The nuanced Japanese language contains ancient cultural secrets in each utterance, connecting the storied history of Japan to its current status as a leader in technology, cuisine, and art.
However, Japanese is commonly listed as one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn.
If you want to learn Japanese for professional or personal reasons, you may feel excited at first, only to realize that the process may take longer than you had originally thought it would.
We will cover how long it takes to learn Japanese and how to speed up the process in time for your Japanese excursion (or the release of your favorite anime).
How Long Does It Take To Learn Japanese?
According to estimates, English speakers can become conversational in Japanese with 2,200 hours of training and fluent in 4,800 hours of training.
Since 2,200 hours is roughly 88 weeks of classes, that comes to about two years of taking classes consistently.
To become fluent, this equates to four to five years.
It takes longer to learn Japanese than most other languages due to its drastic differences from the English language.
1. General Japanese Learning Timeline
Assuming standard and consistent pacing, this is a general guide of how quickly people learn Japanese.
Of course, the amount of time it takes varies based on the individual’s natural affinity toward languages and the amount of effort they put into effective studying.
- 0 to 6 months = basic comprehension
- 9 to 12 months = beginner to intermediate
- 2 to 3 years = advanced
2. US State Department Classifications
The United States State Department classifies the difficulty of 70 languages in four categories based on both linguistic and cultural factors:
Category I: Languages closely related to English:
Category II: Languages slightly more complicated than Category I languages:
Category III: Languages with significant differences from English:
Category IV: Languages with exceptional differences from the English language and the hardest to learn:
Facts About The Japanese Language
Every language has special tidbits that make it unique in today’s world.
Here are some facts about the Japanese language that make it so colorful (and difficult to learn).
1. Japanese Is The Ninth Most Spoken Language In The World
There are roughly 128 million Japanese speakers around the world (a little less than 2% of the population), most of them located in Japan.
However, Japanese is the third most common language on the internet, and 10% of internet users speak Japanese.
2. Japanese Is Spoken Quickly
One of the reasons people may struggle to understand Japanese may involve how quickly Japanese speakers talk.
A recent study found that Japanese speakers average 7.84 syllables per second compared to the average 6.19 syllables per second of English speakers.
3. Japanese Is A Language Isolate
Most languages bear similar qualities to other languages.
However, the Japanese language stands out as a “language isolate”, meaning that it has completely unique characteristics.
That isn’t to say that it hasn’t taken on words from different cultures along the way.
The Japanese language has a name for borrowed words: “gairaigo”.
Gairaigo words derive most often from the English language, but you can also find examples of Portuguese and German influence.
Japanese Grammar Rules
While Japanese grammar gets complex, there are some basic rules to know going into your lessons.
1. Verbs Aren’t Conjugated
In Japanese, you do not conjugate verbs the way we do in English.
The base verb remains the same despite the subject’s gender or number.
In order to get the details on whether the speaker is referring to one snake or ten snakes, you need to listen for different indicators.
The speaker may use the suffix “tachi” which roughly translates to “and company”.
If a friend named Lucy will be coming over with friends, the speaker may phrase it as “Lucy-tachi”.
Alternatively, the speaker may use a noun that is in context plural, such as “hitobito”, which means “people” to refer to Lucy and the rest of the group as a collective.
Nonetheless, the verb remains the same.
Japan takes respect very seriously.
This resonates into their language in the form of suffixes known as “honorifics” that signify a certain degree of respect for another person.
As suffixes, these phrases always get added to the end of the word and not the beginning of the word.
Honorifics can be gender-specific but not all are.
To use honorifics, you simply attach the honorific to the end of the person’s name using a hyphen.
When attached to a common noun as opposed to a name, you do not use a hyphen.
The honorific is not capitalized.
Some popular Japanese honorifics include:
Chan: A familiar female honorific used to show affection for closely related girls, children, grandmothers, and pets. You do not want to use this term with someone you hardly know or an adult man. For example, you may call your little sister Maki, “Maki-chan”.
Kun: A casual male honorific with a low level of respect attached to it is usually used when talking to a male of lower authority, such as an older brother to his younger brother or a wife to her husband. Daniel would become “Daniel-kun”.
Sama: A formal honorific for people in positions of high authority (and customers). You would not use this honorific with a causal friend or close family member but a boss or when referring to a deity. In Japanese, to show respect to the customer, customer service representatives refer to customers as “okyakusama”.
San: A common honorific that is not gender or age-specific similar to “Mr.” and “Ms.” that you can use with both familiar and unfamiliar subjects. It can also be attributed to businesses. Example: panyasan (“little pastry shop”).
Homophones refer to words that sound the same but mean different things, such as “wear” and “where” in English.
Japanese has a large number of homophones that you need to become aware of throughout your studies.
In fact, roughly 6% of Japanese words contain a homophone.
About 3% contain two homonyms, and 55 words contain 10 or more homonyms.
The reason the Japanese language contains so many homophones is that the Japanese language has fewer sounds than most other languages.
Here are some examples of Japanese homophones:
- Kanji: “Chinese characters” and “feeling”
- Hentai: “pervert” and “alteration of body”
- Shibou: “death”, “grease”, and “ambition”
4. Flexible Word Choice
The Japanese language allows for notable flexibility when it comes to word choice.
The Japanese language relies heavily on conversation context, minimizing the need for standardized language rules.
Companies don’t even have consistent writing standards in their signage and promotional rhetoric.
This means that there are a lot of ways to communicate one idea, which can lead to confusion for beginners.
If you struggle with understanding Japanese writing, start by breaking complex sentences down to 50 characters.
You can also utilize resources, such as the JTF Style Guide for Translators Working into Japanese.
Japanese Writing Systems
Japan uses an alphabet system very different from ours that uses characters as opposed to the alphabet we are familiar with.
Japanese started as an oral language.
When the Chinese written characters came to Japan during the spread of Buddhism, the Japanese people adopted the writing system in the 5th century, and this became the kanji method of writing Japanese.
Since kanji was somewhat inefficient, the Japanese people developed a simpler version known as hiragana.
This system uses a modified version of 50 simplified Chinese characters.
Later, an even more modern version of the same 50 songs was modified again to create the katakana style of writing.
Collectively, hiragana and katakana are referred to as kana.
Today, Japanese speakers use all three versions of writing.
However, certain versions are used more often in certain situations.
Hiragana is the most commonly used writing system.
However, kanji is used when describing something in scientific detail, since it has so many more characters.
People use katakana when referring to new world concepts and emphasis.
When converted to the Roman alphabet we use in English, known as “romanji”, Japanese uses 21 letters.
Traditionally, you will find Japanese written vertically.
However, today, it’s more commonly written horizontally and read from left to right.
Learning Japanese Writing Systems
Learning the new alphabet in all three different writing systems will be the most time-consuming part of your beginning studies.
Start by repeatedly writing the alphabet over and over again, vocalizing each sound as you write it.
After enough repetition, the once unfamiliar alphabet will become almost as natural to you as the ABCs.
Once you understand how to write the alphabet, start writing words and phrases, gradually increasing in difficulty over time.
Once you feel comfortable writing in the three different writing systems, learn how to type on your computer, especially considering how prevalent the Japanese language is online.
Reasons To Learn Japanese
1. Business Opportunities
Japan has the second-largest economy in the world after the United States with a GDP of almost $5 trillion in 2005 thanks to booming technology, manufacturing, and business industries.
Some of the most popular Japanese brands include:
Japan’s economy gives the average Japanese citizen a respectable amount of disposable income.
Many Japanese people use this income to travel and spend that money overseas, including in the United States.
In 2004, Japanese tourists spent $12.4 billion in the United States.
2. Experience Authentic Japanese Culture
When you learn the Japanese language, it allows you to immerse yourself into Japanese culture in an authentic way by reading literature in its original language and watching movies in the original language.
If you travel to Japan, you will be able to read the different signs and communicate with people properly.
3. Increased Japanese Presence In The United States
America has a significant Japanese presence.
According to the 2010 census, there were about 1.5 million Japanese Americans in the United States (only about 0.5% of the population).
Much of the Japanese population resides on the West Coast in Hawaii and California.
However, there are large populations in New York and Illinois as well.
Japanese Americans have played an integral role in the country’s history.
Including 33,000 Japanese Americans who fought in WW2, academic Yamato Ichihashi, and space explorer Daniel M. Tani.
Today, many famed athletes and actors are proudly Japanese Americans, including Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and Star Trek actor George Takei.
According to the Center for American Progress, 44% of Japanese Americans speak another language other than English, and 24% of Japanese Americans have limited or no English proficiency.
Learning Japanese allows us to increase Japanese presence in the United States, even if only by one person.
Tips On How To Learn Japanese Quickly
1. Japanese Media
In order to learn Japanese, you need to watch and listen to Japanese movies and music.
Akira Kurosawa came onto the movie scene in the 1950s with his innovative and fearless style and made more than 30 movies, establishing himself as one of the most influential filmmakers not only in Japan but in the world.
Japan brought us kung-fu movies that awed the Western world and influenced popular directors, such as Quinten Tarantino.
Today, stomach-turning Japanese director Takashi Miike is one of the most talked-about names in the horror genre, and Hideaki Anno brings anime to the international stage.
It can also be helpful to listen to Japanese music.
You can listen to anything from classical to the female heavy metal band Babymetal.
2. Practice Often
If you want to learn Japanese, you need to practice it as often as possible.
You can talk to yourself, record yourself, and write notes for practice.
However, it can be much more helpful to find another student or a native Japanese speaker to practice with.
According to the experts, you should get at least 30 minutes of practice and one hour of Japanese exposure every single day at a minimum.
Naturally, the more exposure you get, the better it will be.
However, you won’t get the best results by cramming practice into one day and then not practicing again for another week.
Practice should be consistent.
3. Take Classes
Language classes provide structure and logical lesson orders that you may not automatically follow yourself.
You can take college-level language classes or hire a tutor for either group lessons or one-on-one lessons.
If you can’t afford formal classes or a tutor, you may want to try one of the numerous language learning programs available.
Many of them even have programs designed to make you fluent in Japanese in significantly less time than usual.
Japanese Words We Use In English
There’s already a significant amount of the Japanese language incorporated in everyday English.
When you consider these connections, it can help make the Japanese language appear more attainable.
Here are some Japanese words that we incorporated into the English language and what they mean in Japanese:
- Karaoke: empty orchestra
- Manga: uncontrolled picture
- Emoji: picture letter
- Origami: to fold paper
- Karate: empty hand
- Sensei: born before
- Ninja: spy person
- Zen: silent meditation
- Honcho: squad leader
You can use these simple Japanese words to create simple sentences.
Levels Of Fluency
1. Inter-Agency Roundtable Scale (ILR Scale)
When putting down Japanese on your resume, you will adhere to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute Inter-Agency Roundtable Scale (ILR Scale) from 0 to 5:
0 = No Proficiency: Even though the speaker may know a couple of words, they can’t hold a simple conversation and don’t know basic grammar rules.
1 = Elementary Proficiency: The speaker can answer basic questions and knows simple phrases someone would learn as a first-time traveler or first-year student in elementary school.
2 = Limited Working Proficiency: The speaker knows a little more grammar and vocabulary but still only possesses limited capabilities.
3 = Professional Working Proficiency: At this point, despite numerous errors and an accent, the speaker can have standard conversations regarding work-related and personal topics. This is the minimal proficiency acceptable for working with Japanese-speaking clients, but many employers expect higher proficiency.
4 = Full Professional Proficiency: Most conversations can be carried out in Japanese without trouble thanks to a wide vocabulary and strong understanding of grammar rules. The speaker will not make any errors, and their accent will be minimal.
5 = Native/Bilingual Proficiency: When a speaker claims to have a level 5 proficiency in Japanese, this means that it would be hard to distinguish between them and a native speaker. They will not make errors or have a noticeable accent.
2. Common European Framework Of Reference For Languages
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages established another proficiency scale referred to as the CEFR Levels:
A1 = Beginner: The speaker can introduce themselves.
A2 = Elementary: The speaker understands common phrases.
B1 = Intermediate: The speaker can talk about family, work, and school with an understanding of grammar fundamentals.
B2 = Upper-Intermediate: The speaker can converse on a wide range of topics and industry-related topics in detail.
C1 = Advanced: The speaker can communicate effectively on all work topics.
C2 = Proficient: The speaker can communicate effectively on all topics.
When you finally reach the level of Japanese proficiency that you aim to achieve, you will have the ability to speak to millions of new people for both professional and personal purposes.
Continue to learn and improve your language skills through regular practice.
Soon, you will be more concerned with your new relationships than your level of proficiency in Japanese.
That’s when the work begins to pay off.