How I Learned Japanese in 20 Months

Hello best life seekers!

Are you trying to learn Japanese or another language? Does it seem frustrating, boring and impossible?

Here’s how I had fun learning Japanese and went from Japanese noob to passing a Japanese legal reading exam in 20 months. Incidentally, I tripled my income and used the extra money to become financially independent.

WARNING: This formula will work for acquiring almost any skill.

Secret #1: Modeling

As with succeeding with anything, it’s useful to find someone who has done what you want to achieve. Knowing it’s achievable is a big mental help but often our role models also provide road maps to our desired destination.

Application. In my case, I learned about a guy who taught himself Japanese in 18 months and seemed legit. He ran a website called All Japanese All the Time and he was my greatest inspiration. I thought if he could do, I could do it. Following his method and seeing results immediately also made it easier to stick with the program and ignore everyone – including friends and family – when they rolled their eyes at my new obsession or listed all the reasons learning a language as an adult was hard or impossible.

Secret #2: Goal-Setting

The best goals are clear and specific, with defined milestones and written deadlines.

Application. When I set out to learn Japanese, I started with the end product in mind: passing the ALTA Japanese legal reading exam, the professional test used in my field. My timeline was 18 months. I wrote down what I would need to master for this and broke those goals down into language skills like reading, listening and writing and broke those categories down further into chunks I could measure and achieve over periods of weeks and months in a structured way. I also wrote down milestones and their deadlines, be they for vocabulary mastery at beginner, intermediate and business levels or number of sentences read each week in my Anki sentence packs. Every resource I used got a self-tailored curriculum and deadline for its implementation that fit into my overall learning goals and timeline. Ultimately it took 20 months not 18 but that’s okay.

Secret #3: Prioritization

There is perfection and then there is good-enough. Prioritization is knowing 1) what is essential, 2) what is good to have but not necessary and 3) what has low returns for the amount of time devoted to it. Good prioritizing focuses on what gets us ahead the most. Think of it as the Pareto principle: 20 percent of effort accomplishing 80 percent of returns.

Application. Perfection was never the goal. Language acquisition is always a work in progress even at the fluency level. My goal was passing the legal reading exam so I concentrated on must-know areas like business kanji and vocabulary and ignored esoteric time-sucks like memorizing the on and kun readings of individual kanji. I focused on reading and translating business articles, learning vocabulary in context using sentence packs and skipped practicing how to write kanji in perfect stroke order. Textbooks were skimmed maybe once a week at most for an hour. If an activity didn’t contribute significantly to either my absorption or enjoyment of Japanese, it got culled from my self-tailored program.

Secret #4: Immersion

To learn a skill means devoting time and energy to it. The faster you want to master anything, the more time you have to devote to it. This is so much more important with a language.

Application. My goal was to maximize time with Japanese and minimize contact with English. I lived, breathed and slept Japanese for 20 months. When I woke up, I put on Japanese TV while getting ready. On the commute to and from work I did Japanesepod101 language lessons. At work I listened to Japanese radio or podcasts even if I didn’t understand any of the lyrics or conversations. I played audio lessons on repeat even if I couldn’t concentrate completely on them. Back at home in the evenings and on weekends, I watched TV or played video games or read manga – all in Japanese. I had 3-5 Japanese conversation partners I met weekly or bi-weekly.

Every day, as much as possible, I interacted with Japanese.

Secret #5: Leverage Technology

We live in an age of information where almost anything we can know is available online or via an app. Want to learn any skill? It’s online, probably for free. The biggest challenge is finding what is useful, effective and efficient.

Application. Until my 20 month immersion method, I had taken one Japanese class years before and found it a complete waste of time and money. Once I picked up Japanese again, my learning was self-taught and utilized technology almost exclusively. I signed up for lessons from, downloaded their mp3s to my iPhone or used the school’s app. I also used separate apps for learning hiragana, katakana and kanji, for drilling vocabulary and reading practice, and to listen to Japanese radio stations and podcasts. On my phone I read Japanese news and magazines. At home, I read manga, watched anime and played silly video games on my laptop.

Because I usually had my phone on me wherever I went, I always had Japanese available to practice.

Secret #6: Sacrifice

We all get 24 hours each day. How we use them is up to us. In order to learn a new skill, we must sacrifice time previously spent on other pursuits.

Application. To learn Japanese I gave up a lot of hobbies and free time. Almost all English media got replaced with Japanese. I didn’t date or go out much with friends. At home, Japanese was always on. Outside the house, my headphones were always in, even on the job or while shopping, so that I could be learning. Every spare moment was devoted to acquiring Japanese, up to 16 hours a day. Japanese was priority #1.

What are you willing to sacrifice for your dreams?

Secret #7: Making It Fun

Enthusiasm and motivation is key to succeeding at your goals and dreams. The motivation must be there to get you through the boring or tedious tasks the dream sometimes requires.

Application. The reason I was able to devote 10+ hours a day to Japanese was because I made it entertaining, enjoyed the process and loved the challenge. Japanese was a fun obsession.

Because I loved Japanese culture, finding the fun was easy. I listened to a lot of Japanese pop music, read fluff manga and watched tons of anime and TV shows on repeat because I loved them. Most people who exclusively learn via grammar study, reading textbooks and doing homework grow to hate their new language. I minimized grammar and maximized my reading comprehension with material I found personally interesting or amusing, which kept me coming back for more rather than burning out. The enjoyment factor also made my other less fun tasks easier to manage. In this way, mundane vocabulary and sentence reading drills were seen as useful for better understanding my favorite manga or my Japanese version of the Elder Scrolls game.

20 Month Mastery

This obviously isn’t an out of the box Japanese curriculum. It’s more of a framework anyone can use and tailor for achieving a specific goal. In my case, it was a paradigm for learning enough Japanese to pass a reading fluency test and get hired onto Japanese legal projects. This tripled my income at the end of the 20 months. You could say the prospective pay bump was a significant motivational carrot for my insane study ethic.

Can you learn Japanese at a slower pace? Of course but I was in a hurry. Can you learn it faster than 20 months? Sure. The question is how much time and effort do you want to put in and how much are you willing to sacrifice? Equally important but often overlooked is learning what methods work for you and facilitate your goals best.

To this day I look back on that time with pride. I can honestly say I loved it, the process and the challenge. It was one of the most fun periods of my life not just because I made it fun but because I was actively pursuing a goal I found personally worthwhile and rewarding.

Taking control of your destiny and self-development, pursing your dreams and taking the steps necessary to make them come true is the essence of living your best life now. In 20 months what will you say you have achieved?

Like this article or find it useful? Please share it so others can learn the secrets and start living their best lives.


  1. Thanks for the interesting article!

    But I have a question: how do you define “mastery”? I have a hard time believing someone can “master” Japanese in 20 months, even with immersion.

    I’ve been studying for 20 *years* (much that of that immersion, similar to what you describe) and while I consider myself somewhat fluent, I still have a lot to learn.

    Can you read adult literature without having to constantly look up words and kanji?


    • Great question and excellent points! “Fluency” is different than “mastery”. I passed the fluency exam for Japanese. Does that mean mastery? My colleagues and I read Japanese case documents every day for years. Some had known Japanese for 20+ years. We all had to look up words and phrases but it was the same for our Japan-born colleagues because some of the industry jargon was unfamiliar to even them. Our team who proofed translations were amazingly fluent in English but had problems with English idioms, jargon and flowery phrases.

      Fluency is measured by tests. Mastery is measured by life. Many Americans, for example, haven’t mastered English. It’s a moving target and one that never ends because the language and its culture are always changing. It’s a beautiful journey. All these years later, I still enjoy the continuing Japanese learning process. I hope you are as well.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s