How long does it take to learn Japanese? The honest answer may surprise you.
The truth? Learning Japanese takes as little as 90 days. We’ve seen plenty of learners start having in-depth conversations in Japanese in this time. Follow the right methods, and you’ll get there fast.
Now, of course, a lot depends on your learning goals.
How long it takes to learn Japanese on average depends on if you want to learn Japanese for anime. Or are you learning to speak conversationally? Or to speak Japanese fluently?
If you want to be an undercover spy who sounds like a native speaker of Japanese, then you’ll likely need thousands of hours. Conversely, learning basic Japanese to attend the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will only take you a few hours.
So, let’s deep dive into exactly how long it takes to learn Japanese, depending on your end goal.
How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?
First, let’s talk about language learning in general. What does fluency mean?
While the common definition of fluency is to speak perfectly and understand at a native level, that’s not the only definition. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, fluency is to speak in a natural manner with ease.
Benny Lewis, founder of Fluent in 3 Months, defines this goal as social fluency. This is the ability to handle social situations about as comfortably as you would in your native language.
Depending on the language you select and its relation to your native language, it can be harder or easier to learn. For example, if your native language is English, then Spanish or Dutch would be easier to learn because they are similar to English. The less like your native language your target language is, the harder it may be to learn.
So… How Hard is it to Learn Japanese?
According to the US Department of State, Japanese is one of the hardest languages for English natives to learn. It doesn’t have many similarities in structure to English. They estimate it takes 88 weeks of learning, or 2200 hours, to reach fluency. That’s about a B2 level on the CEFR charts, or JLPT N2 level (conversational).
Some estimate that it takes English-language students (or non-Asian, without prior kanji knowledge) about 4800 hours to reach true Japanese fluency and pass the JLPT N1 exam.
On a Reddit thread about how long it take to learn Japanese, users shared that it took about 800 hours of study time to be able to watch anime with full comprehension. Others said it takes 2-5 years of effort to reach mastery, adding that you could survive in the language after one year.
Here’s Why Many “Hours” Spent Learning Japanese are Wasted
You can see that it varies a lot based on your goal and how many hours you put in each day.
But how do we define those “hours”? Is it study time, reading, watching TV, speaking, homework, Japanese class… or a mix of all the above?
The truth is, most “study time” is less than optimal. Let’s say you’re putting in five hours of study time in the classroom in college. But if you don’t apply it outside of class or actually speak the language, then you’re not really putting in the intense hours you need. It’s the speaking time that’s actually the most important. That’s why we recommend you Speak from Day One.
As for my own Japanese skills, I spent years studying in high school and took Japanese for 3 years in college. But my study hours weren’t as valuable as they could’ve been. I didn’t speak it; I only studied it. But once I started using all four language learning skills while participating in the Fi3M Challenge, I leveled up my Japanese to a solid B1. That’s conversational, at a JLPT N3 level. During that time, I intensively studied Japanese every day and immersed myself as much as possible. I also met with my Japanese language exchange partner every Saturday, so I got at least 30 solid minutes of speaking only in Japanese a week.
You Can Learn Japanese to a Good Level After Just a Few Months
Chris Broad (Abroad in Japan) shows that it’s possible to survive in Japanese with as little as 6 months of studying. Fluent in 3 Months Challenge head coach Shannon Kennedy learned Japanese in 3 months to a conversational level (around A2-B1). I also participated in the Fi3M Challenge with Rodylyn, who had a 15-minute conversation in Japanese in only 90 days.
How Long Does it Take to Learn Japanese on Average?
With consistent studying and speaking, for about 30 minutes to an hour a day, you could speak at a conversational level in Japanese in about 3 months.
It’s all about using the right method, and I’ll say it again: speak from day one! You could start speaking Japanese right now. In fact, I encourage you to do so. The more speaking practice you get in, the faster you’ll learn Japanese. Here are the steps I recommend to learn Japanese fast.
Learning Kanji Will Take You Longer
If you want to reach an advanced level of Japanese, you’d also have to learn kanji. If you only focused on kanji, and learned about 30 a day, you could learn all 2200 jouyou kanji (the “essential” kanji that Japanese kids learn throughout grade school) in about 3 months, too… With the right methods.
To pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test N1, which is considered fluent Japanese? You would have to know all the jouyou kanji, 10,000 words, and know hundreds of grammar patterns. So, to reach near-native levels of fluency, you’d need at least a year of full-time, immersive studying. That doesn’t mean you’d have to live in Japan, but you would definitely have to create an immersive environment at home. Even still, the average time it takes someone to reach this level with intense, but not full-time, studying is 3-5 years.
The reason it’s so hard and takes so long is because you have to learn kanji on top of everything else. It segments your learning between speaking and listening, and reading and writing. But if you have the motivation, you can do it with effective study habits.
So don’t let those big number of hours discourage you. That’s focused on inefficient study hours. If you know how you learn best, you have amazing Japanese resources, and you put in real study and speaking time, you can get there fast.
Tips to Make Learning Japanese Easier
If you’re serious about learning Japanese, then here are some tips to help you learn the language faster.
1. Set Your Goal for Speaking Japanese
Your end goal matters. So decide what “fluent” means for you. If you want to understand anime in Japanese, you need to learn vocabulary specifically for that. And even the type of anime matters, too. Naruto uses a lot of “ninja speech” that’s harsher and less polite than, say, Sailor Moon.
And if your goal is to speak naturally in everyday conversations, watching anime won’t get you there. Anime is dramatic and not realistic Japanese speech. So, you need more “real life” resources and vocabulary, like NHK News.
2. Break Down Your Goal into Daily Chunks
Okay, let’s say you want to reach JLPT N1 or near-native fluency. As we already discussed, you’d need to know 2200 kanji, 10,000+ vocabulary, and hundreds of grammar patterns.
If you can commit to studying 60 minutes a day, then you’d need to break that goal down into daily chunks. 10 new kanji a day, 30 new words, 1 new grammar pattern… Divide it up based on how much you know you can fit in a study session. Or, study kanji on Mondays and Wednesdays, vocabulary on Tuesdays and Thursdays, grammar on the weekends… Whatever works best for you.
Once you know how much you can fit into a study session, break down your goal. How many days will it take of studying to learn all those kanji and vocabulary? That’s how long it will take you to learn Japanese to a fluent level.
3. Start Speaking and Writing NOW
Find a Japanese language exchange partner and start speaking today. Even if all you know how to say is “Hello, my name is…” start using it. If you don’t use it, you lose it. And making mistakes is the best way to learn. So get out there, make mistakes, and start speaking.
4. Find an Entertaining Japanese Resource
The only way you’ll enjoy studying all the time is if you make it fun. And the good news is, you can learn from things you already enjoy in Japanese.
If you like to play video games, switch the language to Japanese. Pokemon games are great for this. The language is simple, and it’s easy to switch it to Japanese when you start a new game.
If you like to read manga, find the manga you enjoy in Japanese. Push yourself to read a little each day. The more you read, the easier it will get.
Watch your favorite shows in Japanese. I love to watch Terrace House on Netflix! There are several different seasons and locales, and it’s fun to watch. You’ll pick up lots of slang terms, too. Turn off subtitles the first time around and try to actively listen as you watch. Take notes, and then watch again with subtitles on. What did you understand or what new words did you pick up?
5. Immerse Yourself in Japanese Culture
Adding on to that last point, Japanese is a contextual and cultural language. To master it, you would need a deep understanding of Japanese body language, history, and cultural insights and mannerisms. You won’t learn that from a textbook.
As much as you can, study the history and culture. Watch the news, variety shows (they’re full of pop culture references), and read Japanese message boards or social media. If something confuses you, Google it. You’ll pick up all kinds of shorthand, slang, and cultural references. The more you understand them, the more you’ll be able to speak Japanese.
6. Squeeze More Japanese into Your Life
Can you listen to a podcast during your commute? Can you read the news in Japanese while drinking your morning coffee? Can you do your Anki flashcards while using the bathroom?
Most people feel like they don’t have time for tons of studying. But you can usually find small pockets of time, or swap out one thing for another. Instead of watching TV in English, watch it in Japanese. Instead of skimming Instagram in English, look up Japanese hashtags and read the captions. Instead of listening to the radio, turn on a Japanese podcast or J-Pop station.
7. Join the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge
Don’t underestimate the power of accountability. More times than not, the difference between succeeding and failing in language studies is building a habit and sticking with it.
That’s where the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge comes in. It’s a community of learners who all share the same goal as you. Having someone who can relate, share tips, and give encouragement makes a big difference. Plus, you’ll be assigned specific tasks that are strategic to push you to the next level in fluency. You’ll start to learn areas you’re weak in, and how to strengthen them. And most importantly, you’ll stick with your study habits for 90 days to complete the challenge.
I already shared mine, Shannon’s, and Rodylyn’s success stories with you from taking this challenge. I can say with certainty my study habits drastically changed and I wouldn’t be at the Japanese level I’m at without it.
How Long it Takes to Speak Japanese Depends on YOU
There are so many variables when it comes to learning how to speak Japanese. But with the right study habits, effective time management, and consistent commitment, you can learn to speak conversational Japanese in as little 3 months.
If you’ve already learned the language, how long did it take you to speak Japanese? And if you’re just getting started… What’s your goal? Share it with me in the comments!