Estimated Effort/Plan to Learn Japanese after hours as an adult?
February 19, 2020 9:42 AM   Subscribe

I've long been interested in many aspects of Japanese culture (film, woodworking, apparel, textiles, stationary) and my family did work and lived there for 1.5 years when I was young. I'm considering learning the language as a middle aged adult and I'm curious to get a sense for how much time I should plan for study, successful tools and practices, and realistic outcomes. I'm a working professional with a small child at home, so I probably about 5-8 hours per week or so available for study.
posted by ccoryell to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The (US) Foreign Service Institute has done some work on this (note - Japanese is classified under 'Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers' and sub-categorised under 'Usually more difficult than other languages in the same category').

But motivation is huge. My advice and experience is to combine several techniques to help with reinforcement, and work your way up step by step - I've found both textbooks (e.g. this and this and tools such as Rosetta Stone to both be valid here with a way to measure progress through testing, as well as making lots of notes (e.g. write your own vocabulary and phrase notebook you can refer to at odd times when you have a moment) to learn actively, and even fun books like Making Out in Japanese or the Original Point and Speak Book.
NHK also has some online lessons in bite-sized chunks.

Start off simple and use notes and achievable challenges, but don't neglect either the grammatical structure or the writing system as these are both key, is my advice.
posted by plep at 10:20 AM on February 19

The Foreign Service Institute lists Japanese as a "super-hard" language for English speakers; they estimate 2200 hours of classroom learning on average to achieve professional level fluency. Note that for every hour of classroom time, there's in general somewhere between one and three hours of practice and independent work done.

I've taken Spanish as an adult learner, and done 180 classroom hours, about a third of what the FSI suggests is needed for fluency. I was probably closer to the one hour practice per classroom hour than to three on that scale. At my height (I've been out of practice for some time) I was approaching intermediate skill; I was capable of basic conversation in the common verb tenses, I could read material aimed at a general audience using a dictionary to cover new vocabulary, I could follow movies and TV with subtitles (but not from the audio alone). I have always needed a course to force me to keep the practice of study up (and to provide a structure), but courses alone aren't sufficient; you need exposure to different media to build vocabulary and to make the grammar stick.

One thing that helped me enormously was previous experience in language learning, and in a similar language (French). Language learning is a skill (or set of skills) in itself, and if this is your first language, you'll need to do that too.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:31 AM on February 19 [2 favorites]

don't neglect either the grammatical structure or the writing system as these are both key, is my advice.

If you are serious about learning Japanese, and are interested in Japanese culture and therefore presumably materials and texts aimed towards native speakers (eventually), I would recommend that you learn hiragana and katakana -- the Japanese syllabaries, which are almost perfectly phonemic -- right off the bat. There are just under 100 kana in total, so very doable with a little bit of effort.

If you have never tried to teach yourself a non-Latin writing system, this can seem daunting, but kana is almost a perfect place to start. There is an almost 1:1 correspondence between kana sound and writing (so か is always /ka/ and /ka/ is always written か) with only a couple of exceptions (は or を as particles), so learning kana is nothing like learning English spelling -- it's very systematic.

Being able to read kana will get you used to reading written Japanese, which has no spaces (arigatо̄ gozaimasu 'thank you very much' is written ありがとうございます all run together) and can help prevent bad pronunciation habits.

Kanji (Chinese characters) on the other hand are a totally different beast, but it is possible to learn them, even as an adult. It's basically a question of exposure and time (both of which you will need a lot of).
posted by andrewesque at 10:38 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]

On realistic outcomes: keep your expectations low. Unless you're planning on immersing yourself in the language somehow, it will be very difficult to make serious progress.

I studied Japanese for a few years in high school before spending about 1.5 years there in highschool and university. I learned more in my first month of being there (in suburban Hiroshima, with no native English speakers to talk to) than in all of my previous studies.

I was in a best-case scenario (total immersion, multiple hours a day to study, huge incentive to learn because not learning meant social isolation) and I still didn't achieve total fluency. At my peak I could read young adult novels slowwwwwwly, and carry on everyday conversations. This was enough to pass level 1 of the JLPT, but I think that says more about the low standards of the JLPT than anything else.
posted by ripley_ at 11:07 AM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Japanese is so so hard. I've been studying the language for a long time now, and I've been putting in regularly consistent time going into year three. This is after 2 years of college level Japanese followed by a ten year break. The progress between I can read hiragana, katakana and a few hundred kanji to I can access native material and sort of know what's happening sometimes is an incredible slog. I'm finally getting to the other side of that. Finally. It's took about two years of study, of atleast 10 hours a week to sometimes 20.

Maybe I'm bad at learning languages, but I am a determined and stubbron individual with wierd amounts of time.

My tips, for reading the more kanji you know the better. Wanikani had been the way i have finally gotten kanji into my brain. I haven't finished I'm about 25 percent done with that program.

I decided to use the jlpt as a measure of my progress, I take a test a year (note the test is only offered twice a year, and in America it is only offered once). The first year I did the very basic test . It went over pretty much what I'd learned in college so it was a good way to get started. It also serves as a good sort of curriculum guide in terms of grammar points and vocab. It neglects speaking, so make sure you have some way to do that to be able to use the language.

If you want to, really really want to it is possible it is rewarding. I mean there are lots of things out there that talk about language learning and tips and tricks... But as far as I can tell it really is just time, and effort and so much of it. I sometimes look around me and think about what else I could have used this time for and kind of freak out . But I keep going back. I guess that's what is making me kind of successful at it.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:09 AM on February 19 [1 favorite]

I recommend learning katakana before hiragana. A lot of borrowed words in Japanese are written in katakana so you can start sounding stuff out and making sense of it right away which feels nice.

I used the Dr. Moku apps when I was picking up Japanese prior to a trip to Japan and they were very helpful.

In terms of vocabulary, check out your local library for audio resources. Some also have access to databases (my personal favorite is Transparent Language).
posted by donut_princess at 11:12 AM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Nthing that Japanese is very hard for English speakers (and vice-versa!).

On the bright side, pronunciation of Japanese for English speakers is actually quite easy (definitely NOT true for the reverse). Unlike Chinese or Korean, the sounds in Japanese are all in English and there is little worry about tones/etc. Like most foreign languages, if you don't specifically work at getting rid of it you'll have an obvious accent, but that doesn't really matter except for like actors.

The most obvious difficult point is reading and writing. This is very different than learning say German or French, where you can quickly get to the point where you could pick up a text and sound it out even if you don't know the meaning. Reading anything in Japanese meant for adults means knowing thousands of kanji, realistically.

It is much easier to read childrens books, as you only need ~92 characters to know the phonetic character sets.

In my experience learning European languages, reading and writing was easier than listening and speaking (and an easy way to practice solo), but in Japanese it's the opposite due to kanji.

One advantage of the modern era is that 'writing kanji by hand' is mostly unnecessary unless you really want to. Of the kanji I know [~300, not very many] I can type them and read them but can only hand-write a few [mostly the names of people I know and some of the very simple ones that are easy to just copy from memory].

In addition to the obvious reading/writing issues, Japanese grammar is quite different and there is a strong habit to leaving out "unnecessary" information which has to be filled in from context, which makes direct translation harder. This is one reason why Google Translate is very poor on conversational Japanese.

I studied for a couple years at the 6-8 hours a week level and travel there a couple times a year. I can carry on basic conversations, get around the country, order things at restaurants, etc. I can't have a "real" conversation [I definitely could not write or speak this comment in Japanese!]. And I have a native speaker spouse (but we speak mostly in English, both because her English is better and because we live the US so its more immediately useful for her to improve her non-fluent English than for me to improve my Japanese).

So... hard. If your goal is "watch movies in Japanese without subtitles", or "have a deep conversation in Japanese", thats probably years away at best. If your goal was "read books in Japanese written for adults" probably more like 5-10 years minimum (it takes Japanese students a long time to learn all that kanji and thats with being in a Japanese school). I strongly doubt fluency is possible without extended daily practice and probably also either living in a Japanese-speaking area or having a close friend/family member who speaks the language.

But if your goal is simple conversation, phrases, reading signs, that sort of thing its achievable in a much smaller timeframe and can be fun if you're into the culture and especially if you plan to travel there at all.
posted by thefoxgod at 1:21 PM on February 19 [4 favorites]

I haven’t read all the answers and this language tip might not apply at all due to the different alphabet- but I HATE learning languages, like really really hate.

I don’t really get joy from learning languages at all and certainly not past beyond the A1 level and it’s just really really difficult for me.

BUT I need to be able to regularly do the basics in Norwegian and German and just following people on Instagram has helped me a lot. I have a picture and one or 2 sentences and I have to work it out... it might be a good add on for you.
posted by catspajammies at 1:46 PM on February 19

You sorta have it easy, there are so many resources now. You can use Anki, or some other Spaced Repetition Software for vocabulary and kanji/kana learning. You can use Facetime/Hangouts/Skype to actually practice with native speakers. You can use a browser plugin to let you mouse-over some word you don't know and get a popup dictionary entry. You can find basic bilingual podcasts to listen to. You have mobile apps that will drill you on picking the right kanji for this sentence that you can play while sitting in the bathroom.

About 15 years ago when I decided to try to learn Japanese for like the third time... there was at least the internet. Long story short, I ended up being the admin of a Japanese learning site, the only one around at the time, because I offered a solution to a technical problem and the site owner just gave me the server password and told me to go nuts. That's just to say that at one point I spent a lot of time fooling around with Japanese learners and Japanese learning English learners so I have opinions that may or may not align with best current advice of take a class or go through a textbook. I'm a weirdo.

I really liked Heisig for learning the kanji. It's not for everyone. Heisig is learning how to write and recognize all the kanji without learning the readings or precise meanings or their usage in vocabulary. That comes later. It's like learning to distinguish and write any other alphabet before making it into words. This is in opposition to learning kanji one by one as vocabulary as needed. You can do both, do Heisig while your learning other things and there's no harm in learning some kanji in other contexts. The third phase of Heisig is learning that all of the kanji that have this shape are pronounced X, all the ones with this other shape are pronounced Y except for this one which is Z.

Learn to write with a brush (or really a brush-like-pen). The shape and strokes of characters are defined and constrained by writing them with a brush. If you learn with a pencil or a pen and don't get the flow of writing with a brush, you'll never be able to read signs outside of shops or people's handwriting. This is akin to the difference between printing and cursive. If you learn with a brush, you can look at a kanji and imagine how it was written and know via a bit of muscle memory exactly what kanji that hen-scratch has to be.

Watch some of this person's videos: Japanese Calligrapher Takumi

Eventually you start writing them in the air with your finger, then you just write them in your mind. But it's the brush and strokes that let you recognize and write the kanji. Japanese the Manga Way: An Illustrated Guide to Grammar and Structure (8601405895202): Wayne P. Lammers: Books. This has all of the basic grammar and syntax points done very well. It was made by the same people who did Mangajin (which you can find on the internets). It covers 95% of what you'd find in A Dictionary of Japanese Grammar - The Tofugu Review. I lost count of the number of grammar questions I answered on that learning site just by flipping through LJTMW and paraphrasing explanations and examples.

If you can't tell, I prefer front-loading the hard bits, learn to recognize and write all the things, learn the grammar, syntax, conjugations, politeness levels, phrasing... Then you can add vocabulary as needed. I don't like the approaches that remind me of taking French in high school where you spend a week on a chapter learning one new verb and 12 new nouns and have a quiz.

Really, Anki - powerful, intelligent flashcards is your friend. There are decks for hiragana/katakana/kanji/grammar/vocabulary/etc. and you can configure things so you can do 15 minutes of each every day. I totally wish it had been around when I was studying. I think that will knock down that "hardest language ever" a good bit.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:31 PM on February 19

I studied Japanese for a year in college (1hr class 5x week + homework). I thought it was easy! I could read and write in hiragana and katagana, make basic conversation and write compound sentences; the language is very phonetic. Our professor was a native speaker from Japan. When I graduated a few years later I lived there for a year and got around fine. My biggest problem was being kind of shy - if I were naturally chattier my Japanese would have gotten a lot better. Somewhere in there, at my best, I was about a kindergarten level: I could read picture books and kids manga (without too many kanji), and watch Ponyo without the subtitles and get enough of it. I was teaching English there and could understand what my 4-5 yr old students were saying to me in Japanese.

It really depends on your goals and if languages are easy and/or fun for you. If you're into Japanese culture that will be hugely motivating and there will be lots of ways to make it super fun and I think the pay off will be great. Learning a language provides really great insight into the nuance of the culture too - fascinating.
posted by jrobin276 at 4:57 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]

Another resource that's spinning up is NativShark. It has a slider to set your preferred pace of learning. They suggest general basic fluency in 4 years if you're spending 1.5 hours a day, 8 years at 45 minutes a day, and 1 year at 6 hours a day but they say it's gonna be really hard. NativShark FAQ.
posted by glonous keming at 5:25 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

I have a full-time job and I've been studying Japanese ~5 hours a week for about 6 months now. I am nowhere near fluent, but I have definitely learned a lot. Don't worry about how hard Japanese is - that will demotivate you and stress you out. Instead, think about how enjoyable it is to learn a couple of words every day. I use Mango Languages for speaking/listening practice and I find it more useful than the Japanese class I took. I also started using WaniKani to learn kanji, and it seems to be working well. But apps are more interactive (and therefore more useful) than a textbook. I practice in 15 minute spurts two or three times a day (during breakfast, at lunch, and on the bus). I don't think it's necessary to study for a full hour at a time. I also used Hiragana Pro and Katagana pro and they worked well for me.
posted by Penguin48 at 7:59 PM on February 19

I hope you don't feel discouraged by the responses mentioning that Japanese is a hard language! It is a hard language for an English speaker, and even an easy language is a very long-term project, but the journey can be as enjoyable as the destination.

The more you learn, the more you'll realise that you don't know. But that's OK, and 1% of the way to fluency is still infinitely more useful than 0%. You'll be surprised by how far a little bit of language can take you, and also by the seemingly never-ending depth of the language as you progress.

Consistency is the most important part - it's better to run 15 minutes a day of flashcards than to burn yourself out from a long study session that makes you never want to touch the language again.

And I have to plug my all-time favourite language learning hack - turning films into flashcards with Subs2SRS. Use this once you can understand some basic grammar and phrases. I have had great results using these cards to drill listening comprehension, learn new vocab and really useful idiomatic phrases. The sooner you can break away from ultra-clear, polished, formal speech that's found in courses, the sooner you can engage with native speakers and media.

Plus, incorporating your interests into your language learning will help keep your motivation high! Learn the common vocabulary for woodworking. Try and read the labels on your stationery (look for katakana - it's probably Japanese-ified English!). Watch a Japanese documentary about textiles and see how many words you can pick out. And so on. Real sentences about things that you really care about will stick in your head better than Duolingo-style "the penguin sits on the table" sentences.

Good luck, ganbatte!
posted by Glier's Goetta at 2:43 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]

If your goal is to be able to read websites or magazines, I would estimate a minimum of four hours a week indefinitely. 15 mins kanji practice daily (Heisig or Wanikani), 15 minutes Anki for vocabulary daily, and a minimum half an hour of grammar study.

If your goal is speaking, you will probably need that + as much speaking practice as possible.

This is going to be a lifelong journey, so set intermediary goals, like JLPT 5 in one year or "be able to read along with this one repetitive Instagram account" in one year.
posted by tofu_crouton at 10:21 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

Oh, hey... The ONLY 3 Learning Hacks That Work - Science Proven Techniques.

All three points ring true. Give it a guess and be corrected or find the answer and you'll remember. Spaced Repetition (let Anki or similar do that for you). Spread out your area of study, do some kanji, do some vocabulary, do some grammar, do some chat/conversation... mix it up a bit.

It seems slower than going through a textbook or taking a class at first. But eventually things add up and combine and your skill hits that hokey stick curve where it starts making sense.

Remember that the "hard fluency" is a government thing for ambassadors, diplomats, etc. And JLPT is for business and that salaryman. Being able to chat with everyday people about everyday things is much easier.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:01 PM on February 21

I speak Japanese decently well, having studied it for over a decade.

The two best pieces of advice I can give you:

1. Read How to Learn Any Language: Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably and on Your Own by Barry Farber. It will teach you have to make the most of your time and study effectively.

2. Use the Pimsleur audio courses along with any other books or resources you decide on. It's super effective, especially when it comes to be able to reply quickly and get the accent correct. At retail, one unit costs a couple hundred dollars. But if you have an subscription, you can get a full unit (30 half-hour lessons) of Pimsleur lessons from Audible for 5 credits (approx $75 USD). Otherwise, you can buy physical CDs on eBay or other places for a discount.
posted by Vorteks at 12:46 PM on February 23

I am an enthusiastic but very casual language learner, and I've been studying Japanese on my own for about 7 years now.

I have a LOT of other demands on my time, so I take a very relaxed approach with a strong emphasis on having fun and very little concern for external assessments - as long as I can see that I'm making progress, I'm happy.

  • I strongly second the suggestion to use Anki.
  • You will definitely want a browser plug-in like Rikaichamp - when you hover over Japanese text it shows a popup with kanji, pronunciation, definitions, everything. I would hate to learn Japanese without it.
  • Check your library. Many libraries have good self-teaching books and courses with CDs. Some even have books in Japanese.
  • I found Michel Thomas very helpful for getting started. Check your library - I used a library copy.
  • I found Pimsleur very helpful for the next stage. I used a library copy. One section of the series was missing, but I was able to use the rest with no problem.
  • The folks at A Language Learner's Forum seemed to generally like Assimil Japanese with Ease - and I did too. I am very frugal when it comes to language materials (lots of library use, lots of cheap used books), but I bought both volumes of this and considered it money well spent.
  • Look for reading material as soon as you can. I worked my way through a 15-volume series of children's books aimed at first-graders, I imagine; it was a slog (but fun!), and at the beginning it took me a couple of hours to get through a single page, but it was a huge, huge help. I recommend checking out this site for dual language children's stories, as well as Watanoshi, a free, easy web magazine that has English translations for all the articles and audio for some. With Watanoshi, I don't worry about not being able to read the kanji, because I have Rikaichan to help me; I pay more attention to whether I can decode the sentences correctly before checking the English translation.
  • Duolingo is not bad, and is free, so why not? I try to do 5 minutes of Duolingo every day.
  • I have very mixed feelings about JapanesePod 101, but you can subscribe to their free iTunes feed to get a few free lessons a week (full transcripts are USUALLY available at the website, although you have to pay to get the PDF versions). If you choose to sign up for the Premium level, you can sign up for a month, subscribe to the full Premium Feed in iTunes, download EVERYTHING (literally hundreds of lessons, with the accompanying PDFs), and then cancel before the auto-renew kicks in, and then you've got a really extensive set of content for about $25. I wouldn't use it as an ongoing subscription, myself, but I have subscribed to the free feed for all their languages, and I've used the one month premium subscription for a couple of languages (including Japanese).
  • kana: I strongly second the suggestion to learn the kana as soon as you can - doesn't so much matter whether you do hiragana first or katakana first.
  • kanji: I, personally, am largely ignoring the kanji. Many people would consider that the wrong approach, but to my way of thinking, Japanese children learn to speak the language before they learn to write, so why shouldn't I? It does make it much more difficult to find good reading material, but as long as you have something like the Rikaichan plugin, you should be fine.
  • write and speak all the time: I've been experimenting with the AAPPL tasks and topics (download the PDFs there) to try to write and speak as often as I can. I had avoided doing that for a long time because I thought I needed immediate feedback and correction, and I don't have a teacher. I still think feedback would be helpful, but I'm no longer worried about cementing mistakes - I think it's MUCH better to just try, and practice as much as possible, and worry about correction later. However, you CAN get correction, too, through sites like iTalki and my current favorite, The Mixxer, which is sponsored by a university and just has a better vibe.
I hope this is helpful - and I hope you dive in and try a bunch of things and see what works for you!

Good luck - and がんばって!
posted by kristi at 9:41 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]

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