Taking the world less travelled

All You Need To Learn Japanese Is Time

Posted by on May 7, 2008 in Language | 4 comments

In a recent post on the Language Learning Forums an interesting theory is being discussed. The idea is that it doesn’t matter what materials you use to learn a language, all that matters is time. In other words, you can use any method, it doesn’t matter what, but as long as you do it you will learn Japanese. I note that somewhere through the original poster changed his or her tune and started saying that method does matter (it has to be material that was intended for natives of the language, i.e. movies, books, etc) – Way to hurt your argument. I found this highly amusing that they are arguing one thing and saying another. Never the less, is time all you need?


Time is an important factor when learning a language. For instance, many people ask “How long will it take me to learn Japanese?” My favourite answer to that is: “Exact (sic) 5.37011 years. Adjust up or down based on high school GPA” – from Japan Guide.

Time is also important because without spending any time on learning Japanese, well, you aren’t going to learn it. But, can you use any method at all and eventually you will know Japanese? Are all the different ways of learning Japanese essentially the same in terms of how much you learn an hour and therefore people need to stop worrying about the how and just do?

I would argue that time is important in that the more time you have the more opportunity you have to learn more. However, there are more effective ways of using your time. For instance, if I was to watch Japanese TV programs and read Japanese magazines, I would probably eventually learn to understand Japanese. But for me, these are very slow methods indeed. Instead, if I learn the grammar of Japanese through a text book (for me it needs to be in written form) I can learn a lot more in a smaller amount of time (and then watch TV shows to reinforce what I have learnt!).

Perhaps if we all had an infinite amount of time to learn a language it wouldn’t matter, but a lot of people only have a certain amount a time a day that they can dedicate to their studies. So while time is an important factor, it isn’t the only factor.


Is there a secret method that will enable you to understand Japanese completely within a small amount of time? Not without some effort on your part. There are many variables when learning a language, such as what experience you have in similar languages and what particular learning styles you learn best with. To put it simply, there are methods out there that are better for you than other ones.

To find the right one, you will have to discover how you learn best and seek out these methods. I recommend you use a range of techniques for effective learning and to compliment what you have learnt elsewhere. It also stops things from getting stale – when you feel you have had enough of one method you can move onto another seamlessly.

Many programs and gurus talk about using materials that you find fun. This is good advice in that it keeps you motivated and time can fly by without feeling like you are learning. However, fun activities may not be the most effective ways to learn. So while you are having fun you may plateau or move at a slow pace – two things that may entice you to give up even though you are having fun.

The thing many methods forget to tell you is that learning Japanese is work. It doesn’t have to be hard work, but it is work. If your ideal way of learning is through grammar – well, I think we can all agree that grammar in itself isn’t fun. However, perhaps you can find a way to make the boring bits fun.

Perhaps you find fun in challenging yourself, to see how much you can learn in an hour, for example, excites you. Setting challenges can be an effective way to study. It is a type of goal setting, and seeing if you can work to your arbitrary goals. Your mind is focused on learning and less likely to get distracted, and when you meet your goals and exceed them, that can be very satisfying.

Another way is to balance out the “boring yet necessary” bits with fun. One way I do this is to set myself a goal to reach, and once I have reached it I get to watch a TV show, for example. The boring bits will make you appreciate the fun bits all the more, and motivate you to work hard for your reward. It also pays off when you find you can hear/read etc. what you have just learnt in your reward – knowing you have made progress is a great feeling.

To sum up:

bullet Time is an important factor when learning Japanese, however it is possible to waste time on ineffective learning methods.

bullet Discover how you learn best and utilise this information to learn at your optimum pace. Use a range of materials to keep you interested and to compliment what you have learnt in other places.

bullet Having fun while learning is a great motivation factor (to keep you continuing your studies and not give up) however it can also be a poor use of your time. I recommend trying to find a balance between the boring and fun bits – and believe me you don’t remember the boring bits when you are understanding a chunk of real Japanese.

What are your thoughts?

What are your thoughts on people’s quests to find the magical method to learn Japanese quickly and painlessly? Should people just work on learning Japanese instead of worrying about how to go about it, or should people take some time to consider what methods they should use? Leave a response in the comments!


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  1. アカン

    First time visitor! :D (followed the link from Feed Me Japanese)

    I certainly stress more on method over time. After all, your method can either be
    a)Too boring
    b)Too ineffective
    (or both)

    Which eats away your time which you could otherwise be spending doing something
    more worthwhile.

    And of course, you need to devote a substantial amount of time to Japanese everyday. I believe in understandable input and then putting the really interesting sentences in the SRS. Which is why I prefer FNN or TBS news (since they have almost exact transcripts that go with the audio). There’s also Miki’s Audio Blog from JapanesePod101.com (the exact transcript is available).

    As to the ‘method’ itself,
    “To find the right one, you will have to discover how you learn best and seek out these methods. ”
    That line says it all!

  2. Khalid

    Great Post! I agree – without time there is no learning. And without method, it could take quite a while!

    I think the original poster seemed to be implying that, whatever method you use, as long as you invest the time, you’ll reap the benefits. Some of the respondents took that to mean, just hang around a language and you’ll figure it all out.

    Perhaps he was reacting to some of the method forum wars out there where the focus is on finding the one method to rule them all. Some people buy that and go hardcore with whatever technique.

    And then they burnout.

    And to me, that’s the only problem I have with any method. If it burns you out and makes you want to learn the language *less*, something is wrong. The reactions from the defenders of the different methods is usually, “Suck it up, you lack the discipline to learn a language”.

    So, to spending “time”, i.e. reading, watching etc. for fun – part of why that’s valuable is that it generates questions. What does that mean? Why say it that way? I keep seeing/hearing that pattern, what does it communicate?

    The “method”, then, is how you go about answering those questions.

    Figure out what works for you and enjoy yourself.

  3. GoddessCarlie

    Actually Khalid, I have a post coming up next week that is about burnout – something I feel like I’m going through right now. I’m defiantly a “try em all” kind of person, but I think the methods that were working best for me were the ones I did most often, and now I feel like I can’t touch them with a ten foot pole!

    I do think people need a balance between the fun and not so fun. I’m definitely an introverted person, so getting out there and communicating with Japanese people would definitely not be fun for me, but it is probably something I need to do in order to become more fluent in Japanese. So sometimes we do need to push ourselves to do “non fun” things. And fun things themselves can be a slow way to learn a language. I also think that you have to make unfun things fun, like making a game out of learning grammar. etc etc etc.

    I think perhaps “suck it up” is almost right. But not quite. It’s more like “just do it”, or “if it’s not working for you, do something else. But do something!”. I think the problem is, it’s going to get tough at some stage for some reason, and people give up. So don’t give up!

    Anyway, to both Khalid and アカン, thanks for the awesome comments!

  4. Alex

    If all you ever read are children’s books (designed for Japanese children), you won’t be giving presentations on, “national markets contrasting global national trends in consumer spending,” ever, no matter how long you continue to read fairytales.

    You can only ever learn what you’ve been exposed to, and the only thing that matters is how quickly it sticks in your head. If you’re extremely bored and unattentive, you won’t be retaining much of anything. If you’re enthusiastic and determined, it’s just the opposite. (I notice you like watching dramas to improve your Japanese – You’re learning words in context, and the situations/scenes are tagged in your brain for quick information recall. That’s a method!) Having a clear goal in mind is a great motivational tool, also. It gives you something to aim at instead of just meandering about the wide-open-field of “fluency” looking for an open spot on the grass to sit down at.

    External motivation is also an important pshyco-linguistic tool, and it’s the primary drive in language acquisition in young children. If we didn’t have to speak a language, we typically wouldn’t try. But when we’re facing possible hardship or embarassment because our language-skills are lacking, we find ourselves externally motivated to compensate through determined study.

    Method is as important as time. Neither should be sacrificed for the serious student.


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