Japanese has a reputation for being one of the hardest languages to learn, and it's no surprise why.
Japanese has over 500,000 words in its dictionary and uses three different alphabets. According to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), it takes 2200 class hours for a beginner to achieve Japanese proficiency.
Let's take a closer look.
Figure Out What Fluency Means To You
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, fluency is “the ability to speak or write a language easily, well and quickly”.
Most people associate fluency with their native language and perhaps one or two others. It is possible to learn a language and never reach fluency, but that doesn't mean that you can't speak it comfortably. I mean, everyone has to look up a word in the dictionary every once in a while, even native speakers!
It can be overwhelming to reach language fluency; it comes with a ton of self-doubt and stress. However, you can still have a strong degree of proficiency without being fluent.
How Long Does it Take to Become Fluent in Japanese? It Depends.
Let's take a look at a few factors that can influence how long it takes for someone to become fluent in Japanese.
Your Experience with Languages Matters
If you were raised in a bilingual family or learned another foreign language in the past, you might find it easier to gain fluency in Japanese. Studies have shown that those who speak at least two languages will find it easier to learn a third. You will find it easier to study new grammar, memorise vocabulary, and even manipulate your lips and tongue to produce new sounds. However, even if you only speak one language, don't worry; all it takes is motivation and hard work!
What’s Your Native Tongue?
According to the FSI ( Foreign Service Institute), Japanese is in category four: “languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.” The FSI estimate that, as an English speaker, you will need around 88 weeks of studying, or 2200 class hours, to master Japanese.
This means, if your native language is English, you may have to put more time and effort into reaching fluency in Japanese. However, interestingly enough, Japanese does have some borrowed words from English, such as kiss – kisu, butter – bata, and computer – konpyuta. Although the list isn't extensive, it will save you some time!
If you don’t speak English as your mother tongue, you better hope you can speak Ryukyuan. Ryukyuan is spoken across the Japanese archipelago, and both Japanese and Ryukyuan are a part of the Japonic language family. Structurally speaking, Ryukyuan is identical to Japanese, however, it’s their vocabulary and pronunciation that make them mutually unintelligible. Unfortunately, it is considered an endangered language by UNESCO, as more people are shifting to learning only Japanese.
If you speak Korean, even just a little bit, you will find Japanese easier to learn. Both languages share a similar syntax, meaning you could “think in Korean” and translate word-for-word to Japanese. Both languages also share a fair amount of Chinese words in common, and phonologically the two languages are very close too. For an untrained ear, these languages probably sound identical to each other.
Decide Why You Want To Learn Japanese
After you’ve figured out what fluency means to you, it's a good idea to set yourself some goals to help keep up your motivation during your studies.
Personal Language Goals
Maybe you want to be fluent in Japanese to enjoy the culture? We don't blame you! Japan has an exciting and enriching culture. Learning Japanese is one of the best ways to understand the culture deeply, and the best way to learn the language is by immersing yourself..in Japan!
Perhaps it's not the culture, but it's your partner or friends who motivate you to become fluent in Japanese. Learning a language for someone offers the best motivation and reaps the most rewards. Now when you go with your friends to their favourite Japanese restaurant, you will be able to wow them with your ordering skills!
Learning a Language for Business
There are plenty of work opportunities in Japan. If you are looking for a change of occupation or being transferred to Tokyo, you will need to be fluent in Japanese. With that comes the difficult question: should I learn keigo? Keigo is the ultra-formal register in Japanese, and it is essential if you are going to be working there. So, if you have to learn keigo on top of everything else, it's going to take you a lot longer to learn Japanese.
Are you interested in finding out which other languages are great to learn for business? Check out our article!
If you're only learning Japanese for travel purposes, you don't have to worry about learning keigo or learning to read kanji (more on that later!). In fact, you don't have to worry about reaching fluency at all! Saying that, we'd still recommend learning some basic phrases and words to help you get around and remain polite.
How Much Time Can You Commit to Studying?
It's may be an obvious statement to point out, but the more time you can dedicate to Japanese, the faster you will learn. Someone who considers themselves a casual learner or leads a busy lifestyle will naturally learn slower than someone who dedicates several hours a day to Japanese.
The amount of time you should spend on Japanese should reflect your language goals and personal circumstances. If you want to become fluent in Japanese in two years, you will need to spend around five hours a day studying.
Your Attitude and Motivation
One of the most challenging aspects of learning a language is staying motivated. Motivation is the number one reason why so many people fail at learning a language. However, it is also the reason why so many people do eventually reach fluency in a language.
It's important to remind yourself of why you started learning Japanese throughout your studies. It is for your partner to be able to communicate with his family, or for that amazing job you've been working so hard for? Just remember all the good that will come from learning, stay positive, and the process will be more enjoyable for you.
Is Japanese Hard to Learn?
In short: yes. Japanese is, unfortunately, one of the more difficult languages to learn. Luckily, you don't need to learn all three alphabets or 500,000 words to get around. Unless you find yourself in more formal situations, you can usually get away with just learning Kanji.
What is Kanji, and Do I Need to Learn It?
Kanji is one of the oldest and more intricate writing systems in Japan. Each kanji symbol represents an idea or a word. However, the kanji symbols can have multiple meanings or take on different meanings when they’re matched with other characters.
Kanji is probably one of the hardest aspects of learning Japanese, especially if you want to become fluent in Japanese. If you are learning Japanese recreationally or for travel purposes, then you won't really need to learn kanji. However, if you want to be fluent, then we're afraid you have no choice!
According to the JLPT test, you will need to learn at least 100 kanji and 800 words to pass the simplest proficiency test. For the most advanced test available, you will also need to know 2,000 kanji and 10,000 vocabularies. That’s a huge jump!
To give you a better idea, the average Japanese adult knows between 25,000 and 30,000 words. Don't worry, if you just want to reach fluency, you will need to know around 3,000 – 5,000 words.
Actual Fluency has a whole blog post on how long it takes to learn kanji if you’re interested in learning more.
Do I need to learn Keigo?
As we mentioned above, keigo is the ultra-formal register in Japanese. While keigo is not essential to learn for all students, if you are going to be working or studying in Japan, you need to learn keigo. It will teach you the right way to address elders, teachers, bosses, and anyone in a position above you. If you do need to learn keigo, it's going to take you a lot longer to learn Japanese.
Our Final Thoughts on the Question: How Long Does It Take To Become Fluent in Japanese?
How long it takes you to become fluent in Japanese is entirely dependent on…YOU.
Only you know how much time you're willing to put into your language learning, how many resources you are willing to invest in, and what your goals are. With the right motivation and dedication, you can, in theory, learn Japanese as quickly as several months. However, as a general rule of thumb, to become fluent in Japanese in two years, you will need to spend around five hours a day studying!
Kris is the founder of Actual Fluency, and has spent the last 8 years becoming an expert in language learning software, methods, and techniques.
Originally from Denmark, he now lives in Portugal and speaks 5+ languages at varying levels. His other interests are Wine, Online Marketing, and Travelling.