With thousands of unique and unusual symbols, Kanji can seem intimidating to the Western learner. But how long does it actually take to learn Kanji?
According to our calculations, if you can put in the work to learn 25 kanji a day, and you have no prior experience with Japanese, you should be able to read kanji within three months.
You probably first came across kanji when you decided to learn Japanese. Suddenly, everything got a whole lot harder. Kanji contains thousands of symbols, so many different strokes, it takes months to learn, and well…it's just hard!
We admit: hiragana is more convenient.
Oh boy, if we had a penny for each time a student asked:
“Why should I bother learning kanji? The Japanese have hiragana already”
“What is kanji and why do I have to learn it?”
Let's dissect everything step-by-step.
What is Kanji?
Japanese has three writing systems. The first two are hiragana and katakana which are both a type of phonetic lettering system. This means that each character represents a single syllable and that a specific character will never be pronounced in any other way.
Kanji is the third and final writing system. It was founded in China more than 3,500 years ago in the Shang Dynasty (also known as the Yin Dynasty). It contains symbols that represent ideas, or words. This means that each kanji can have a different meaning based on the context it is used in. The pronunciation of the kanji can also change, depending on what other kanji they are connected to.
Why Do You Need to Learn Kanji?
Kanji is necessary if you want to read Japanese. It doesn’t matter what your goal is, whether you want to read manga, the Japanese news, or maybe just stay in touch with your friends through social media. Without kanji, you won’t be able to get around.
Don't forget, if you travel to Japan outside of big cities and major tourism spots you won’t see a lot of English. Kanji is essential for your survival.
Kanji also makes your daily life easier. The benefits of kanji include:
- Kanji helps break up words. In Japanese, there are no spaces between words, so kanji makes reading easier.
- It takes up less space when you're writing.
- Each kanji has its own meaning. Once you know kanji, reading becomes much easier, allowing you to quickly skim over an entire text.
Writing in kanji is beautiful!
What Does Fluency Mean To You?
Before we take a look at how long it takes to learn kanji, it's important to establish what level you want to get to and if you have any personal language goals.
According to the US Department of State, Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn for monolingual native English speakers. Based on their research, you need over 88 weeks of learning or 2200 hours of studying to reach level B2 (according to the CEFR).
However, if you are planning to study kanji to read manga, or maybe find a Japanese pen-pal, then we think you'll need under half of the time that US Department of State recommends.
Think of it this way; does knowing all kanji make you fluent? No! If that was the case, there would be no fluent English speakers because there isn’t a person out there that knows all the words in the English language.
For more information on how long it takes to learn a new language, check out our blog here. It includes our own unique formula for working out how long it will take you to become fluent, based on your prior language knowledge and your own commitment to study.
What is Your Language Background?
Another important aspect we have to consider is which other languages you speak.
If you are an Native English Speaker:
If you are a native English speaker and you are monolingual then learning kanji will be a challenge. Japanese and English share no similarities whatsoever. That's apart from a few English influences on the Japanese language, for example, the word for girlfriend in Japanese is garufurendo ( ガールフレンド).
If you can only read the Latin alphabet:
If you know only the Latin alphabet than kanji will also be challenging. Oddly enough, a Portuguese native speaker would be in a better position to learn Japanese. Portugal and Japan have linguistic connections dating back to the 16th century when the first trading links were established. There are a lot of common words, which would make learning kanji and recognising meanings a lot easier.
If you can already read a logographic alphabet:
Naturally, if you are a native speaker of a language like Chinese, you will find learning Japnese and in turn learning kanji quite easy. Although the kanji writing system was borrowed from China over a thousand years ago and has been modified since then, it does share some similarities. Even the fact that you are used to using a logographic alphabet will help you when it comes to learning kanji.
How Many Kanji Are There?
There are tens of thousands of kanji.
But, don't let that put you off.
Continue reading. It gets better, we promise.
How Many Kanji Do You Need To Know?
While there may be tens of thousands of kanji, according to the Japanese Ministry of Education you should aim to learn around 2,136 characters to be able to have a firm knowledge of kanji.
This is called joyo kanji and it consists of the kyoiku kanji (1,026 characters) you are taught in elementary school, plus an additional 1,130 you are taught in high school. These are considered the most essential of kanji.
An average Japanese person would probably know the joyo kanji list, along with other kanji that are dependant on the person's life experiences, interests and work.
How Long Does It Take To Learn Kanji?
Finally, the big question!
The answer depends completely on your language background, the amount of time and effort you want to put into learning kanji, and what level of fluency you wish to reach.
However, if that answer doesn’t satisfy you, the team at Actual Fluency has done some calculations for you!
If you can manage to learn 25 kanji a day, in just under three months you will be able to have all 2,136 kanji memorised. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
However, we understand that not everyone can learn at the same speed, or using the same methods (which will be discussed below).
If 25 kanji a day is too much, learning 10 kanji a day will take you around 214 days, while 5 kanji a day would take you 428 days.
What Is The Best Way To Learn Kanji?
Nowadays, with all of the language courses, and apps that are available, you can learn kanji without leaving your home. Or without even stepping foot in Japan!
Here are a few resources we'd recommend to help you to learn Kanji:
Anki is a flashcard app to help you learn by repetition and memorisation. They have tons of kanji decks available. You can use the joyo kanji decks, or you can choose decks with more specific kanji to narrow it down to your interests and needs.
Memrise is another great alternative to help you learn the material quickly. Similarly to Anki, Memrise is a flashcard app that can help you quickly retain information in your long term memory. It's great if you’re studying kanji.
If you want to learn more about the platform, we've got a comprehensive Memrise review for you to check out.
Magnetic Memory Method
If you're worried that you might have problems with successfully memorising kanji, we'd highly recommend the Magnetic Memory Method. Dr Anthony Metivier is a memory expert and can help you improve your memory in just 8 days. With his techniques, you can certainly master kanji in 3 months!
We recorded a podcast with the man behind Magnetic Memory Method, Anthony Metivier. You can listen to our podcast, here.
Lang-8 is an online community of language learners. You can post in the language that you are learning – in this case, you can post in the Japanese kanji script – and native speakers correct your writing for you! You return the favour by correcting someone’s text in your native language. Lang-8 offers a great learning exchange and it gives you a great opportunity to practice the kanji you learned.
Our Final Thoughts on the Question: How Long Does It Take To Learn Kanji?
With so many different language courses and learning platforms available, it is possible to successfully learn kanji before stepping foot in Japan.
Before you start, remember to evaluate what you need to learn kanji for, estimate how many kanji you should learn to reach your goal and figure out the best techniques to help you learn.
Whether it takes you three months, under a year, or nearly two years, as long as at the end you are reading kanji, it doesn’t matter!
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.