How much Japanese do you need to know? What Japanese do I need to know? These are tricky questions but ones that beginners really want to know. The following tries to answer these by clearly laying out the minimum Japanese you need to know.
The 80-20 Rule
Ever heard of the Pareto Principle? Or maybe the 80-20 rule? To boil it down the idea is that 20% of the efforts bring in 80% of the results.
In the context of Japanese you only need to know about 20% of the language to be able to get by 80% of the time. Or at least for the core 80% of daily life.
Ok so… what exactly IS 20% of Japanese? What’s the minimum Japanese you need to know?
It goes without saying that you should at least know hiragana and katakana. The Japanese alphabet might seem daunting at first but it’s actually quite easy to learn.
Start Learning Japanese has some resources suggestions and tips for starting from scratch.
How much kanji do you need to know to be able to understand Japanese?
This is a tricky question because it depends on what you’re interested in. If you just want to learn enough to get by in Japan reading signs and menus, then not a lot. If you want to be able to understand newspapers or novels… that’s a little harder and clearly more than 20%.
The Japanese Ministry of Education released a list of “daily used” kanji called the jouyou kanji which was updated in 2010. There are 2,136 jouyou kanji, but you actually don’t need to learn them all to have a basic grasp of Japanese!
The best thing to do is study the most common kanji and their most common vocabulary.
Some bright spark ran a program through Japan’s Wikipedia and made a list of the most common kanji. They found that:
- 50% of Japanese Wikipedia uses just 200 kanji.
- 75% of Japanese Wikipedia uses just 500 kanji.
So you only need to learn 200-500 kanji to be able to understand around 50%-75% of written texts!
You can’t just learn the kanji on their own, you need to learn them in context of vocabulary too…
So now you know the minimum Japanese kanji you should know. But what about the minimum Japanese vocabulary?
There are many conflicting studies in regards to how much the “average” person knows, or should know for a language. Many say you should learn 10,000+ words to gain near-native fluency. But we’re not after near-native fluency (for now).
For many language learners the number of words you need to know for daily conversations are between 1000-3000 words.
So what minimum Japanese vocabulary do you need to learn?
Unfortunately there’s no good comprehensive list* of the most common Japanese vocabulary. However, there is the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam (JLPT) which has ordered the most useful vocabulary and grammar.
For 1000 vocabulary you should learn all of JLPT N5’s vocabulary and then most of JLPT N4. JLPT N4 expects you to know 1500 words (to pass the test). And for JLPT N3 you’re expected to know around 3750 Japanese words.
Now the JLPT materials are aimed to help you pass the exams, but you don’t have to take the exams if you don’t want to. (I recommend taking them if you’re the type of person that needs a goal.)
You can just take advantage of the JLPT materials out there to learn the minimum Japanese vocabulary you need.
Such as JTalkOnline’s Memrise courses for JLPT vocabulary:
*Note: There is this list of high frequency Japanese vocabulary from wikipedia. However, it includes ‘particles’ which I wouldn’t consider “words” but “grammar points”. This list is also very dry and difficult to learn from. But it’s good if you’re interested in seeing what kind of words are most common.
Learning kanji and vocabulary is great, but it’s not so useful if you can’t string it together into sentences.
You need to start with a good understanding of very basic grammar if you want to be able to learn the more complex stuff.
Sure “this is a pen” is boring and unnatural, but you need to know how to say it without thinking about it.
As a part of basic grammar you should learn about Japanese particles and how they’re used. All About Particles: A Handbook of Japanese Function Words is a fantastic book for looking up how these particles are used. (Although not so great for practicing them.)
What is the minimum Japanese grammar I need to know?
I think grammar is more difficult because obscure grammar is more likely to come up in a lot of situations. But I think, similar to the vocabulary, learning up to JLPT N4 – N3 grammar will give you the “core” to understanding 80% of Japanese.
Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide is great for learning these. His basic to essential lessons teach you a very strong base for Japanese grammar.
Then to practice using that grammar JTalkOnline’s Memrise courses for JLPT should help cement them:
Applying the 80-20 rule to Japanese and learning a minimum of 20% of the language can get you far. With a core understanding of basic Japanese you can have simple conversations and understand the majority of daily Japanese.
But why stop there? Yes this is the “minimum Japanese” you should learn to get a good grasp, but you can then use that understanding to further advance your language. Especially in areas of Japanese you’re more interested in (i.e IT, anime, fantasy, games).