You want to learn Japanese? Something about the Japanese language has caught your attention, maybe you want to live in Japan and speak the language or perhaps you are trying to better understand your favorite anime. Whatever the reason may be, this article will show you the ins and out.
The biggest question that you may be wondering, when starting out is, how long does it take to learn Japanese? How much time should you invest in studying, what level do you want to achieve, tools to get you to where you want to be, and any mistakes you might be making while learning. How quickly and how well you learn the language also depends on what your native language is.
Japanese is one of the most difficult languages for English natives to master. This is because it does not have a lot of likeness in structure to English. Approximately it will take 88 weeks, or 2200 hours of studying, to become fluent. But this article shows tips and tools to expedite and make the process easier.
This article is a part of our extensive series of articles on Self-studying Japanese.
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How long does it take to learn Japanese: What level of Japanese do you want to learn?
Starting off, what you should figure out for yourself is what level of Japanese you want to achieve. What is the goal? Depending on what level you choose, the difference in time and effort it takes. If your native language or another language you know uses kanji, for example, Chinese, your process can be much faster as Kanji is one of the most difficult parts of Japanese to learn. Do not let the amount of time it is estimated to learn alarm or deter you, it will go by quickly and the amount of time varies for everybody.
To learn the foundation of the Japanese language see the Ultimate Guide to Hiragana and Katakana
If you are looking just to know the basics and the foundation of the language for visiting or you work at an English company and you don’t feel the need to learn completely right now, beginner is good for you. It is easy to learn and not overwhelming. You can get by in daily life
These are typically considered the easiest levels, N5-N4 in JLPT (Japanese-Language Proficiency Test). Study hours for this N5 and N4 level is usually about 325–1000 hours for non-kanji knowledge students while it is about 250 - 700 hours for those with kanji knowledge already.
What you can learn or do:
- Signs in public/ask directions/Book hotels
- Basic phrases
- Hiragana/Katakana/basic Kanji
- Most common words
- Be able to introduce yourself
- Meeting new people
- Language foundation
- Basic sentence patterns
For beginners, this is important to know, Ultimate Guide to Counting in Japanese
Leveling up, many college students are around this level, you know the basics and you can converse somewhat with your peers. You are able to get around Japan with ease. This is about a level of N3 on the JLPT, it takes anywhere from 700 - 1700 hours depending on your native language.
- Reading a lot of Kanji
- Understand Japanese listening of daily discussions
- Conversations with others
- Understand advertisements and newspaper headlines
- Express feelings and judgment
- Verb expressions
- Write with some words searched up
This is necessary to work at a Japanese company, they typically want you to at least know N2 to work with them. Having the certificate of passing this exam can help you get a job. Business level japanese is learned. You know mannerisms and complex words or phrases. This is typically Level N2 or N1 if you are really committed to becoming as fluent as possible. This can take anywhere from 1150 hours - 4800 hours.
- Academic books
- Kanji writing
- Speaking/conversations are natural
- Understand native speakers at native talking speed (which is quick!)
- Japanese etiquette and culture
- Properly answer questions
- Do not need aid or to look up words during most conversations
- Proper grammar, sentence structure, semantics
- Can write essays
Best Japanese learning tools to expedite your process
Once you have figured out the level of Japanese you want to learn, it is time to get learning! You probably want to learn as much as you can as quickly as possible, and there are many useful tools that exist just for that. There are many free or affordable options to not break the bank and get the ball rolling. Here are the different resources of learning for listening, writing, reading, and speaking:
A popular website for Japanese learners to advance is Wani Kani. It teaches Japanese kanji, radicals, and vocabulary utilizing mnemonics and a spaced repetition system to make learning easy. They have lessons and reviews, with this you can learn 2,000 kanji and 6,000 vocabulary words in about a year.
Check out the Wani Kani website here.
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Sticking to the basics and keeping it old school, learning from a textbook is the most obvious and straightforward study aid. There are many handy ones that come with great reviews by other students. This is the best option if you are just starting off and you want to focus on grammar, reading, and writing. This method might not be for everyone as it can feel like homework or school but this is the best method for writing as the other options are more so other areas of language development. You are going to need to do a lot of writing if you plan on living in Japan when filling out forms and documents.
If you want to know about more textbooks Tried and Tested: The 10 Best Japanese Textbooks for Learners
Chances are, you have a smartphone handy with you all the time. Using apps are a convenient and good way to learn when you have small slots of time and you're out and about. There are so many options for apps and these are all free to download.
If you are serious about learning and improving, why not have classes where you can have a teacher to guide you along and motivate you? Japan Switch has the most affordable Japanese lessons in Tokyo. There are many different options depending on what style of learning you want to do. Online or Offline sessions in groups or private lessons. Perfect for beginner to N3 level Japanese students.
Here is the Japan switch website for more information about offline or online Japanese lessons.
Watch and Learn
If you are feeling a little bit lazy and want to take more of a relaxed and fun approach to learning, a great method to learn Japanese is to immerse yourself in it! Using Japanese entertainment not only advances your listening and understanding skills, but it can also help you learn about the culture and environment more. There are so many different resources:
- Youtube (There are channels that teach you Japanese as well as Japanese YouTubers that you can learn from just watching. Some may have subtitles included.)
Most popular Japanese YouTubers:
- Movies and TV Shows (For beginners, you could start with English subtitles and eventually switch to subtitles in Japanese)
- Anime with subtitles
Popular animes you are probably familiar with:
- Attack on titan
- Fairy Tail
- Dragon Ball Z
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Another form of entertainment can be found in the form of reading:
- Manga: Many come with furigana (reading aid that uses small hiragana, next to kanji or to show pronunciation) and there are so many to choose from that can be found for cheap at secondhand bookstores in Japan.
Here are some of the most popular ones you probably already know:
- Death Note
For beginners, starting off with a kids picture book is handy:
- 1日10分でちずをおぼえる絵本 1-Nichi 10-bu de chizu o oboeru ehon - あきやま かぜさぶろう Akiyama Kazesaburo
- でこぼこホットケーキ Dekoboko hottokēki - よしだ あつこ Yoshida Atsuko
- おおきなかぶ Ōkina kabu - A. Tolstoy
For intermediate readers, here are some popular books:
- 窓ぎわのトットちゃん Madogiwa no Totto-chan - 黒柳 徹子 Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
- 魔女の宅急便 Majo no Takkyuubin - 角野 栄子 Eiko Kadano
- 君たちはどう生きるか Kimi-tachi wa Dou Ikiru Ka - 吉野源三郎 Yoshino Genzaburou
For advanced readers, here are some famous Japanese authors to check out:
- Natsume Soseki (Popular novels: Kokoro, Botchan, I Am a Cat)
- Murakami Haruki (Popular novels: Kafka On The Shore, Norwegian Wood, 1Q84)
- Banana Yoshimoto (Popular novels: Kitchen, Goodbye Tsugumi, Asleep)
- Newspapers (They can be found conveniently in train stations or at conbinis (convenience stores) in Japan and online for those elsewhere. This is for more advanced Japanese learners.)
- Magazines (Fun tidbit: There are some magazines in Japan that come with little gifts and merchandise, it’s like getting rewarded for your hard work in learning Japanese!)
Purely for listening, podcasts have become all the rage in recent years. They are easily accessible and good for multitasking. Especially beneficial for those that do not have the opportunity to hear Japanese being spoken on a daily basis. There are plenty of Japanese learning podcasts where you can learn anything from sentences and grammatical structure to japanese popular culture to conversations between native speakers. You can find them on Spotify and Apple Music amongst other spots.
Here are some recommendations for beginner and intermediate learners:
Here are recommendations for advanced students that can understand much of the language and would just like to listen over specifically learning:
- Kemioの耳そうじクラブ Kemio no mimi-sōji kurabu
This is good if you are wanting to learn more slang and finding out how native Japanese people, especially young people, are interacting. You can find top news and stay up to date on what is trending. Just start off by looking at the trending page or searching for something you are interested in Japanese.
The good old trusty Anki decks take out the paper in flashcards and move it online. Not only are you saving the planet but you are memorizing your Japanese words and phrases with ease while you are at it. It is a free flashcard program.
Here is the website to download: Anki Deck website
Tips for learning Japanese (how to study)
Now that you have all the best tools to practice and study, how can you really make sure you are motivated and ultimately successful? Here are some practical tips and tricks to get you going:
Know your motivation
To really master the language and make sure that you keep going, there should be a motivation. What is it that makes you want to learn Japanese? Is it to live in Japan? To talk to your friend who is Japanese? Watch your favorite anime without dub or subtitles? Whatever the reason is, you should have one that really gets you to get up and start truly learning. Motivate you to not give up and keep going at it.
Making small measurable achievable goals
You already have your motivation but you do not want to just go into a flurry of studying having one big ambiguous goal of knowing Japanese. It is good to have small goals throughout with dates that gives you a sense of accomplishment and keeps you going. This can be anything from one of your goals being ‘Be able to make a phone call in Japanese’ or ‘Learn 50 new words used in the post office.’
Find partner/group to practice with
It can get a little monotonous and boring studying alone. Learning can be fun with other people! Not only that, but it is helpful to have other people motivating you or measuring your progress. Having a friend who might be also studying the language or just someone that wants to help you practicing with you or giving you little quizzes can be very helpful. Joining or forming a group to learn Japanese together is also great to meet new like minded people, the more the merrier!
Keep it consistent! Becoming familiar with new words or phrases is great but it can be easy to forget if there are long gaps in between learning. The key to learning a new language is consistency and repetition. Eventually, it will become a habit and you will find yourself opening up the textbook without even thinking. Adding a daily reminder or setting aside time in your schedule every week in your calendar can create a habit.
One of the best ways to truly see your growth and feel out what level you are at, is to take a test online. These do not count for anything so you can take it as many times as you want and there are a lot of quizzes and tests on the internet for free to try out. If you are looking for some to take, here is a website for lots of different tests with sample questions to assess your level that could come up on the actual JLPT exam by Coto Japanese Academy: Free Online Japanese Tests
Record yourself speaking
Get your mic ready and clear your throat! No one likes hearing their own voice on recording but it is a good method to practice speaking Japanese and hear yourself to judge from an outside perspective on how you speak Japanese. It can help you notice any mistakes or what you can change phonetically.
Probably the best and simplest method to really getting to know the Japanese language is to just jump in at the deep end. If you are not already, living in Japan is the best method of absorption. Now, it is not easy picking up your life and moving to Japan but living or at the least visiting the country that the language comes from can genuinely increase your progress exponentially. It can also invigorate your sense of enthusiasm and inspire your desire to learn. Being in the right environment and almost being forced to use what you learned is a sure-fire way to get you on the road to fluency. Who knows, you might make a few Japanese friends that you can have a language exchange with and teach each other.
Check out this article to find other methods, Learn Through Easy Japanese.
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How long does it take to learn Japanese: Mistakes you're making that are hindering your progress
If you are feeling stuck or confused on why you are not advancing in the Japanese language as much as you like, there may be a chance that you are making some common mistakes. To recognize or prevent you from making them, here are a few that may be holding you back from your full potential.
Burn out from over studying all at once
No one can blame you if you are so excited and passionate to learn this new language that you overwork yourself to the point where you are burnt out from a 10 hour study binge. But learning is not all about how much you can study in a short amount of time, if you get burn out and tired after the first week, learning slowly over the course of the year but getting more done can be better. Everyone has a different style of self teaching but avoid trying to cram as much information as possible all at once or you will find yourself exhausted and not wanting to continue.
It can be easy to get off track and feel as though you are not progressing as much as you would like. Learning anything new can be daunting if you feel it is a challenge to improve. Just because you are not getting all the words correct or not getting the A+ you are looking for on one of the quizzes, it is important to keep trying and persevering.
Too much time between studying
This happens all too often, somewhere along the line life happens and you are distracted by a more dire project or you fall off your study routine. While taking breaks is good, try to keep the times between them to a minimum. If you were at an intermediate level and you stop all together for 6 months you could regress and forget a lot of what you spent time on and worked hard on to learn. Just try to do it little by little continuously!
Not learning the foundations first
It can be tempting to get to the good stuff, that could be trying to read a classic novel while not knowing the foundations of the language and structures or rushing to converse in Japanese in front of an audience. Start with building a solid base though. Otherwise, it can lead to a lot of confusion and going back and forth can make the process take longer or just jumble the information together. It is good to learn the basics first like walking, take baby steps and then you can gradually get to a sprint.
Did this information surprise you? Perhaps when you first became curious about learning Japanese, you had a different idea of what it would be like in mind. There can be a lot that goes into mastering this language and different methods to get there. It can be easy to get overwhelmed at first but the results will be rewarding. Stay focused on the objective. Hopefully, you can get to a point where you are able to impress others with your command of the language and achieve the goals you set out for learning it. If you are wanting to learn more about Japan and considering offline or online Japanese lessons, check out the Japan switch website!
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