There are tons of sources out there that can give you a number in hours, days, months or years for how long it takes to learn Japanese.
If you’ve googled it, you’ve probably seen anything from 90 days to 5 years!
While it’s definitely possible to learn some Japanese in 90 days, how do some people speak it in a matter of months while others take years?
An honest answer is that languages are complex and so are people, so there’s no one-size fits all when it comes to how long it takes to learn Japanese.
If instead we ask:
How long does it take to have a basic conversation with a native Japanese speaker? (speaking and listening)
How long does it take to learn the 3 types of Japanese writing – hiragana, katakana, and kanji? (reading and writing)
How long does it take to understand movies in Japanese without subtitles? (listening)
We can identify specific language goals based on the 4 language skills to help us better answer how long it takes to reach a level of fluency.
Setting goals is critical to learning a language but remember, people are complex too, so how long it takes to learn Japanese also depends on many things about you as a person such as your:
(including but not limited to)
- time and habits
- first language
- language learning experience
- language learning methods
- definition of fluency
Using research, the points above, and the personal experiences of those who have mastered Japanese we can better understand how long it might take you to reach your goal!
- 1. Language learning goals – why Japanese and what for?
- 2. Time and habits
- 3. Your first language – is it close or distant to Japanese?
- 4. Developing a growth mindset for learning Japanese
- 5. Previous language learning experience could reduce the time it takes to learn Japanese
- 6. Language learning methods: online learning, classrooms, immersion
- 7. Fluency – what is it and when will I know if I’m fluent in Japanese!
- Final thoughts: language is a journey
1. Language learning goals – why Japanese and what for?
Before calculating how long it’s going to take you, ask yourself why you are learning Japanese, what you will use it for and then decide which language skills you need to prioritise to accomplish your goal.
Will you focus mostly on speaking and listening? Reading and writing? In what situations will you use the language?
Speaking & Listening
Chris Broad, a popular YouTuber who lives in Japan and has proven his spoken fluency in Japanese, suggests you could achieve a similar level in as little as 6 months following these steps.
If you’re not planning to be in Japan anytime soon, you’ll develop your speaking and listening skills faster if you interact with native speakers and real Japanese content / media.
Reading & Writing
If you only want to speak Japanese, you could skip reading and writing and cut off more than 1000 hours of learning time because the entire Japanese language can be written in romaji (the roman alphabet) – but this would make you illiterate.
Provided you don’t want to be illiterate, you’ll need time to learn each of the 3 writing systems: hiragana, katakana and kanji. The first two contain 46 characters each and represent the same sounds, and while I would suggest 2 – 4 weeks from my experience learning kana, it’s possible to learn all 92 in a matter of hours with Memrise.
Kanji are Chinese characters which deserve a post of their own and even though roughly 90% of Japanese can be written with 1,000 kanji, the government defines minimum literacy as knowing 2,136 kanji of which many learners agree can take anywhere between 6 months – 3 years. In fact, native Japanese speakers learn half this kanji over 6 years during elementary school (1006 kanji) and the rest in secondary school (1130 kanji).
The Japanese Kanji dictionary, the Dai Kan-wa Jiten, lists 50,000 entries, so if you want to know how long it takes to learn all the kanji let’s just say there may not be enough years in your life!
It’s a good idea to practice each skill – but don’t overwhelm yourself. The skills overlap and improving in one helps you improve in another. So it’s okay to focus more on speaking if your goal is to have a conversation, rather than trying to allocate equal amounts of time to each skill.
A basic table like this can help you break down your Japanese language goals into smaller, digestible chunks which are easier to measure using time.
|Why am I learning Japanese||What am I using Japanese for||How long|
|Travel||To order food, buy a train ticket, ask for directions, check into a hotel|
Skills: speaking, listening, reading
|7 – 30 days|
|Business trip||Greet colleagues, introduce myself, formal / polite conversation (keigo), exchange my business card|
Skills: speaking, listening
|1 month +|
|Foreign language||Daily conversation, expressing my thoughts and opinions, reading basic texts, passing a test|
Skills: All 4
|6 months +|
|Second language||Passing tests, going to school or university, getting a job, teaching Japanese, living in Japan, speaking to my children and my partner’s family |
Skills: All 4
|1 + years|
If you need help setting a goal, The Japan Foundation runs the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) twice a year, which measures and certifies the language level of non-native Japanese speakers. It’s an official, internationally recognized test consisting of 5 levels with N5 being beginners level and N1 being advanced. You can use their recommended study times to better estimate how long it’s going to take you to reach your goal.
If you’d like to be able to read and understand basic Japanese and you don’t know any kanji, then you’re looking at 426 hours to pass the JLPT N5.To pass N5 you also need to be able to understand basic spoken Japanese because there is a listening test.
The downside of the JLPT is that it doesn’t test speaking ability and focuses heavily on reading and listening so if you’re looking to improve your conversation skills, the JLPT may not be for you!
Once you have a goal in mind, you can estimate how long it will take you to learn the Japanese you need to achieve it.
2. Time and habits
How long it takes to achieve your desired level of Japanese will depend on how you use your learning time and your ability to build and maintain habits.
You’d be amazed at what you can accomplish with daily practice focused specifically on the language skills for reaching your goal.
To learn the essential kanji that makes up most Japanese words it takes up to 3 years by most standards but Actual Fluency calculates that ‘if you learn 25 kanji a day, and have no prior experience with Japanese, you should be able to read kanji within three months’.
25 kanji a day is a lot (I would recommend between 5 – 10 for beginners) but the point is, daily practice is a must for accelerating language learning and improving memory retention. It should be as natural as brushing your teeth!
Depending on your lifestyle, reaching your Japanese language goals could take longer or just a greater effort.
If you have a full-time job, run a business and / or have children, other priorities will compete with learning Japanese and you’ll need to carve out time and methods that are efficient and easy to implement into a busy schedule.
Alternatively, if you’re a high school or university student, you might have fewer commitments and be able to take online Japanese courses alongside your studies.
- listening to Japanese podcasts on your morning commute
- using vocabulary applications daily like Anki, Memrise, and Duolingo which can help you memorize words while you do other activities
- using both podcasts and apps as a part of your evening workout if you go for a run or use the gym
3. Your first language – is it close or distant to Japanese?
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State divides languages into 4 groups suggesting that native English speakers (Group 1) may take longer to learn Japanese than native Chinese speakers (both Group 4) due to the distance between the languages.
According to the FSI, Japanese is ‘distant’ and therefore difficult for those in Group 1, taking approximately 2200 hours (88 weeks) of study for a native English speaker to achieve a level equivalent for passing the JLPT N2 (CERF B2 level).
East-Asian languages like Chinese and Korean are ‘closer’ to Japanese because they use similar writing systems based on characters instead of the roman alphabet (A,B,C) used in Germanic and Latin languages like English, French and Spanish.
Kanji will be your steepest learning curve if you’ve never studied it – the Japanese Language Education Committee data estimates up to 4800 hours of study for students without prior knowledge of kanji to pass the highest JLPT level N1, while students with kanji knowledge could get by with more than half as much study time at 1700 hours.
You can understand why someone who knows Chinese already has less of a challenge learning Japanese – even though there’s differences in reading and pronunciation, they have already seen most kanji characters before!
4. Developing a growth mindset for learning Japanese
Your mindset about learning Japanese could be the single most important factor in determining how long it takes you. Do you believe you can learn Japanese and are you willing to develop the habits necessary to get you there?
The growth mindset is the belief that no matter our natural abilities, strengths and weaknesses, anyone can improve themselves and learn something successfully through their own conscious effort.
So rather than saying ‘Japanese is too difficult, it will take me forever to learn it!’ you could say ‘If I put aside an hour every day I could learn a lot of Japanese in a month’.
Words like ‘too difficult’ block your growth mindset because they reinforce beliefs that you are not able to learn Japanese!
Start cultivating a positive attitude towards how you perceive Japanese and your ability to learn it.
It could be the difference between reaching your goal in months versus years.
5. Previous language learning experience could reduce the time it takes to learn Japanese
Have you learned a foreign language before or are you bilingual / multilingual?
Research suggests that experience learning another language gives you an advantage when it comes to how long it takes to learn Japanese. In particular, studies on children raised in bilingual environments show that exposure to more than one language from a young age enhances your ability to learn another.
The reason is that the skills you learn to develop fluency in one language assist in acquiring a second language, and having skills in two languages can boost the learning process of a third language.
6. Language learning methods: online learning, classrooms, immersion
How long does it take to learn Japanese if you know the best way to learn it?
Polyglot and YouTuber Luca Lampariello answered this in his video on language learning, saying ‘what is best for you might not be best for me’.
You need to make sure the materials and methods are relevant and enjoyable for your goal! It could take you less time to learn Japanese if you understand your learning style.
Thanks to the internet, there are now thousands of ways to learn Japanese online to cater to your learning style. We have access to online tutors, YouTubers, podcasts, apps, programs and courses which can get you speaking in minutes and allow you to learn with native speakers!
It can take several years to learn Japanese in traditional language classrooms because there is a large focus on following textbooks, memorizing words / grammar and receiving corrections from the teacher. Classes can help you with reading / writing Japanese but depending on the teacher, there may be less opportunities for speaking.
If you have some knowledge of Japanese already, immersion can fast-track the time it takes to reach your language goals. Also known as taking a ‘language bath’ it means you’re fully submerged in the language either by receiving instruction in Japanese only (no English) or ideally, living in Japan! If you think about it, that’s how we became fluent in our first language – so why wouldn’t it be true of a second or third language?
7. Fluency – what is it and when will I know if I’m fluent in Japanese!
The definition of ‘fluency’ is a pretty controversial topic. It’s often associated with speaking naturally and smoothly like a native speaker but there’s more to it.
An academic definition of fluency by Dr. Paul Nation and Asuza Yamamoto is: ‘being able to receive and produce language at a reasonable rate’.
Reading and listening are considered language INPUT while speaking and writing are language OUTPUT. When you read and listen you are receiving language and ‘decoding’ what is being communicated, but when you speak and write you are producing language to communicate something.
A reasonable rate would mean being able to speak, listen, read and write Japanese with ease.
However, understanding culture is a huge part of fluency, which is why it could take longer to become fluent in Japanese if you’re outside of Japan. You might know a lot of words but not be able to use them in the right context.
So back to your goals, what do you want to be able to do in Japanese with ease?
If you want to develop fluency in daily conversations like at the supermarket, post office, restaurant or with friends, taking immersion classes or living in Japan for at least 3 months with a solid study routine and a good mindset is sufficient.
To achieve full working proficiency in Japanese you’ll need JLPT N1 and enough written and spoken fluency to communicate in person, emails, presentations, meetings with mastery of the formal register of Japanese (keigo). To clock the minimum 3000 hours to pass JLPT N1, it would take at least 2 years if you were able to do 4 hours of study per day.
And for true well-rounded fluency, the 2136 joyo kanji would be a bare minimum to have enough vocabulary to comfortably read a wide variety of texts that a native speaker could understand like books, signs, menus, newspapers, food packaging, contracts, banking information and so on.
Final thoughts: language is a journey
Understanding the many factors that impact language learning will help you to estimate how long it’s going to take to learn Japanese and reach fluency.
But learning a language is a lifelong task! Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said: “Life is a journey, not a destination” and this is true of learning any skill including a language. Even native speakers of a language continue to discover new vocabulary throughout their life!
As a native English speaker with a degree in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), I certainly don’t know everything about English. Sometimes when I read books, I still use a dictionary to check the meaning of new words I’ve never seen before!
As someone wondering how long it takes to learn Japanese, remember that like learning your first language, the process is a journey; it differs from person to person and you will continue to develop skills as you progress from a beginner to an advanced level allowing you to use the language in a wider variety of settings.
But being on a journey doesn’t mean you don’t have a path ahead of you or a destination in mind. Your mindset is your fuel, your learning methods are a map, your habits can make you go faster or slower but your destination is your goal and if you work towards it every day, you will get there.
Ready to take the next step in your Japanese language journey? Our recommended online course is JapanesePod101.
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Francesca is a freelance copywriter and teacher, who moved to Tokyo from New Zealand at age 24. A linguistics and ESL major, she spent 3 years teaching at an all-boys high school. Now based in France, she remains a self-confessed Japanophile who loves kanji, cooking, cats and the outdoors.