How long does it take to learn Japanese?

This is the question you would get from native speakers if you speak their language a lot. Every time I meet a Japanese native speaker this is one of the first questions that they ask me. I guess many of you are also interested in the answer so I will try to compose a detailed guide on this topic to revisit some of the important aspects of learning Japanese. Without further ado, let’s get started!

How long does it take to learn Japanese?

I think I don’t have to tell you that Japanese is a unique language and it requires a lot of effort to get fluent in Japanese.

1. Do European languages help?

If you already know some European languages you might think that it will be easy for you to learn Japanese, however except for a few words such as for example Arbeiten in German from which the Japanese アルバイト stems, or the English-like ボストンバッグ you will find little to no similarities with European languages.

Grammar is completely different, many learners simply go crazy when they start learning Japanese vocabulary and let’s not even mention the difficulty of polite Japanese!

2. Your choice should be Korean or Chinese

If you really want to relate to another language, then learn Korean or Chinese. These will help and if you really want to improve your Japanese knowledge, learning Chinese is a must. This is especially true for classical Chinese literature, because by getting familiar to books like 红楼梦 or 西游记 you will understand a lot about Japanese too.

But let’s not go ahead, because learning the basics of Japanese is very important too.

So you might have visited the country once or twice or you have been watching a lot of Japanese animation recently and you want to become able to communicate using this fascinating language. I guess this is a general pattern many would follow.

3. Motivation for learning Japanese

First of all it is of extreme importance to figure out your motivation behind this enthusiasm. If you want to learn Japanese, it will be a very long process. In other words, you need long term goals. Try to ask a few questions, like “How do I imagine myself in 10 years?”. If you don’t want to do anything related to Japan or Japanese culture in your future, then learning the language is pointless.

Let’s suppose that you have a clear vision of your future. Something like: I will start learning Japanese by myself, I will allocate the most amount of time I can and in a few years I want to speak Japanese fluently so that finally I can go to the country to work there, organise sushi feast or I don’t know.

4. First steps

You will have to start with the Japanese alphabet. There are hundreds of materials on the Internet, such as online tests and phone applications to learn Hiraganas and Katakanas.

This is what I did in the first year. I created learning cards and I wrote down all of these characters a few times until I memorised them. And then I enrolled in a language school not far from where I lived. They had Japanese language courses and I attended those at night because I had to go to University during the day. I was pretty tired already when I got to the language school, but I did not care. My final goal was to learn as much as possible, because I already had the idea of studying as an exchange student in Japan. So I had been attending the classes for 2 years and I looked up the actual scholarship programs on the 文部科学省 website.

5. Getting to Japan

In 2014, I had the opportunity to board my one-way plane enroute to Osaka. I arrived in Japan and I started a completely new life. From a language learning aspect, the first year was horrible. It was only after the first year when I was able to make simple conversations and I was very disappointed.

At the end of the second year, in 2016 I got much more confident and I tried to make Japanese friends by attending meet-ups. So it was 5-6 hours of studying by myself at home, on the train or while I was travelling and another 1-2 hours for conversations in bars, clubs and coffee houses.

6. Working as a freelancer

In 2017, I decided that I would become a freelancer and I wanted to improve my Japanese even more. I went to the second hand bookstores in my area to buy books of famous Japanese writers and this was a very important point, because my language knowledge became expanding very rapidly. I found that books are the most useful tools when it comes to learning languages.

So when I gained enough self confidence in 2017 I registered a profile on to provide Japanese language related services. I haven’t got many orders for the first few months and then it started growing.

If you open up my profile you can see the quality of work I deliver. Don’t forget to order a Gig if you have something to be translated from English into Japanese or the other way around.

7. Still a bookworm

I am writing this article in mid-2020 and I still haven’t stopped reading Japanese books. There is always something to learn. Even if you have already mastered every single Japanese character and expression, reading a book will definitely give you a different perspective on the culture, mindset and society.

If you read older Japanese books you can learn a lot about Japanese traditions and etiquette. For this purpose I would recommend the following authors:

  • 三島由紀夫
  • 芥川龍之介
  • 太宰治
  • 北杜夫
  • 森鴎外
  • 川端康成

The concepts you will find in these books are unfortunately fading away from modern Japanese society, so make sure you read them as long as you can buy them.

If you want to learn more about new things I can recommend a few books for you:

  • 森巣博 ー 神はダイスを遊ばない / gambling
  • 村上春樹 ー ノルウェイの森 / sexuality
  • 楡 周平 ー 東京カジノパラダイス / gambling and corporate culture in Japan

If you are confident enough to read books in Japanese you will improve very quickly, but most of the phrases and expressions you learn from these books will not be too useful in everyday conversations. Most of these are only used in written form, therefore your writing skills will improve, but you will have to talk a lot to Japanese native speakers if you want to get better in speaking.

8. Improving spoken Japanese

There is another option for you if you want to practice spoken Japanese. Watching films, serials or YouTube videos will help you a lot especially if you want to speak faster.

In most cases, the native speakers are very helpful and their speed of speech is adjusted to your level. This is true for Japanese as well and I always find conversations with Japanese native speakers very useful. Problems arise when there are more than one native speaker around you…

If you are surrounded by Japanese native speakers and they are trying to ask you questions, the conversation will be very slow and you will not learn too much.

9. The hardcore lesson

Going to a bar or a club changes the situation radically. I am not a big fan of drinking and debauchery, but try to visit a few bars in Japan just for the sole purpose of practicing the language. You will have a unique experience. Japanese people, especially when they get drunk will not pay too much attention to what they say and how they say it in a bar or in a club. These were the best lessons for me. I sometimes even invited my friend for a drink when I was in Osaka and this was two birds with one stone, because I could not only hang out with entertaining people, but I could also improve my speaking skills.

10. Working in Japan

The situation is even more different when you start working in Japan. For this you will need advanced skills and knowing polite expressions is a must if you want to find a job. I also had the opportunity to work there and I was surprised by the fact that at first I thought using polite Japanese will be very cumbersome and I will make a lot of mistakes, but later it turned out that these expressions can be learnt and used naturally.

11. How long did it take for me to learn Japanese?

If I consider 2012 the year when I first saw Japanese characters and it is 2020 now, I can conclude that for me it took almost 8 years to get fluent in Japanese. I can confidently say that the expressions I know in English I know them in Japanese and the same is true in the opposite direction. The Internet, especially with Google is a very powerful tool and there are several useful dictionaries and sites for Japanese learners.

12. Japanese dictionaries

These days, I find the Japanese dictionaries more effective than the English-Japanese ones, especially because many of the expressions are not even in these dual language dictionaries, but you can find them and the corresponding explanations on Japanese sites. This is another mindset, you should start cultivating. Stop using English-Japanese dictionaries and use books written for Japanese native speakers!

That’s it for this time.

Illustration: pakutaso

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