How to learn Japanese and how much time will it take?

20 minute read

You must have already heard that Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to master. We're not going to lie - it is. But the main problem is not the complexity of the language itself, but rather a wrong design of a learning process. In this article we're going to tell you how one should learn Japanese and why there is nothing to be scared of.

Writing system

Hiragana and katakana

Your first two steps in learning Japanese must be hiragana and katakana - two syllabaries of Japanese language. Yes, Japanese has three different 'alphabets'. Hiragana and katakana consist of 71 characters each. The task of learning them is not much harder than learning any other alphabet (English/French/Russian etc.). We have another article describing how to learn hiragana and katakana and Kanjiway can teach you hiragana and katakana in a week or two, so let's move on to the more interesting stuff.

Kanji

After learning hiragana and katakana a new problem strikes you: 2136 jōyō kanji, aka Japanese logographic characters. Even if you learn 50 kanji per day, that process still will take you at least 42 days. Traditional learning system offers us to write down kanji on paper 20 times in a row and just "memorize it". Many people try to do that for a couple of days and drop learning Japanese in anger and despair. In any case, it is a pretty long process, that's why you shouldn't ask yourself a question 'What is the fastest way to learn these damn kanji?', but rather you should ask yourself 'How can I make the process of learning kanji as interesting and as pleasant as possible?'. Luckily, more advanced kanji learning techniques are already invented and we have described them in this article and created Kanjiway with these principles at it's core.

Sooner or later you will have to learn all 2136 jōyō kanji. Many people have another question at this point - 'Should I learn kanji from the beginning or come back to kanji later (after learning some grammar and hiragana words)?' Start learning kanji immediately! The more you put off kanji learning, the harder it will be to understand other parts of Japanese language. If you know kanji, your Japanese learning will become way faster and more efficient. This is a simple logic, really, because without kanji you wouldn't be able to read most of Japanese. In the beginning you should learn at least 500 kanji and after that you can combine learning other parts of Japanese with learning other kanji. You will need to learn only meanings (translations) of the kanji, but not their reading. We will cover the reasoning behind that later in this article.

Words

Think of the Paretto principle - 20% of work is responsible for 80% of the result. In case of languages we can definitively say that 20% of words are responsible for 80% of language we use every day (maybe even more).

People often forget about this simple truth when learning languages and think they have to learn tens of thousands of words. Everything is much simpler! Take English language for example. To understand 80-90% of English texts you need to know only 2000 words!. Situation is the same with other languages.

If you know 300-500 words - you will understand more than 50% of Japanese texts. That means if you know 1000-2000 words, you will have a very good understanding of the Japanese language.

Also don't forget that to understand other 10-20% of the language you will need way more words. For JLPT N1 (highest level) you will need about 10000 words, but don't think about volume too much. After you learn the base of the language, everything else will become much easier.

i + 1

After learning Japanese writing system and most common Japanese words, begin to learn more words and sentences in Japanese. It is also a pretty simple task, start listening and watching as much Japanese as you can, look for 'i + 1' sentences and write them down. That means sentences in which you can understand everything except '+ 1'. If you know 4 words out of 5-6 words in a sentence - you have a great candidate for memorizing and reviewing. You need to continue this process until you understand that you can stop. In any case even when you achieve mastery in Japanese, you will still sometimes encounter rare words, catch phrases and memes that you didn't know yet. So you can review most of your sentences for a long time, after which you will stop it and only review some of the rare items.

Immersion

Input > Output

If you understand what we are describing in this part of the article, learning any language won't be an unpassable wall for you anymore. This is a very simple idea and it goes like this: consuming information in other language is much more important than using this language. So listening, reading and watching is much more important than talking and writing. This is especially important at the first stages of learning. So why is this idea so important and profound?

Imagine how pre-school children learn their native language (English, for example). Do they read textbooks for learning English and study it's grammatical structure? Do the go on courses and fill in the blanks in test's problems? Do they repeat freshly learned sentences in front of the mirror? Not at all, obviously. They just live in the atmosphere of English language, everybody around them speaks English, they read simple books in English and soon they become more skilled in English than any foreigner who spent the same time taking English courses. How does it happen? Very simple - our brain is already tuned for learning languages. If you watch a movie in a new language, maybe you do not understand anything right now, but your brain is doing it's best trying to decipher that language. If you watch 10 more movies (or even better - watch the same movie 10 more times), you will understand that language even better, than if you spend the same time learning all of the language grammatical rules and exceptions. So here is your main task for learning a language - surround yourself with new language as much as you can. Consume as much information in a new language as possible. Not textbooks and courses, but the same information, that native speakers are using.

Listen and read, even if you don't understand anything

Begin to eagerly absorb Japanese language. Begin to watch anime with Japanese subtitles, begin to listen to Japanese podcasts, begin to read manga in Japanese, begin to listen to Japanese music. That is how you really learn a language. You are hindered by the discomfort that you have, when you realise that you have absolutely no idea what is going on and all you can see is a long way ahead of you. Obviously it would be more comfortable to use your native language, but if you can accept this discomfort of learning - you will begin to progress way faster. You need to get used to that discomfort, and when you do, it will no longer be uncomfortable, will it? Look for stuff in Japanese that you yourself think is interesting. If you like soccer - watch videos about soccer. If you are a software developer - listen to podcast about tech and programming. Yes, you will not understand much in the beginning, but that's exactly the point. Over time you will notice, that your understanding improves. By using this approach, in a couple of month you will be able to Google and find interesting things in Japanese. With every new thing you read or watch you come closer to knowing Japanese. If you already watched some anime in your native language, watch it again, but this time with Japanese subtitles. You remember what the plot is about, right?

Aside from active immersion into Japanese language you can also listen to something in the background. For example if you are sitting in your room in silence, you can listen to some Japanese people talking on YouTube and go on with your day.

For the first couple of months of doing that you shouldn't try to translate everything you hear with a dictionary. Just try to absorb as much as you can, everything else you will take care about later. If you listen to native Japanese people talk, it would be close to impossible to make mistakes in your Japanese, because you only learned Japanese from natives in their natural habitat.

By the way, here is an important remark on Japanese. In Japanese language men and women speak differently, so try to listen to people of your gender more.

Create an atmosphere of Japanese language

Our environment affects us as much as our internal thoughts. If you come back home after work and you have a choice between spending 30 minutes to learn Japanese on Kanjiway or watch 30 minutes of YouTube, what will you base your decision upon? Not only upon your desires and 'willpower', but also upon what surrounds you right know. What will you choose if you have a lonely Japanese textbook in a corner of your room, which you already stopped noticing and the YouTube tab that is only two clicks away? Or what will you choose if you have multiple things reminding you about your goal of learning Japanese?

Here are some examples of what you can do to 'Japanize' your atmosphere:

  1. Buy some books in Japanese
  2. Put some Japanese posters on your walls
  3. Switch your PC and phone to Japanese
  4. Buy a poster with 2136 jōyō kanji
  5. Write all learned kanji on paper (30-50 per piece of paper) and put them on your walls
  6. Write down your groceries shopping lists and simple notes in Japanese that you already know
  7. Wall of manga
  8. (for extremely hardcore) Create a VPN connection to Japan and then all targeted ads and websites will be in Japanese

Is it mandatory to do all that? Obviously not. It is way more important to actively immerse into Japanese through books, movies, podcasts etc., but this approach will help you to stay on your goal. You probably have some manga or books that remind you why you decided to learn Japanese in the first place, put them where you can see them and it will remind you about your long-term goal.

Let's get back to the YouTube example. Now if you enter a room with Japanese posters and books all around you and your PC switched to Japanese, how much higher is the chance that you won't spend 30 minutes on instant gratification?

If you have understood what we are talking about, you probably noticed the workaround - you can watch Japanese YouTube :)

Learn at least a little, but every day

Set yourself a minimal bar and be sure to reach it every day. Once again it should be a minimal bar, not an average bar. Let it be five kanji, or three, or even one. On Kanjiway we have a streak system that helps you keep up with our idea of a minimal bar. That is around 10 reps or reviews of learned information. Obviously on average you have to learn more than you've set as your minimal bar. The point of minimal bar is reaching it every day. If sometimes you have other stuff in your life overwhelming you and you don't have time to learn Japanese for 30-120 minutes every day, but you continue to at least finish a streak, then in a couple of months you will say thank you to yourself. It's the same principle as if you saved X amount of money every day. Everybody has bad days in life and the most important thing with them is to slow down without stopping completely.

Do I need a textbook?

Yes, but not really.

Textbooks will help you in learning but you should not start with them (as we've already told you, start with kana and kanji). Learning a language only through textbooks is better described not as learning a language for using it but for language's linguistic examination. It's like learning to drive a car that begins with exams about internal combustion engine and laws of thermodynamics. Did you need a textbook when you were learning your native language? In exactly the same way you do not need a textbook but it will help, if you use it correctly.

Here is our advice to you - learn 1000 kanji, 500 words and 200 sentences and only after that start to read any textbook you want, so you could better understand what exactly you have learned.

The secret of the approach we talk about in this article lies in the fact that most grammar rules will be acquired automatically, because of your consistent immersion into Japanese. Actually a lot of phrases and things we use in our life not always confirm to obvious grammar rules or common sense не ясно, что имеется в виду. For example look at this sequence: work -> worked, help -> helped, start -> started, begin -> .... begined?

When you start to learn a language through learning the laws of the language you start to invent new ways of pushing freshly learned vocabulary into freshly learned grammatical structures with freshly learned grammatical rules. After that you come to Japan and say something like "I begined to learn Japanese language two years ago". That's why you should use textbooks not as a basis for your learning, but as a supplementary help. Your basis of Japanese are the hours of watching and reading native Japanese content.

When should I learn to speak?

You absolutely do not need to learn all readings and pronunciations from the very start. Focus on learning kanji and immersing yourself. If you listen to Japanese a lot, you will in time remember the correct way of pronouncing sentences, exactly as it happens with grammar. Come back to this question after 2-4 months of learning and decide for yourself, how much do you need speaking right now, but in the very beginning absorbing language is more important than using it.

In the same way you should not memorize all of kanji's readings (and they usually have more than one reading) - leave it for later and you will see that there is actually no need to spend as much time with them as traditional Japanese learners usually do.

How much time will learning Japanese take?

What are your goals?

You want to watch anime in Japanese? You want to work with Japanese companies? You want to live in Japan or become a translator? We can tell you that after a couple of months of learning Japanese for 1-2 hours per day you will be able to watch anime with Japanese subtitles and have a good understanding of what is going on. It's hard to give a more accurate time because it depends entirely upon your desire to learn Japanese. You will hear a lot of different opinions about how long will it take because people may teach Japanese in slightly different ways and gain slightly different results. For example, if somebody was teaching Japanese for 10 years and decided that you can only learn Japanese in 5 years, they probably won't go ahead looking for new and impoved ways of learning Japanese to lower it to 3 years, but rather try to stay in place and protect their original estimates. That's why you have to take responsibility for your own learning and stop listening to others (even us). Always try to look for new and impoved approaches to learning and work at your own pace. With internet it is now easier than ever.

Best you can do right now is to start learning and come back to this question in a couple of months, when you will already understand some of the Japanese language structure and see the road ahead of you.

Pick valid goals and have fun

How much time does it take to learn Japanese? The answer is: a long time. We can even put it this way: long time. But whether it will be hard depends only on your attitude to learning. If you grumble about Japanese being the hardest thing in the world, then your words will come true and Japanese will become the hardest thing for you. But if you enjoy the process of learning Japanese then why do you care so much about how long will it take? In that case the longer - the better, right? :)

Let's say you start learning on Kanjiway today and in a month you will know 500-1000 kanji. When watching Japanese content with subtitles you will understand 15%. At that time your brain will try to figure out the rest that you don't understand and in a couple of days you will understand 16%, and after that 17%. Step after step and day after day you will come closer to your goal. But the secret of successful learning is in stopping focusing on the end goal too much.

Your goal should not be to 'Learn Japanese', but to 'Get 1% better at Japanese'

Learning Japanese must become an enjoyable process for you that you would want to do when you get back home from work. Learn Japanese not through textbooks, but through the content you find interesting, whatever it is for you. If you set yourself a goal of 'Learning Japanese' then every day you will ask yourself 'Have I reached my goal?', 'Do I understand Japanese soccer videos?', 'How long until I reach my goal?', etc. For a very long time the answers to these question will not satisfy you and you will stop learning way before you have reached your goal. There is a paradox: if you are dead serious about learning Japanese, you should stop taking it so seriously and start to think about it in a 'slower' way, understanding the basics of human psychology and motivation. When you will start learning Japanese it will become a pretty big part of your life and you have to make sure you won't see it as a 'thing that you have to do', 'an important responsibility' or 'a tool that is not useful yet'.

If you can learn to walk along the path of Japanese step after step and set yourself a goal to 'Get 1% better at Japanese', then you will see the results not in a couple of months or years, but in a week or two. Also you will have a good understanding that you are, in fact, moving toward your target and over the course of your learning you will reach not a single goal, but 70 to 100 goals. Each of us has a human brain inside our skull. If you constantly think about 'Learning Japanese', your brain will look what lies behind that goal and is going to see 2500-3000 kanji, thousands of words and sentences. After seeing all that you brain will scream 'OK STOP, LET'S NOT GO THERE. LET'S GO AND WATCH SOME YOUTUBE'. But if you think about 'Getting 1% better at Japanese', your brain will see 100-200 kanji and say 'Well, let's do this, why not'.

Even if you think that 'Japanese is way too hard and I will probably fail sooner or later' then you should stop thinking about learning Japanese and ask yourself 'Well if Japanese is so hard, maybe I will try to learn only 1% of Japanese and see what happens after that?'. Instead of 1% you can even say 100 kanji or 200 words. You probably can learn 7 kanji per day and in 14 days have 100 kanji behind your belt, right?

You have to understand that when you reach your goal and finally 'Learn Japanese' then it will stop being a special thing for you and will become a usual thing. Remember, for example, how much you enjoyed driving your car in a first year after getting a license and how much you enjoy it now. Or how did you feel about your phone the first day you got in and how you feel about it now. How much do you think today 'Wow I can read English language, that is so cool'? But were you proud of yourself when you first started understanding some of English writing? The parts of Japanese that may be hard and annoying for you right now, such as kanji or not understanding new words - in a couple of years you will think about these things with love and understanding, you will remember that time as the best time of your learning process (and when we say 'that time' we mean today). Unfortunately you can't decide and immediately start to have fun while learning, but you can learn to have fun while learning. That's why you have to start learning right now. Your brain and your attitude will be grateful to you :)

So... How long does it take?

We hope that after reading this article you begin to realize, that the question 'How long does it take to learn Japanese?' is a wrong question. If you aim your mind at solving this, you will never learn Japanese. Your brain will decide for you, that such long and complicated task is not worth your time. That's why you have to ask yourself the right questions and set yourself a good goal. What is your goal, again? Exactly - 'Get 1% better'.

But you've probably came all this way to get a concrete estimate, so here is how long you will study Japanese on Kanjiway:

  1. In your first month you learn hiragana, katakana and 100-300 kanji. You will be able to read hiragana and katakana, but not always understand what the text is about.
  2. For the next 2-3 months you continue to learn kanji and know already 1000-1500. You already know enough to read Japanese text of average difficulty and watch Japanese anime/series with subtitles and understand 40-60%. You look things up in the dictionary when you don't understand something.
  3. For the next 2-5 month you learn all ~2500 needed kanji. You have a good understanding of Japanese texts and you can watch anime/series with subtitles without consulting with dictionary every 10 minutes.
  4. You've learned all important kanji, but still, you need to review them sometimes. You go on Kanjiway for 1-3 months more and review the most rare kanji, which you may forget sometimes.

We want to make clear, that when we say "learned kanji" we don't mean "looked at them one time and memorized them". We mean "learned them one time and reviewed them successfully 4-10 times". You may not read kanji as fast as you want yet, but you don't need to look them up at all, you remember them very well.

So we have around 6-12 months on Kanjiway. As you can see most of the studying happens in the first 2-4 months. Here we talk about the average time of learning, but in reality you can learn much faster if you want so. You see, Kanjiway is not "Japanese courses" or "Japanese lessons" in traditional understanding. You don't have a group of peers for you to stay on one level with. We don't limit you with any restrictions and you can learn with exactly the pace, which is comfortable for you.

One more thing

What about JLPT?

We advise to treat JLPT levels the same way as textbooks. Occasionally look at what you need to pass JLPT, but don't build you learning process only around JLPT. Even JLPT N1 (max level) is not considered complete mastery of Japanese. Yes, of course it implies that you know Japanese very well and that is a big achievement but it does not guarantee that you know Japanese even close to native level. JLPT is created for foreigners so Japanese treat it accordingly. Here's a great video to understand why you shouldn't measure your Japanese only around JLPT.

So, you have to take responsibility for your learning process. Don't listen to people who say that Japanese is impossible to learn and it takes five years as well as people who say that you can learn Japanese in a month. Start to figure out the way Japanese language works and over time you will find answers to all of your questions.

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