How long would it take to learn Japanese?2021

Me In Japan contemplating how many hours I had spent learning Japanese

The question “How long would it take to learn Japanese” is almost impossible to answer in a universal way, but I can share my own experience. I’ve also gone through and tallied up roughly how many hours of content the major Japanese language learning programs and platforms have which you can see below.

Japanese language programHoursLinks
Duolingo383574 Lessons x 5 Sub lessons = 2870Average. 8 minutes per lesson 2870 x 8 = 22960 mins/60 =383 Hours See more here
Pimsleur91.584 Hours of audio lessons 30 minute core lesson  7 hours of reading instruction 84+0.5+7 = 91.5See more here
Japanese POD 101304Total 5 lessons of 117 hours and bonus contents including Kanji and Japanese traditional songs which are of 187 hours so the total adds up to 117+187=304
Rocket languages Japanese380Total lesson time as reported on websiteSee more here
WaniKani226+8500 items x 8 repetitions x 12 seconds per repetitionSee more here
LingQ1000+LingQ relies on user generated and 3rd party content. It functions as a “content aggregator” allowing users to The website is saying that they have 1000+ hours of content here
FluentU1000+FluentU uses freely available Youtube content and adds functionality to look up and review words. They are adding content all the time.See more here

Perhaps the best way to answer the question is to look at the question I am sometimes asked:

How long did it take you to learn Japanese?

You never really stop learning a language. Even in your own native language you continue to learn new words and concepts as you go. This is even more so the case in a second language.

For me, I started learning Japanese in middle & high school. I did around 4 years during this time. I didn’t really apply myself at the time, but was able to learn the basic scripts for writing simple Japanese: Hiragana and Katakana. In fact, this stage of the learning didn’t take long at all. So I guess there first question is:

How long does it take to learn Hiragana and Katakana?

I think if you put your mind to it, most people could incorporate learning these into an everyday life in around a month or so. There are plenty of apps that can automate the process these days, such as duolingo etc. For me I learned the scripts through a system of creating pictures out of the letters. I think having some kind of mnemonic system happening when you are trying to memorise anything new makes sense.

How long does it take to learn to speak Japanese?

After learning Japanese at middle/high school for approximately 4 years, I traveled to Japan to live for a year on a working holiday. I found that I was totally unable to have an everyday conversation.

I had had very little actual speaking and listening practice in real life, or close to real life simulations. I had memorised perhaps a few hundred words, but these didn’t come out in real time at all.

After living in Japan for around 3-4 months, and making a concerted effort to actually try and use the few words I did know, I found I was able to get to a level where I could have a very basic conversation. I’m talking about something like “Where are you from? How long have you been here? What will you come” kind of level.

This was in the days before even electronic dictionaries, so I would constantly carry around hard copy Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionaries. They were heavy in the back pack!

I would write down any new words that I heard and look them up and review them every day or two. 

I would also watch TV shows in Japanese and just see if I could pick anything up – usually not much.

In this way, within six months I was able to have slightly more involved questions, saying things like “What’s the name of this dish? How do you make it? Is there a special order you are meant to eat things in?”

Long Term Japanese Learning

I’ve now been “learning” (probably “using” is a better term” for more than 20 years. At this stage I can watch most modern day tv shows, where they are using everyday non-dialect Japanese, and understand perhaps 90% of what they say. I can watch the news and understand maybe more like 70%, especially in the sections on politics.

How Long Does It Take to Learn to Read Japanese?

The other big project is, of course, reading. You have three scripts to learn, Hiragana, Katakana and Chinese Characters (Kanji). As I have said, I think you can learn Hiragana and Katakana in about a month’s time.

Kanji is a whole other story. I remember asking a Japanese friend at the start of my Japanese learning story, “How many Kanji do you know”? He answered “how many English words do you know?”

There are literally 10s of thousands to learn. 

The good news is that you only need around 2000 or so to functionally literate for most intents and purposes.

I have gone through periods where I have studied the Kanji quite intently for periods. I used Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji for a period, and found it’s mnemonic system quite helpful.

That being said, I find over the long term I constantly go back and forth between remembering Kanji (including reading, meaning and their use in conjugations) and forgetting them again. It’s a bit like a leaky boat that I have to constantly keep bailing water out of. 

Electronic tools have helped with the process a lot. You can now look up most Japanese words pretty easily on a Kindle, and you can read most text on a computer browser using a tool like rikaikun.

I still like to read physical books sometimes too. I find I can get the general gist of a modern novel, but probably still have 20-30% that I understand partially or not at all.

This level allowed me to pass the N1 level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test some ten years ago (about ten years after starting to learn Japanese). Even then, I only just scraped through.

Is Learning Japanese Worth It?

Yes, I’ve found the whole process of learning Japanese intensely rewarding. I’ve loved the experience of having this whole different world open up to me. 

Unfortunately, as a non-Japanese person, you face a constant “battle” of people often not wanting, or even believing, that you can speak Japanese. So that can be frustrating. But this very much depends on the person. 

I would say if you want to learn Japanese, just jump in. You can go all out, try and live your life in Japanese, change your computer language, speak with as many Japanese people as you can, or take your time. 

Overall, my experience is that the fastest way to improve Japanese for me is to speak it and listen to it. This forces your brain to do everything it can to understand what is happening in real time. You naturally start forming links between existing knowledge and new information coming in, making things “stick” so much more naturally. So my advice, if you want to learn Japanese quickly, is to find every opportunity you can to start speaking with Japanese people right now. Even if you feel you’re not ready.

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