How long does it take to learn Japanese in realistic and practical terms?

From the six-month promise of language schools to the wry answer of ‘a lifetime’ from seasoned learners, the age old question from beginners has no definite answer. Fresh off the blocks, new students are keen to set study goals, and goals need timelines, but learning a language as complex as Japanese can be difficult to measure. While developing a rough timeline is possible, it will depend on key factors - each unique to the individual learner.

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Firstly, the goal will have a big impact - are you aiming for day-to-day conversations and common Kanji, or fluent business Japanese? As everyone’s goals are different, it’s likely the timescales for achieving them will be too. A popular route for testing is to take the official JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), which has five stages and focuses on learning how to read and write in Japanese. Beginners can take N5 and eventually progress to N1 - the official certificate for fluency. While there is no approved timescale, it is advised to take a year between tests, although many successfully take the initial two at only six months apart.

For many, the second biggest factor is the amount of time you are able to dedicate to studying. From a few hours a week to full-time study, the key is to remain constant. Setting aside dedicated time (and sticking to it) means you can build steadily and gain a good idea of your progress. 

For those able to move, the location can be an additional bonus. Study-abroad semesters during university courses or joining a language school can give a learner a unique immersive experience. While it can be taxing to study in a classroom environment for more than a few hours a day, living in a community offers the chance to practice during everyday tasks. Being able to speak and listen to Japanese on a daily basis is a surefire way to speed up learning, as familiarity with a language is key. In the same way that watching TV shows or listening to music can help, you can learn Japanese without ‘studying’ in the traditional sense. 

Working out your personalized timeline for mastering Japanese will require some honest consideration of your goals, your time and your dedication. Finding a balance that suits you is vital - enough to steadily progress but at a maintainable level which won’t lead to burnout. 

Whatever your timeline, learning Japanese can be a challenging but rewarding experience, so be sure to enjoy the journey as well as the final destination.

By: Lily Crossley-Baxter

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