A large chunk of my experience first studying Japanese was while I was living in Japan, so my situation may be different than yours. That being said, I would say that I would consider myself to be comfortably fluent after 2 or 3 years of rigorous Japanese study. That standard, however, keeps getting higher.
How long it took me to learn Japanese
If you’re wondering how long it takes to learn Japanese, I’m assuming what you actually mean in “How long before I can say anything I want in Japanese”, and it’s also likely that you came face to face with how difficult studying the language is, and wanted to know if this was something that is even possible. Well, I can say that based on my own experiences, it absolutely is possible for a native English speaker to become fluent. As for how long it takes to Learn Japanese…I think around 3 years of intense study (I’m talking over 3 hours a day of language exposure) is a safe estimate to become reasonably comfortable.
Don’t believe me? Well, I know this from my own personal experience. I started studying Japanese at 18 years old in late 2013. By early 2016 I had graduated from my Japanese language school and was scraping by in university courses… at a Japanese University. I went from knowing absolutely nothing, to taking (nearly failing) university level courses in Japanese in under 3 years.
That being said, I studied Japanese HARD for especially my first year in Japan. This is why when asking how long it takes to learn Japanese, there is a MASSIVE margin for variability. Your surroundings, and more importantly, the level of effort you put in is the biggest factor that will determine the answer to how long it takes to learn Japanese. Perhaps a better question would be; How many hours does it take to learn Japanese? …To be honest, it’s a bit difficult for me to personally answer that question, because the line of what constitutes ‘studying’ and what constitutes living your everyday life in Japan can get a bit blurred.
If you are just getting started; How I recommend getting started learning Japanese
Which textbook to use?
If you’re even considering studying Japanese you should first pick up the Japanese textbook that I used; Genki 1. There are a lot of reasons why I recommend this textbook. It introduces new grammar, vocabulary, and even new alphabets (yep, new alphabets). There are 3 alphabet’s in Japanese, and the book does a great job of slowly throwing them into example texts often enough to challenge new learners, but not be discouraging. The book is also very ‘memeable‘ and hilariously Japanese in it’s examples. (I remember there was one sentence about why boys shouldn’t cry when they’re sad. CULTURE!!! )
It’s a well known fact, known by all of my viewers, avid readers, and friends and family. I…am in love with a textbook. Genki 1 is love, Genki 1 is life! Really though, using Genki 1 should save you a lot of time when you first start studying Japanese, because it introduces what is important, but doesn’t shove (too much) useless information down your throat. It’s a great option.
I put a link to Genki 1’s US Amazon page below.
Do I need to take Japanese classes?
From early 2015 to 2016 I entered a Japanese language school, which was a fantastic environment to immerse myself in to learn Japanese. That being said, while the courses were quite intensive, what studying at the language school did for me more than anything else, is to give me a real-world view at the urgency required to learn a language. Learning a language is a bit like a survival game. As you pick up more and more tools, expand your vocabulary, learn new grammar, and become more comfortable speaking and writing, your chances of encountering any situations you can’t handle decreases. Studying at a language school and living everyday life in Japan gave me a view into the experience of what it is like to NOT be able to communicate effectively in another language. This is what drove me to learn Japanese faster. It takes less time to learn Japanese, and is easier to stay motivated when you feel like there is a practical application for using the language. If you want to read more about my experience studying in a Japanese language school, I wrote a separate article about that which I have linked below.
How long will it take me to learn Japanese by myself
In my experience, I don’t think a classroom setting is an optimal way to learn a language. As I had written above, it may take less time to learn Japanese in a classroom setting, because using the language in front of of your peers and being placed in a high-pressure environment raises the sense of urgency attached to learning the material. Basically, a classroom’s greatest benefit is as a motivation tool.
If you can dig deep, and find a way to motivate yourself to making Japanese study a part of your daily lifestyle, to the point where you don’t even think about it anymore, I don’t think it would take you much longer to learn Japanese on your own. In fact, I have developed my own study system over the years for self-teaching Japanese, as well as techniques I have used to teach myself how to write Japanese kanji characters. I think reading through both of these articles will help you learn Japanese faster, and save you time on things that might otherwise trip you up. I know from experience, because these techniques are all based on mistakes I made! I have linked both articles below, so feel free to check them out if you are trying to cut down on the amount of time it takes to learn Japanese.