Japanese fluency demands around 2,200 hours of study time—that’s six years if you study for an hour a day.
There’s no way around it. You need to make Japanese a daily habit.
Otherwise, you won’t be prepared when someone drops the F word—fluency, that is.
“You’re studying Japanese? Are you fluent?”
“Are you fluent?” is possibly the question most dreaded by all language learners.
What degree of proficiency even counts as “fluent,” anyway?
Being able to have a conversation? Being able to write 2000+ kanji characters? Never having to use a dictionary? It’s terrifying to even contemplate describing oneself as “fluent” without looking obnoxious. Even worse is the nagging self-doubt—will I ever actually reach “fluency”?
The path to being fluent looks rocky and difficult from the outset, with so many obstacles that this shining goal may seem almost impossible to reach. I don’t know about getting you to one hundred percent native-like, but what I can do is help you get from elementary level to a level that you can be proud of, and one that won’t make you want to cry when people ask that dreaded fluency question.
Japanese is described as one of the most difficult languages to learn (a few choice examples are these descriptions by EffectiveLanguageLearning.com and BusinessInsider.com). Unlike arguably easier languages for native English speakers, such as French, German and Spanish, Japanese requires several years of constant dedication.
Studying the traditional way—with textbooks, CDs and perhaps a teacher—is only a small part of reaching beyond beginner and lower-elementary level.
Here are six great ways that you can step up your Japanese ability every day and get closer to that goal, that magic word, “fluency.”
This article is for people living in Japan and also people living at home. Living in the country of your target language is important, of course, but not necessary. If you’re not living in Japan right now, don’t despair. The first steps to fluency are possible if you know where to look.
How to Become Fluent in Japanese by Building 6 Regular Habits
1. Study Japanese every day
I know I just said that traditional studying methods are only a small part of it, but they’re an essential part nonetheless. Grab a few recommended textbooks and knuckle down for at least twenty minutes a day (ideally an hour or two, but twenty minutes is better than nothing).
This will give you the basics and the “correct” forms of grammar, situationally appropriate language, clear examples and practice exercises. Immersion alone is all very well and good when you’re a toddler, but when you’re older, studying is (unfortunately) a required part of learning complicated rules and grammar patterns.
- For grammar lessons: The “Genki” books are always a great choice. They come in both elementary and intermediate levels.
- For learning kanji: “Basic Kanji Book” Volumes 1-3 by Ishii and company are a good start. “Remembering the Kanji 1” by James Heisig is also strongly recommended as it gives great hints and tips for remembering stroke order and radical meanings.
- For Japanese immersion: FluentU is ideal for learning authentic Japanese. FluentU provides plenty of tools to actively practice your Japanese vocabulary and grammar, like real-world videos, interactive subtitles, flashcards, vocabulary lists and more.
- Free websites and apps for supplementing study materials: Recommended websites include thejapanesepage (has lots of fun videos, plus offers help on grammar and kanji) and JapanesePod101 by Innovative Language (emphasizes listening through video and audio lessons, has interactive learning features and it caters to a wider range of skill levels).
2. Attend a local class
Studying alone can be jarring, and difficult to keep dedicated to, especially if you have a busy lifestyle. Joining a class can help you:
- Brush up your grammar and vocabulary.
- Get help on areas you’re struggling with.
- Bump up your study hours and keep up your motivation.
- Surround yourself with other people whose common goal is that beautiful word: Fluency.
Here’s how to join a Japanese language class no matter where you are in the world.
- If you’re in Japan, check out your town’s local city hall for Japanese classes. Sometimes they’re offered for free to foreigners. Take advantage of these!
- If you’re not in Japan, see if there are local classes you can join in your area. These might include anything from private lessons in cafes to official courses held at the local library. If there’s a university near you, see if they offer Japanese as a course. Language degrees sometimes offer courses for external students.
- Check out FirstTutors (UK only) and Verbling (worldwide) for online tutors. Verbling is all about online language learning, and it might be the biggest name in the business. You’ll be able to explore hundreds upon hundreds of Japanese teachers and find exactly the one who’s right for you.
3. Read Japanese as much as possible
It can be so easy to forget kanji right after learning it if you don’t practice as much as possible. Here are some great sources for reading Japanese, which is arguably one of the best ways to reinforce kanji knowledge.
- Online news and blogs. Asahi Shinbun and The Huffington Post JP are great places to start to read real Japanese. They can be easier to get hold of than physical Japanese newspapers.
- Japanese novels. Recommended non-manga books for Japanese language learners include “Breaking into Japanese Literature” by Giles Murray.
4. Listen to Japanese every day
Reading and writing alone won’t get you far past elementary level. A very important thing to do while learning Japanese is to listen to it.
This might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people focus only on textbooks for years, then feel like a deer in the headlights when it comes to having a conversation. After all, you learned your first language by listening and speaking before you went anywhere near reading and writing, right? The same goes for Japanese.
- Whenever you hear Japanese, pay close attention to intonation, speed and pronunciation. Imitate it if possible.
- Watch as much Japanese TV as possible if you’re living in Japan. Even if you don’t understand most of it, it’s excellent practice for your ears.
- There are many online podcasts you can listen to for easy access to natural conversation between natives. The websites mentioned before, thejapanesepage and JapanesePod101, offer bitesize podcasts that are usually free.
- Surfmusic offers lots of Japanese radio stations you can tune into. It might be better to ease yourself in with podcasts first, but feel free to access natural speed Japanese radio when you feel confident enough.
- Don’t forget classic YouTube—there are some great YouTube channels to follow to get in extra listening practice.
5. Join a club
With any hobby or discipline, surrounding yourself with people who are working towards the same goal is extremely useful and makes the endeavor a lot easier. As well as joining a class (or alternatively, if classes near you are expensive), why not join a language club?
A Japanese language club will probably be cheaper than formal classes.
Hint: Make sure you’re going for something language-based, such as a kanji club or language exchange club. Anime or culture clubs are fun, but probably won’t focus on the language so much.
6. Practice conversation every day
Lastly, and by far most importantly, make sure you actually speak Japanese! Every day, if possible. Here are some great tips on how to do this.
- If you’re in Japan, befriend a neighbor, a co-worker or even a member of staff at your local bar. Japanese people can be a little shy of foreigners for various reasons – the biggest being that they’re worried they won’t be able to speak to you in English. Get rid of this stigma, introduce yourself to the locals and practice your language skills on them. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
- Participate in a homestay program.
- If you’re not in Japan and there aren’t many Japanese people in your local area, participate in language exchange by getting a penfriend. Japan-Guide.com’s penfriend finding section is wonderful for finding people in Japan who want to learn English, and who want to teach you Japanese in return.
- Lang8 is also an excellent resource for connecting with like-minded language learners and meeting Japanese people who are willing to practice with you.
- With a penfriend you can exchange letters (great for practicing your kanji), send each other gifts and chat over Skype. Not to mention, you’ll make fantastic ties in Japan for when you visit.
With purpose, motivation and a bit of hard work, you can use the above tips to become fluent in Japanese in a fun and (almost) painless way.
Learning any language takes enthusiasm as well as effort, so enjoy it!
Learning Japanese isn’t a chore—it’s a fantastic skill that will open doors of opportunity the more you learn.
And One More Thing…
To make the process of achieving fluency even easier, you can use FluentU! As noted earlier, FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons..
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through all kinds of video content here.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your running vocab list for later review.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson and gets you to actively practice your newly-learned language.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.