How Long Does It Take To Learn Japanese: Beginners Timeline
By Ivy do Carmo
Are you thinking about learning Japanese? If so, you are among many people who want to learn this difficult but beautiful language. The reasons for wanting to do so vary: some want to honor their heritage, some are trying to expand their business opportunities, some are fans of mangas or animes, some are planning a trip to Japan and want to be able to get by while they are there, some want to exercise their brain and expand their perspective of the world, and so on.
No matter what is your particular reason for this endeavor, you are probably wondering how long does it take to learn Japanese. This is an understandable preoccupation, since we hear people say all the time that learning Japanese is too hard and takes ages and ages. Is that really true?
If you search this subject on the Internet, you will find a lot of websites with different answers and you will probably be more confused than you were before. Worse, some websites will tell you that there is a way of magically becoming fluent in Japanese in only a few months and they happen to be selling this magic method today.
Don’t be deceived; there is not such a rapid way of learning such a complex language. Learning Japanese for beginners is a long-term project! There are a few aspects to take into account in order to determine how long does it take to learn Japanese and we will now consider five of them:
What Level of Proficiency Do You want to Achieve?
Many times I’ve heard someone say to me that so-and-so speaks Portuguese and Spanish very well, but when I talked to so-and-so, I verified that his Portuguese and Spanish was actually poor or non-existent whatsoever. This happens because the notion of capability to speak a language varies depending on the person’s point of view and on his own grasp of the language.
What I am trying to say is that the first thing you should do is assess how well you want to speak Japanese. What are your goals? You can either aim to conversational or fluent Japanese. Read below the difference between them:
Conversational Japanese – In this level, you are able to ask for information and understand the information given, go shopping, read advertisements, hold simple conversations about daily things, watch TV programs and understand a little, answer emails with maybe the help of a dictionary, etc.
Fluent Japanese – On the other hand, in this level you can talk about pretty much anything, read books with a complex or technical language and speak in public without fear. Fluent people use to naturally think and even dream in Japanese. You understand not only hiragana and katakana, but also kanji.
Determining why do want to learn Japanese and how much do you want to learn about it is fundamental to discover how long will it take to learn Japanese. In other words, you first set how high up on the mountain you want to go and only then you can know for sure how long will it take for you to get there.
How Many Hours Are You Willing To Commit?
Do you think that a person who only studies two hours per week will have the same learning pace as another one who studies fours hours per day? The answer is obvious. The person who studies more will know much more than the other one. The more you practice, the faster you’ll learn.
Hence, in order to determine how long will it take to learn Japanese in your specific case, you have to see how many hours per day you are willing to commit. I say “per day” and not “per week” because studying a language is a daily commitment. It becomes as important as eating or sleeping. If you miss a day, you will miss another and another and soon you will no longer be studying Japanese and forget everything you’ve learned.
However, if you study only one hour per day and don’t do anything else to learn Japanese, it can take you up to twenty years to learn the language! So if you don’t want to be speaking Japanese only in 2039, keep reading to see how you can shorten this time frame.
You may be thinking: I don’t have four or five hours per day to study Japanese! Are you sure about that? Because when we say study, we are not only talking about sitting with a book about grammar rules or things like that. You can also passively study through exposure, as you’ll see next.
How Much Of Japanese Can You Daily Be Exposed To?
The more you immerse in Japanese, the faster you will learn it. Fortunately, this is a pleasant thing to do! Check out how many different options you have. You can:
- Watch great movies and TV series;
- Listen to music and podcasts like News In Slow Japanese, JapanesePod101, Japanese LingQ and Learn Japanese Pod;
- Read books and mangas, and so on.
The secret is choosing something that you really like because it will make your brain associate Japanese with fun and this will consequently make you want to study more.
We call this exposure to the language of “passive learning” because you are not precisely studying, but you are still learning. Some even create a “Zero English Rule” for a period of the day, when they commit to only listen and read things in Japanese.
How Much Experience Do You Have On Learning Languages?
This may seem odd, but your native language and whether you are bilingual or not also determine the amount of time it will take you to learn Japanese.
If you’re a native speaker of a European language, Japanese is really different from what you are used to. Their alphabet, writing systems (hiragana, katakana and kanji), the grammar and the sentence structures are way different than English, for example.
However, if you’re a native speaker of English but you also speak a second language, it will be a little easier for you to learn Japanese. It has been proved that learning a third language is easier than learning a second. I bet you are now feeling rewarded by those Spanish classes you’ve taken, right?
How Motivated Are You?
If you see the goal of learning Japanese as an impossible or at least difficult and boring task, it is unlikely that you’ll succeed. Motivation and a positive attitude are essential to achieve any goal and learning Japanese is no exception.
How can you maintain your motivation at a high level? You can do it by keeping your eyes on the prize. Think about all the benefits you’ll have when you speak Japanese and how well you’ll feel with yourself for achieving such a difficult goal. This will help you to not give up when you simply can’t memorize all those kanji weird strokes.
After assessing the five aspects mentioned in this article, it will become clearer to you how long will it take to learn Japanese in your specific case. Here are a few estimations just for you to get a rough idea:
- Hold basic conversations in Japanese – a few months
- Read comic books in Japanese – a year and a half
- Watch TV shows and read more complex materials in Japanese – 3 to 5 years
The Foreign Service Institute created timelines to native English speakers who want to learn other languages, depending on the level of similarity between the language and English. Japanese is under the category of “super-hard languages”, in other words, “languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers”, as they say on their website.
They estimate it takes 88 weeks (2200 class hours) for a student to achieve Japanese proficiency. Of course this time can vary due to many factors, such as the student’s natural ability, prior linguistic experience and time spent in the classroom.
Does The Time Frame Really Matter?
After evaluating your personal goals regarding Japanese and the amount of hours you can spend studying and getting exposed to the language, it is now clearer to you how long will it take to learn Japanese. However, does this really matter?
The first thing you should do is to think about the pros and cons. We already said that learning Japanese for beginners is no easy task and that it will require a long-term commitment. Will it be worth to you on balance? This is something only you can determine.
If you decide that it is worth it, you have to have faith in your ability of learning Japanese and stay motivated, focusing on your goals. If you really want something, it does not matter how long will it take you to get it. If you really want it, you can have it. It’s only up to you.
If there is a piece of advice I can give you is that you must enjoy the journey. If you keep thinking that you will only be happy when you are fluent in Japanese, you’ll live frustrated for years and life is too short for that.
You have to find happiness and fulfillment during the journey. Celebrate each little progress you make and instead of looking at how many steps you still have to achieve, look back and see how many you have already achieved. This will make you happier and more motivated to keep going. One day you’ll look back and say: “I’m glad I didn’t give up.”
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