One of the most commonly asked questions is how long does it take to become fluent in Japanese?
In order to answer this question accurately, the first thing I’m going to do is go over the definition of fluency and then provide a real life example that I’m sure most of you are familiar with so that we can see how it looks in the real world.
Once that’s done, I’ll go into depth on how long it takes to attain and provide references that explain the reasoning behind the numbers.
Numbers are nice and all, but we’re talking about real people right? That why I’ll also provide you with several people’s stories on how long it took them to become fluent and what they did.
Finally, I’ll provide you with some advice on what you can do to make the journey to fluency enjoyable.
What Is The Definition Of Fluency?
Fluency is one of those “buzz-words” where everyone has a slightly different opinion.
That’s totally fine and I don’t have a problem with it, but since I’m talking about becoming fluent in this article I feel like I have to provide one single definition to go off of for the sake of comprehension.
Let’s just keep it simple: according to the dictionary, a person is “fluent” when they are “capable of using a language easily and accurately.”[Merriam-Webster]
Now that’s pretty straightforward and easy to understand, right? When you can use Japanese easily and accurately, you will be fluent.
What does this look like in real life though? I would argue that any 5-year-old child is fluent in their native tongue.
This means that they can communicate with their friends and family without a problem.
I come from a pretty big family (I have 8 siblings) and I’ve had full conversations with them when they were at that age. In fact, some of them are still at that age right now!
Here’s a couple of interesting things I’ve noticed about them when they speak:
- Sometimes they mispronounce words
- Sometimes they mess up the grammar
- Sometimes they don’t understand a word that I use
They aren’t perfect. They’re still learning the language. And yet, for all intents and purposes they are fluent in English.
I’ve heard some people refer to this level as “basic fluency” or “conversational fluency” which is fine.
Here’s the point I’m trying to make: fluency does not equal perfection.
Fluency is not a native adult’s level of the language. That takes a lot of time and fluency can actually be achieved a lot sooner and with a lot less words.
The impressive Luca Lampariello talks about this is in his video on fluency and how he personally achieves it in multiple languages with a relatively small vocabulary to draw upon.
How To Measure Time In Language Study
The time it takes to learn Japanese depends on several factors. The first thing you have to analyze is your own starting point.
For example, generally speaking it is easier for Chinese and Korean people to learn Japanese than it is for Americans.
The reason for this is because of the similarities those languages share with Japanese. Chinese people have an advantage when it comes to kanji, and Koreans have an advantage in regards to grammar.
If you’re a native English speaker like myself, then you’ve started out on the hardest difficulty because English is VERY different from Japanese in almost every way.
That just means you’ll have to work a little bit harder and for a little while longer.
No big deal.
The second factor you have to consider is how many foreign languages you’ve already learned. There is a common saying that “the first foreign language you learn is the hardest.”[Glossika]
And there are several very good reasons for this. People who have already achieved fluency in multiple languages have more confidence, better study habits, and are just more used to the process of learning new words and grammar patterns.
This helps explain why the dashing polyglot Olly Richards was able to learn Italian in a mere three months.
So if you’ve never learned a foreign language to fluency before, then learning Japanese is going to take a bit longer.
How Long Does It Take To Become Fluent In Japanese?
Let’s explore that now.
Most people talk about the number of years they’ve spent learning Japanese. I understand why they do this. We talk about a lot of things in years such as how long we’ve worked at a particular job, how long we’ve been in a certain relationship, and even how long we’ve been alive on this Earth.
However, when it comes to language learning, not all years are created equal.
Here’s an illustration:
Person-1 has been learning Japanese for four years and studies for one hour every single day. That means that they’ve put in 1,460 hours of study.
Person-2 has been learning Japanese for one year and studies for eight hours every single day. That means that they’ve put in 2,920 hours of study.
This means that Person-2 has studied Japanese TWICE AS MUCH as Person-1 despite doing it for three less years!
Here’s the point: learning Japanese should be measured in hours, not years.
Now that we’re measuring in hours, let take a look at a couple of official standards.
The most well-known exam in the Japanese language learning community is the JLPT which stands for Japanese Language Proficiency Test. This test is divided into five levels, with N5 being the easiest, and N1 being the hardest.
Generally speaking, people consider levels N2 and N1 to be equivalent to fluency in Japanese. These are the levels you have to pass in order to enroll at most Japanese universities or get a job in Japan.
Most people with no prior kanji knowledge reported that it took them 1600-2800 hours to pass the N2, and 3000-4800 hours to pass the N1.[JLPT Study Hour Comparison Data 2010-2015]
There are two other types of exams that people can study for and pass in order to become proficient in Japanese. They are:
- The American Council of Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL)
- The Defense Language Institute (DLI)
According to research conducted by the fun-loving Irish guy Benny Lewis, the ACTFL says it takes 960-2640 hours and the DLI says it takes 1560-3900 hours to learn Japanese.[Fluent in 3 Months]
Keep in mind that these numbers reflect both in-class and out-of-class study time, but what you can see from all three of these studies is that it usually takes a person 1,000 to 5,000 hours to become fluent in Japanese.
The variation depends on things such as where you’re starting from, which methods you use (check out the last part of this article for more on this) and if you’re aiming for that “basic fluency” or that “native adult level” of Japanese.
Let’s Look At Three People’s Journeys
I wanted to stop talking about the studies for a moment and instead take a look at three individual people who became fluent in Japanese and how long it took them.
There are three YouTube videos below, but I also summarize each one’s points so you don’t have to watch them all if you don’t want to.
Keep in mind that they all use “months and years” as their time metric when talking about how long it took them, but I will do some guesswork to estimate each one’s hours. Please realize that I am emphasizing the word “guess” here.
This charming guy’s name is Richard Graham and he says that when he moved to Japan, he didn’t speak any Japanese.
From that starting point, he says that it took him “six months to converse freely and understand everything that was going on.”
Based off of this, I think we can safely say that he was fluent after living in Japan for six months.
If you consider that there are 24 hours in each day and a person needs 8 for sleep, then that leaves 16 for when you’re awake.
Most likely Richard didn’t spend all 16 hours learning Japanese, but in an immersive environment I think it’s safe to say that he was interacting with (hearing + seeing) and learning the language about 12 hours a day.
12 hours times 182 days equals 2,184 hours.
So even if my math is off a bit in either direction, we can safely say that Richard studied Japanese somewhere in the 1500-2500 hour range to become fluent.
This wonderful lady’s name is Sarah K. and she works full time as a Japanese-to-English translator. What she says in the video is that you should study Japanese in a formal classroom for one year in college (or two years in high school) in order to gain a firm foundation in the language.
Then you should go to Japan and interact with Japanese people, manga, shows, and anything else you can get a hold of in order to gain massive exposure to the language.
After you’ve done this for 6-12 months, you should be fluent in the language.
This is what she did, and here’s how I calculate those hours:
One year of college classes equals 30 weeks. Language classes (at my school) are five credit hours, which adds up to 150 classroom hours. You’re supposed to spend two hours studying outside of class for every hour of study in class, so that totals up to 450 hours.
Then she says 6-12 months in Japan, so let’s just use the same calculations as Richard to say 2184-4380 hours.
That brings us to a total of 2634-4830 hours.
Sarah’s estimates are a bit more conservative than Richard’s, but as you can see they still line up with the earlier studies.
The final video goes over the renowned Steve Kaufmann and his journey on learning Japanese.
While he doesn’t provide an exact length of time that it took him to achieve fluency in the video, in his book he says that:
[The Way of The Linguist]
“I made a commitment to learn Japanese on my own, within six months.”
Steve had the advantage of living in Japan, but the disadvantage of having to work in an English environment at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. Fortunately he had a Japanese assistant whom he conversed with every day in addition to his private studies.
He had to sleep and spend time with his family, but Steve is a very determined guy so I would say four hours of personal study each day and one hour of conversation would be a fair estimate.
This number could actually have been higher on the weekends, but let’s just keep it consistent for math’s sake.
Six months times five hours equals just over 900 hours. This actually puts Steve at the low end of our earlier estimates, but there are two things you have to remember:
- He was already fluent in English, French, and Mandarin Chinese
- He could already read kanji
Taking into account these two factors, it actually makes perfect sense that he could learn it faster than a person who was learning Japanese as their first foreign language.
If we take a look at that chart that shows how many hours it takes to pass the N1 exam for people who don’t know kanji and those who already know kanji, we see that those with prior kanji knowledge studied 1300-2200 hours LESS.
In other words, we could give Steve a boost of 1300-2200 hours bringing his number up to 2200-3100 hours of study time in order to fairly compare it with Richard and Sarah.
It lines up. It matches.
I think that at this point, you’ve got your basic answer. It will most likely take you 2000-3000 hours of study to become fluent in Japanese.
How To Make The Journey To Fluency Fun
I want to manage your expectations here.
It’s going to take a while to learn Japanese. You’re going to have to put in a lot of hours, ten minutes a day simply won’t cut it.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the journey along the way. In fact, if you watched those videos then you might have caught on to a common theme: have fun in the language!
At the beginning, the fun comes from discovery.
You learn new sounds, you learn new scripts, you pick up some words and phrases, and you genuinely feel like you are making progress in the new language.
But at some point things begin to slow down. Learning 20 kanji is fun, but learning 2,000 is a lot of work.
The same goes for vocabulary. Learning 100 words isn’t too bad, but learning 10,000 is a daunting task.
That is unless you make the process enjoyable.
How much faster do you think you would learn Japanese if you not only looked forward to engaging with the language everyday, but you also lost track of time while doing so?
The way to do that is to learn Japanese from material that you are naturally interested in.
You read the books you want to, you play the video games you love, and you watch the shows that make you happy.
All in Japanese.
I wrote an article a while ago about my top two resources for learning Japanese.
That article explains how to start learning the language as a beginner, and then how to learn the language naturally from the things that you enjoy doing.
If that’s something that interests you, then be sure to check it out.
If you have any comments or questions, leave them down below.
Now you know what it takes. 頑張って！