japanese in a variety of different situations. So how long does it really take to become fluent? Well, that depends on your definition of "fluent."
Defining Language Learning Levels
Before asking yourself how long it takes to learn Japanese, it's important to define what "learn," "speak," and "fluent" mean to you. Let me give you an example. Imagine a Japanese learner goes to Tokyo for a few weeks and learns the basics to get around. He can successfully ask for directions, navigate his way through a train station, and order a glass of 酒 (sake). According to him, he "speaks Japanese," which, of course, he does. But he's far from fluent. The moment a native Japanese speaker starts to speak with him about something that isn't the way to the bathroom, how he's doing, or what he would like to order, he's stuck. He speaks enough to get by, but not enough to fluently communicate. While he may "speak Japanese," I probably wouldn't recommend that he puts it on his resume just yet. So what does it really mean to be fluent in a language? It's all about the level. According to the European Common Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), a guideline used to define language achievements, there are three basic language level groups broken down into two levels each. While there is no level called "fluency," the description of each level can help to give you an idea of your current Japanese ability, goals, and what you really consider to be fluent:
In this level, you can:
- Understand and use familiar Japanese everyday expressions and very basic Japanese phrases.
- Introduce yourself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where you live, people you know and things you have in Japanese.
- Interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly.
In this level, you can:
- Understand sentences and frequently used Japanese expressions related very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment, etc..
- Communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information.
- Describe in simple terms aspects of your background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
In this level, you can:
- Understand the main points of communication on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
- Deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in a Japanese-speaking area.
- Produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
- Describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
In this level, you can:
- Understand the main ideas of complex Japanese text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialization.
- Interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native Japanese speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
- Produce clear, detailed Japanese texts on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on an issue with its advantages and disadvantages.
In this level, you can:
- Understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning.
- Express your ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
- Use the Japanese language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
- Produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
In this level, you can:
- Easily understand virtually everything heard or read in Japanese.
- Summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
- Express yourself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
So what's your level?
On average, many speakers are considered fluent in a language by the time they've reached a B2 level or higher. This is a level which allows them to comfortably interact in almost all social situations. Many speed learning language programs, however, use the ambiguity of terms like "speak a language" to advertize A1 results in a short period of time. Can you learn some of the Japanese basics in 7 days? Definitely. Can you be fluent in 7 days? Probably not. So if speed learning Japanese isn't all it's cracked up to be, how long does it really take to learn Japanese?
Japanese Language Learning Timeline
This is where the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) language learning study and timeline comes in. 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 school. 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 (in this case, probably English), 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:
Language Group I
- Languages Closely Related to English
- Afrikaans, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, Korean, Haitian Creole, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, 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, it will take you around 2,200 hours to learn Japanese. Japanese may be one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, but that makes it all the more rewarding! It's important to note the conditions of the study, however. The students' schedule called for 25 hours of class per week plus 3 hours of daily independent study, and their classes were generally small, with no more than 6 students. In other words, these were almost ideal language-learning conditions, something that is important to keep in mind, since many of us don't have that kind of time to dedicate to learning Japanese. 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.
Tricks to Learn Japanese Fast
If you really want to learn Japanese as quickly as possible, here are a few things you can do. Let's take a brief look at some of the top language hacks:
1. Set Goals
Your New Year's Resolution may be to "learn Japanese," but what does that actually mean? Try making some SMART goals to better define you language learning process. SMART goals, as advocated in world of management, are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Instead of simply saying "I want to learn Japanese this year," set goals like "I want to be able to order in Japanese at a nearby Japanese restaurant by the end of the month," or "I want to have an A2 level of Japanese by March." These are more specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound and realistic goals.
2. Start with Sounds
Once you have a realistic, smart plan for approaching your Japanese studies, it's time to dig in and start to get your hands dirty. But where should you even start? The answer is simple: sounds. Learning how to hear, pronounce and spell the sounds of your target language is a great place to get started even before you start memorizing words and their meanings. Spend some time just focusing on learning the alphabets and reading words so that Japanese words and sounds are no longer foreign to you. Study Hiragana and Katakana. Listen to pronunciation guides on YouTube, watch movies or series with Japanese subtitles, or use Rocket Languages' Hear It Say It audio recognition to learn to recognize and repeat sounds. You can start with these basic Japanese vowels:
3. Keep it Practical
Learning a new language requires learning a lot of new words. There's no way around it. However, we have some comforting news for you: you don't need to know all--or even the majority--of the words in a language to be able to speak it well. In fact, you don't even need to know half! According to the Pareto principle or the 80-20 rule, you can use 20% of the effort spent on learning new vocabulary for 80% comprehension in the language. That means that by learning the most frequently used vocabulary first, you are able to understand and communicate in a language much faster. One again, the internet is your friend here, and there are countless sources that provide lists of the most frequently used words in each language that can help you start your learning the practical way.
4. Your Friend: Gairaigo
Even if Japanese is considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, this fascinating language actually borrows plenty of English words. 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. These words are definitely your friends and can make learning some Japanese vocabulary much easier and faster. Take advantage of the vocabulary that you already know! Here are some to get you started:
Sometimes, pure vocabulary repetition just isn't enough. Our brains need a little extra jump start to remember words that always seem to slip our minds. That's where mnemonics come in. Basically, mnemonics involve telling yourself a fun, goofy or memorable story, song, or rhyme to associate with a particular word.
For example, one trick for memorizing the Japanese word 食べる (taberu), "to eat", is to pun-ify it! 食べる (taberu) sounds like "table", which is where we sit "to eat".
In Japanese, you can use mnemonics to help you remember Hiragana or Katakana letters (the phonetic alphabets) by relating the sounds to images, for example:
You can also use mnemonics to recognize and remember Kanji (Chinese characters). Take this example of the Kanji for "bright":
It may sound like a lot of extra effort, but you'd be amazed at how effective mnemonic devices are in making your learning faster. They're also fun!
6. Keep a Japanese Vocabulary Notebook
Keep a journal, document, or book with all of the vocabulary you learn in one place. If you're a member of Rocket Languages, the "My Vocab" feature, which lets you save vocabulary and compile a list for future study, is fantastic for this. First, keeping a vocabulary journal help you keep all the practical words you've learned in one place. In addition, just the process of writing down a word and whatever translation, notes, image or mnemonic device can be used to memorize this word helps you to memorize it! It's also a fantastic future reference for studying and can be used anywhere and anytime you have a few minutes free.
7. Break Down the Grammar
Grammar provides the rules for the game in a language. It helps us tell a story. While grammar may seem complex, it can actually be broken down into three basic operations:
- Adding words (I am Japanese > I am not Japanese)
- Changing existing words (I learn Japanese > I learned Japanese)
- Changing the order of words (Japanese is easy > Is Japanese easy?)
That's it. Suddenly, grammar doesn't seem so bad, does it? Keeping this in mind, you can use the grammar explanations you learn to help you break down the rules into easily memorized chunks.
8. Read, Watch, Listen
Movies, music, television series, books, newspapers, magazines and anything you can read, watch, or listen to are unbelievably useful for learning. Reading, watching and listening has a remarkable effect on your brain. Simply by being exposed to Japanese, your brain is put to work. It starts trying to understand new words by making connections to previously learned words and seeks to make sense of any new structures. Basically, you're learning without knowing that you're learning. After a while, you'll find yourself using words and constructions that you didn't even study thanks to your brain's ability to soak up vocabulary and grammar while reading a book or watching a series.
9. Interact... Without Traveling
Try to interact in Japanese on a daily basis. Speaking as much as possible is one of the best tricks to learn a language fast. This can involve:
- Speaking with a friend, family member or neighbor in person
- Writing a letter to a friend, family member, or coworker
- Writing a letter to yourself
- Visiting a local Japanese store or neighborhood and interacting with locals
- Joining a weekly or monthly Japanese conversation group... or starting your own group
- Speaking online with a friend, family member, coworker, or fellow Japanese learner
- Writing an email in Japanese
- Contributing to a blog or forum in Japanese (Rocket Languages has some great forums for this!)
- Singing along with Japanese music
- Watching a Japanese drama or movie and repeating the character's lines (subtitles in Japanese can help)
- Reading a passage from a Japanese book, newspaper, or magazine out loud
- Talking to yourself in Japanese (this really works!)
10. Make Mistakes
Unlike other academic subjects, learning a language is a continuous, never-ending adventure that requires constant practice. Don't treat it the same way you would treat learning another academic subject and live in fear of making mistakes. In the language learning world, mistakes are a sign of progress. Mistakes help you to learn faster. Don't worry about upsetting native Japanese speakers for being too "bold" and trying to speak with them in their native language. Just go for it! Odds are, they'll love it and want to help you. Don't let fear get in your way. Interact in Japanese as much as possible, and you'll be amazed how fast you can learn it. Check out our Top 10 Japanese hacks for some ideas on improving the effectiveness of your study time!
You Can Do It!
While it may not be possible to become fluent in Japanese in just 10 days, it IS possible to learn the basics of speaking in a short period of time and move on to becoming fluent. Don't be discouraged. You can and will learn Japanese much faster than you expect. There are even cases (as the internet will surely tell you) of people who learn it in less than three months! In the end, YOU decide how quickly you become fluent in Japanese. With the right attitude, dedication, situation, and motivation, any language is within your reach. さようなら! Sayōnara!
Sayaka Matsuura Rocket Japanese