Japanese Fluency is not a Race

Japanese Fluency is not a Race post image
Japanese Fluency is not a Race

You can do it!

There always seems to be a race to finish the JLPT, to get to N1 as soon as you can. The idea is to get it out of the way and move on with your studies. For example, some people might need it for a job, others might need it to look better for a permanent residency application (N1 helps you qualify in certain situations).

And I think a lot of us would like to not do so much drilling and go back to just using the language. Because the JLPT can sometimes lend itself to over-drilling. Maybe you didn’t pass this particular level and you feel like you should have because you have been using Japanese for awhile now, so that in turn leads you to drill grammar and vocabulary relentlessly.

I’ve personally been studying for the N1 now for about a year and a half. Well, that isn’t completely true. I’ve put down the drill books several times so I can do things like read Harry Potter and read up on house buying in Japan. But, for the most part, N1 has been my goal over the last year and a half.

And from time to time I get a kind comment or email from someone about the fact that I’ve lived in Japan for 9 years but still haven’t passed N1. I’m sad to say it, but there are actually people that have been here much longer than me that could barely manage N5. Living and working in Japan doesn’t automatically make you fluent after all.

And being conversational doesn’t automatically mean you can pass even N5, but that’s a different story.

Becoming fluent isn’t a race, there is no deadline for passing N1. Passing N1 with 2 years of studying doesn’t earn you a special merit badge (although it is admittedly pretty cool).

Who said you have to be Fluent in 3 days, months, years?

Benny Lewis, the blogger behind “Fluent in 3 Months”, is incredibly inspirational. He travels the world learning new languages, trying to master a new language within 3 months. He has many great tips and really walks the walk with language learning. And I do think that you can become pretty conversational within 3 months if you completely immerse yourself like he does.

But let’s be realistic. A lot of us have other things going on and can’t just take 3 months to breathe it all in. We have distractions, classes or a job, possibly family, and just, ya know, having fun. Benny still has great tips to get to speaking fast. And I think he has some great advice, but his lifestyle is a little hard to emulate and some people might not want to leave everything behind to come live in Japan.

I would say that Japanese can be a big part of your life or a small part. You can slowly make your way through the JLPT or take them head on and study for them every waking hour. It really is your choice.

Have a Goal and Move Toward It

Just because you can be fluent in 3 months doesn’t mean you have to do it that way, or should do it that way if that doesn’t match your personality/lifestyle. There are many ways to get to where you want to go.

It’s best to know what your goals are beyond just passing the test, too. Do you want to travel in Japan? Chat with your Japanese friends? Watch jDramas all day without problems? Make sure your goal has a personal meaning for you and keep moving toward it.

Passing the test is cool, but don’t let just being cool be your goal. What are you going to use all this knowledge for? Or are you in it just for the challenge? Nothing wrong with that either.

It really doesn’t matter how long it takes. A friend of mine, who has been in Japan for about 12 years just took the N4, and he is half Japanese! So, if you’ve been putting it off, don’t worry about it. Even if you think you are too old to change your ways, give it a try and challenge yourself. Just remember there is no time limit.

How Long have you been Studying?

I’d like to know how long you’ve been studying and are you moving toward your goals or just enjoying the ride? Let me know in the comments.

Photo by Mrhayata

{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Jerry Walton-Pratcher August 3, 2013, 9:52 pm

    I enjoyed reading this post, I like the idea advice. Though in my particular case I really truly wish I could slow down from this intense study of 6+ hours a day 280days a year. But, Im in that top exception who needs it for almost all reasons mentioned above. Particular for entrance to grad school. I first started my intense study March of 2012 with a goal of passing JLPT N2 by July after passing that I was told maybe if I pass N1 I will stand a chance at surviving grad school in Japan.

    Every since then I have been going nuts with study and learning all aspects including extreme sacrifices. As you can see N1 is not exactly my goal but moreso a objective towards entering grad school.

    Overall, I have been intensely study Japanese for N1 for about 1 year and a half.

    • Clayton MacKnight August 4, 2013, 6:42 am


      Wow, that sounds pretty tough, but I think it is possible with some serious immersion and reading a lot. If you have a that much time to dedicate to studying than I say go for it. Are you going to grad school in Japan?

      • Jerry Walton-Pratcher August 6, 2013, 1:37 pm

        Yes, im setting up to apply for three Universities Kyoto University, Rikkyo University and Ritsumeikan University

  • jaime August 4, 2013, 1:47 pm

    Out of curiosity, Jerry, did you have any background in Japanese before you started your intense study in March 2012?

    • Jerry Walton-Pratcher August 6, 2013, 1:41 pm

      I had one year of exposure and a year of study abroad experience. Though I can sadly say even after all that I only could understand the same amount of Japanese as the follow book (AN INTEGRATED APPROACH TO INTERMEDIATE JAPANESE) which is about 中の中 sort of speak.

      After that I just self studied since I found it to be better that taking classes.

      • Chad Brick August 7, 2013, 8:10 am

        That was the 3rd year book at my university. It’s probably late N4, early N3 if I recall. Given your experience, it sounds you were N4-ish before your current stint.

        I am surprised you don’t find classes useful. They may not be worth the cost, but there are a lot of issues I have trouble sorting out on my own that I find teachers invaluable for. For example, if you misunderstand something and are doing it wrong, teachers stop you and fix the problem. Your native friends probably let it slide a million times before someone tells you, if they ever do. Also, studying grammar is a real bear by yourself. I can’t count the number of times I have run into a sentence whose words I all understand, but whose meaning I just can’t figure out..sometimes even when I have a correct English translation of it.

        I meet with a tutor once a week now and it helps a lot in sorting out the stuff that you just cannot “look up”.

  • Chad August 6, 2013, 9:09 am

    “Living and working in Japan doesn’t automatically make you fluent after all.”

    What makes you fluent is actually dealing with Japanese, and neither living in Japan nor working in Japan necessarily forces this on you. Many jobs put you in the position of doing your own thing most of the day (I’d put mine at about 70%), in which case language is irrelevant and exposure to Japanese minimal. Of the remainder where you ARE interacting with people, the odds are good that at least a few people around you have decent English skills, or people with poor skills want to practice, and all of a sudden you find that you really only spent about an hour “immersed” out of your ten hour plus day. Tnen you sit on the train and are alone some more.

    The same is also true in your personal life. You probably spend a fair amount of time alone reading blogs like this one, or whatever floats your boat. Some of your friends are other ex-pats. Many of your Japanese friends can speak English or want to practice. Again, your “immersion” time can easily slip down to an hour or so per day very easily.

    Personally, I actively study about one hour a day, and estimate that I get approximately two hours of additional immersion per day by living in Japan. Realistically, N1 is something on the order of 2000 hours of study plus double that in immersion time at minimum. Depending on how hardcore you can immerse yourself, you are probably still looking at many years. I’ve meet far more 9+ year residents who couldn’t pass N2 than could pass N1. You certainly have nothing to be embarrassed about. Heck, I know one guy, a PhD electrical engineer who has lived in Japan for eight years and speaks consistent with nearly N1 level, who yet had to ask me if something was milk because he couldn’t read 牛乳. Everybody has their own style, and own pace.

    • Jerry Walton-Pratcher August 6, 2013, 1:45 pm

      I agree with this message and the message of it not being a race. Thanks you guys made me feel much better!

    • Clayton MacKnight August 10, 2013, 12:01 am

      This is so true and a great picture of what it is like living/working in Japan. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Cure Dolly August 10, 2013, 1:27 am

    Here is my one essential tip for immersing yourself while in Japan. DON’T ADMIT TO KNOWING ENGLISH. If you do you’ll spend half your time talking it or some attempt at it. English is what Esperanto was intended to be. If you don’t want to learn the local language that is a blessing. If you do, it is the worst curse imaginable. My permanent home is currently Mexico, and while I am in Japan I say I am from Mexico and generally let it be understood that my English is minimal. I feel a little deceptive, but honestly, if I admitted to English I would hardly be immersed at all.

    • Victoria August 11, 2013, 5:59 am

      YES! A lot of people want to practice their English. That’s understandable but it’s how I define a paid service, not friendship. These days I only speak English with people who will speak Japanese with me. Recently I met someone who will speak Japanese with me, but not in front of other Japanese people. So far I’m stifling my discomfort with this, because at least its practice!!

      • Cure Dolly August 11, 2013, 10:42 am

        Well if you are in a position to do it, here’s a thought for you. Join some group that does something that interests you and claim some other native language. If you have one you speak well, use that, if not choose something obscure (my Spanish is terrible actually – I cheerfully translate the basic aisatsu and other bits and pieces for interested people, but I dread encountering someone who really knows the language!)

        I know this seems weird but my feeling is that if one spoke ANY language but English one wouldn’t be in this crazy position. So just make that the case. The drawback is that you can’t use English as a crutch EVER – whatever the emergency. But then if you didn’t speak English you couldn’t. That is the point.

        Being a doll, of course, I have the advantage that I can sneakily switch off my English-language circuitry. But I am sure humans can do roughly the same thing.

  • Victoria August 11, 2013, 6:05 am

    “I’m sad to say it, but there are actually people that have been here much longer than me that could barely manage N5.”

    Ain’t that the truth!!

    I agree wholeheartedly that taking this crazy, insane, why-the-hell-would-anyone-ever-do-this marathon course at one’s own pace is essential, but these days I am perhaps unreasonably intolerant of those who have lived here for over ten years and haven’t made any effort at all. I think it’s because they reinforce so many negative stereotypes that make it harder for me (at least in my perception) to achieve the integrated, bi-lingual, more-than-just-an-English-language-interactive-24×7-cultural-experience existence that I want from being in this country.

    If people already have more than one language, I completely understand it. I used to plan on studying both Japanese and Mandarin, but I can’t really imagine doing taking on something like this twice any more. That’s fine. But to speak only English when you’re here, married, kids in school, own your own house… I cannot relate to that at all. It must be hell, too – never being able to engage fully with the world around you, living so heavily reliant on others. I couldn’t do it, I don’t want to do it, and I don’t find it particularly comfortable spending my time with people who do as our viewpoints tend to differ. Unfortunately there seem to be so many English speakers like this. I hope I can meet more people who are truly committed to becoming fluent and living full lives here, even if they’re taking it at a steady pace to make the most of their daily experiences during the process.

    • Clayton MacKnight August 13, 2013, 2:20 am

      I think some of them like that attention though. And, at first, it was nice to just walk around and not be bombarded with sensory overload, ads everywhere, flyers in your face and all that. If you don’t know the language it is just that easier to block out. Now, if someone is talking loudly on the train, I want to eavesdrop and practice my listening. 🙂 Which is interesting of course, but distracting at the same time.

      I can understand being a little lazy about it, but just completely ignoring it if you have been living here for awhile, that’s different.

  • Charlene August 11, 2013, 6:04 pm

    I really like this article. I started studying Japanese a bit more than 2 years ago. I’m not studying as much as I wish because of all the reasons you mentioned in this post. I’m preparing for N4, I can now have “decent” conversation in Japanese but I’m far from being fluent. I only decided to learn Japanese for fun. Studying for the JLPT is just a way to set myself a goal and push myself more. Especially when you are studying on your own, sometimes it’s hard to keep your schedule and study regularly (especially in the summer time ^_^ ). But in the end, it doesn’t matter if it takes 6 months or 6 years. I want the road to be fun, to take pleasure in learning and practicing with my Japanese friends. No matter what you do in life, I really think you should make it as fun as possible!

    • Clayton MacKnight August 13, 2013, 2:24 am

      Charlene, I think you have a nice smooth pace. 2 years for N4 is pretty comfortable I think. I managed 三級 (old N4) in about a year and a half living in Japan, and I wasn’t really beating the books that hard, just taking it easy. I hope you have a good time of it.

  • Thomas Hanley November 14, 2014, 2:46 am

    I started studying Japanese in September of last year, two 3 hour group classes a week at night (I had the time because I was repeating modules in my major, needless to say, Japanese became an obsession and I had to force myself to study the other!). That class ran from September to April where we completed Genki 1. I actually spent January at home because I had an operation over Christmas, so I devoted myself to studying Japanese 24/7. I started studying Heisig’s RTK for 2-3 hours a day and by April I had reached around 1700 kanji, afterwards I finished the book while I was in Kyoto in July. Heisig’s is a wonderful book I think, I even emailed him and he replied to me!

    In japan we used Minna no Nihongo which is an excellent textbook and the equally great kanji master books. I don’t know how my suitcase didn’t break with the weight of all the Japanese books I brought home.

    Right now I have a lesson twice a month with a guy from tokyo, and we are working through Genki 2. We’ll probably be finished that before next summer so I’ll probably ask him to go through Minna no Nihongo 2 with me, all going well. Genki and MnN go nicely hand in hand I think, there is a lot of overlap of course but MnN is more involved (and closer to the natural Japanese I think, from my experience) so Genki is a good warm up. I’m aware that there are intermediate books floating around but still, I’m amazed nobody had made a Genki 3 or MnN 3!

    I’ll be taking the N5 this December, and all going well, the N4 next year. I am currently doing a masters here in Ireland (not in Japanese) so I am tied down until next October but my plan is to apply for the JET programme at the end of next year, and hopefully be accepted!

    • Clayton MacKnight November 21, 2014, 2:55 pm

      I hope to see you back here soon! I would say with all the kanji you know and recognize, you could probably just start doing a lot of reading to build your vocabulary up.

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