How Long Does It Take to Learn to Understand Japanese?

Published December 1st, 2022

Learning a new language requires commitment. It requires mental focus as well as time. However, becoming fluent in Japanese is not as difficult as some make it seem.

Nearly 125.6 million people speak Japanese as their native tongue. A number that large means learning a new language like Japanese is totally doable--for anyone!

If you're interested in learning to speak Japanese like a native, here is a timeline of what to expect. Depending on your level of expertise desired, the time to learn a new language, especially one as intricate as Japanese, will vary.

Let us break it down for you!

Understand Your Goals

Before you can get a clear idea of how long it will take to go from beginner to fluent, you need clearly defined goals. This means you must know what to use your Japanese language skills for.

For example, are you planning a one-time visit to Japan? Are you going to live there as an ex-pat to study, attend school, or for an extended time? Are you simply into anime or heavily involved in the Japanese business world?

Depending on what you will be doing with your new language skills, the time it will take to learn the skills you need will vary greatly.

Here we will break down the difference between being merely conversational in Japanese and fluent. Understanding the difference between the two will also help you decide how much learning you need.

Conversing in Japanese

Conversational Japanese is the minimum amount of language proficiency. This is all required for short visits to the country, brief interactions with Japanese citizens, or minor written communications.

If you understand Japanese at a conversational level, you will be able to read and understand street signs, shop, ask for help, understand the responses, and hold basic conversations.

Conversational Japanese is perfect if you're learning a foreign language for short-term purposes. It also requires a great deal less in the way of time commitment.

Excluding the ability to write Japanese, conversational Japanese can be picked up in a matter of weeks. Some visitors can use the help of a dictionary and be ready for a visit to the country within a month of beginning their learning.

Again, the time needed, even for conversational Japanese, will depend on how proficient and comfortable you want to be.

Japanese Fluency

The ability to speak Japanese fluently is an entirely different matter. When learning a new language, there are cultural considerations to understand--especially if you want to be fluent.

Being fluent in Japanese means you can converse with any Japanese speaker about any topic. This can be quite tricky as there are also several Japanese dialects.

You must realize that there are three different Japanese writing alphabets. These include kanji, hiragana, and katakana. A truly fluent speaker can read, comprehend, and write in each.

Fluent Japanese speakers should have the ability to speak in public without hesitation. They can read Japanese literature, properly use all honorifics and gender uses, and understand the unique cultural nuances that affect the language, such as differences in business honorifics, etc.

Taking a Japanese language proficiency test is a great way to judge whether you have achieved fluency.

The time commitment for becoming fluent is much greater than a matter of weeks. As with any language, however, there is always more to learn, and the pursuit of true fluency can last a lifetime, even for native speakers.

Of course, understanding that becoming fluent in Japanese requires more time, there are still variables.

Factors such as the intensity of your study, your opportunities to converse with native speakers, and your access to support can affect the amount of time it will take to learn the language.

The Difference a Day Makes

The old idea that "when you're not practicing, someone else is" applies to learning a new language. While it's not a competition, the underlying principle in this statement is that the person who puts in more time will improve more quickly.

The time it will take you to learn Japanese (conversational or fluent) will depend mainly on how much time you can commit to working on it.

Say you commit to 1 hour of study a day. Doubling that time commitment and studying for 2 hours daily will, in theory, cut your learning time in half! That is a substantial difference for those looking to learn Japanese faster.

One way to help yourself determine the amount of time it will take to learn Japanese is to set a daily goal of time you will study. Speaking Japanese should be a daily routine as consistency is vital to foreign language retention.

If you only commit to weekly study and practice, not only will your ability to retain information be inhibited, but your time in reaching your proficiency goal will grow exponentially.

How You Learn

How you learn to speak Japanese will impact how long it takes. Sitting with a textbook and studying vocabulary words has its place. However, you cannot become even conversational if you never practice with native speakers.

Taking lessons is essential.

Get help assessing your current abilities, and then sign up for lessons that suit your level. This can shave-off learning time as you avoid starting from the basics if you are beyond a beginner level. Consistent lessons will teach you the vocabulary and Japanese writing skills you need.

Joining a group with other new language learners is another excellent way to accelerate your learning process. Here you can ask questions, brainstorm ideas for overcoming obstacles, seek advice, and get ideas for learning hacks.

Other ways to speed up your learning include:

  • Watching Japanese programming, t.v., news, movies, etc.
  • Listening to audiobooks
  • Listening to Japanese radio
  • Watching Japanese plays or musicals
  • Read Japanese books or magazines
  • Listen to podcasts

Movies and books are beneficial if you have already seen or read them in your native language. This way, you can understand the context, pick up on meaning, and recognize new vocabulary words as you already know what ideas are being presented.

Don't make it drudgery. The more interested you are in the Japanese media you consume, the easier it will be to stick with it. Your brain will associate learning the language with pleasure and fun.

You will want to keep reading or watching and, thereby, want to keep learning. Maintaining that desire will make learning much quicker as well.

Previous New Language Experience

Is Japanese the first foreign language you are trying to learn? If so, your learning curve may be higher.

However, if you already speak a second language, your brain knows how to commit! Research shows you will pick up on things more easily. This is true even if you are a native English speaker and have learned another Latin-based language.

Many think learning a Latin-based (or "romance") language, such as French, Spanish, or Portuguese, is easier for English speakers. While this is true, it does not necessarily apply to a third language.

In fact, it is believed that once you have learned a second language of any kind, learning the third language goes quicker.

While everything from grammar, sentence structure, and the various alphabets of Japanese is vastly different from English, beginning with Japanese as a bilingual individual will make learning easier.

Aren't you glad now that your mom made you take Spanish in high school?

Real-Time Estimates for Learning Japanese

According to the Foreign Service Institute, Japanese is challenging for native English speakers to learn. Their website estimates that it takes nearly 88 weeks for learners to become "proficient" in Japanese.

That said, holding a conversation in Japanese can take as little as a few weeks. Likewise, learning to read Japanese comics can take as little as a few months.

The accurate time estimates for learning vary so greatly that giving a set amount of time is impossible. Motivation, method, time, natural aptitude, and previous experience will shorten or extend the time it takes you to learn a new language.

The good news is you can start today.

More good news is that time will pass anyway, whether you commit to learning Japanese--or not. So you can either seize the day and begin your goal now or allow the time to pass anyway and find yourself in the same place you were two weeks, six months, or a year earlier.

The choice is yours.

Start Learning A New Language Today

If you're ready, you can start learning a new language today. Japanese is rich in culture, beauty, and meaning. You will never regret progress, and learning multiple languages is a great goal.

Begin your journey to learning Japanese today with a free 7-day trial.

You will have access to chats, groups, lessons, native speakers, and more! As the Japanese proverb says, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Take that step today!