At what point does reading (even kana) get more 'automatic'?

Hello everyone! This is my very first new topic here! Whee!

I searched for a conversation on this very subject, but couldn’t really find one, so here goes. I started learning Japanese in September 2020 (1 hr/wk grammar and various exercises with a teacher + started WaniKani in November).

I studied kana in my first week or so (like many folks, I guess). I see sentences and short texts in kana every day, some on Twitter and through Japanese class, and of course quite a bit here on WaniKani. However, all Japanese text (even if on my level) still looks like a big unsurmountable blurb of secret text to me, and it still takes me lots of mental effort and slow decyphering to even read simple sentences written in kana.

Briefly, reading is still very slooow and foreign and definitely not automatic yet. You know, when I see text in English or my native Dutch, I don’t even do a conscious effort to read it - it just registers, if you get my point. That is not the case yet with Japanese text at all (even if the vocab is on my level).

At what point does it become more automatic? If you’re a (more) fluent, or at least partly ‘automatic’ reader, for whom Japanese writing is not your native script: how long did it take you to get to this point? Do you have any tips to make this go easier/faster (besides the obvious ‘read as much as you can’ - which I try to do)?

As another data point: I studied classical Greek in secondary school so the Greek alphabet is the other ‘foreign’ script I can read. Even after 4 years of study (4 hrs/wk), Greek script hasn’t really become automatic yet. And it’s so similar to Latin script. Le sigh… I have so much respect for anyone who’s fluent in more than one script, really.

Thanks for all input, and keep your spirits up!


The more you read, the more automatic it becomes. The speed is largely dependent on how much of it you do and understand. Better grammar comprehension will help make it flow better since you know what to expect, but practice is the most important part I think.


In addition to what you said, I’m no linguist and I cannot confirm whether this is true or not, but I heard from a while back that humans recognize entire words as a whole, or even groups of words rather than parsing each character then extracting the meaning after. Confirmation bias, but that seems to be the case when I encounter words I’ve seen before, either from Wanikani or some other source. However, when I encounter something completely new, especially katakana, I would have to slowly read the entire word to try to even get an idea of what it should sound like, or if I can infer its meaning based on what I already know.

Basically, what I’m saying continue to build your vocabulary, and that will increase your reading speed as well.


to achieve this you’ll want to focus on quantity over quality

don’t get me wrong, you also want quality; but this result in particular comes from quantity


It’s definitely a very long process, one that’s going to be a bit different for everyone, and unfortunately not one where there’s a single moment where BAM you can read. It’s just gradual.
My only advice is to keep practicing, try to notice your accomplishments as time goes on, and check out the resources for starting to read thread if you haven’t already: Resources for Starting to Read Japanese Content

This kind of thing is I think where graded readers are especially going to be helpful, if you can get your hands on them, since they’re specifically designed to help ease you into reading comfortably, but any practice is good practice and it really does help.

Looking back and seeing progress is really important because it’s extremely easy to say “this is still hard, I must have made no progress and have learned nothing” and sell yourself short. I still feel that way sometimes…

Please don’t use these specific time frames as any kind of comparison, but as an example of looking back and seeing progress, I like to look at the 3 years and change I’ve been steadily studying:

  • After the first year I could basically read a little bit, in that I stopped feeling like I needed to reread simple stuff like Yotsuba in English, even if I still took a long time to understand it, looked up lots of things, and didn’t 100% grasp every detail and grammar form.

  • After the second year, I could specifically seek out and read things I cared about, in that I could read a new volume of my favorite manga before it was translated and basically keep up (even if again, slowly and with lots of dictionary usage). Only around here did katakana really start to feel automatic, to be honest.

  • After the third year, all of that was reinforced, especially with long texts, and I felt confident enough to tackle anything in theory. I finished my first novel, Legend of Galactic Heroes, and it was much less painful at the end than when I started it.

  • The fourth year so far has been about speed - I suspect the milestone I’ll think of when this year is done is just the volume and speed of reading has increased dramatically, and I can finally feel the amount of dictionary lookups slowly ticking downward.

Again, I don’t mean that as a “time to beat” or a good or bad example, and keep in mind it all depends on your goals and what you practice (I focus all but exclusively on reading so listening does not feel automatic or easy to me the way reading does, and I can’t speak even a sentence). But maybe it can help give some idea of what the process feels like, and how you can spot victories along the way. When I catch myself thinking “I’m just picking up on context clues, anyone could do this” - I can run down those markers of progress in my head and feel better. And I think anyone in the process can do that too – you’re wanikani level 8 after all, and 100% there was a time when the characters meant literally nothing to you, and now that’s long gone!

So keep at it, and good luck!


I hate to speak again after such a good post by Rodan, but I really do have one more thing to add.
It really helps if you chat online in Japanese, for example with HelloTalk. You’ll also get incremental progress in fluency, as in you’ll begin to notice that you become fluent in “subjects of small talk” and recognize particular sayings instantly even if your complete fluency isn’t there.

To make this more clear,
You probably register really well

It’s incremental and I completely agree with Rodan, not “BAM” at all


Hii, i’m a newcomer and started learning Japanese about a month ago on Duolingo, came to WaniKani for kanji and its been making the practice so easy! From my standpoint it looks like it’ll be easier to learn how to SPEAK and HEAR japanese than to read or write it, because even though the first two alphabets (hiragana and katakana) are relatively easy to learn, native japanese people use kanji ALOT and kanji is literally building blocks of a million different words with a million different sounds and a million different meanings. Reading them won’t become automatic for some time, I would say years, because coming from an American alphabet where there’s only ONE alphabet and everything is phonic, its very hard to have to pick apart each complicated kanji you run into which could take forever before you even get to the kana part of the sentence in which you also have to decipher. I would personally just be glad to be able to decipher it at all even if it took a while, because at least then you’ve been able to achieve what you worked hard for, which is learning the language. Over time your deciphering time decreases naturally on its own because when you run into the same kanji or the same words/sentences/phrases your brain will be like “hey we’ve been here before!” and instantly remember the meaning from last time. Be patient with yourself, take your time, and let natural progression take foot :)!!

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Progress in reading will be nearly imperceptible in the beginning, but with consistent practice it will snowball. And as @Rihn said, the time it takes depends on how much you do every day.

To demonstrate to yourself that you are making progress every single day, try this exercise:

Take one page of a very simple text that you have already studied and understand the meaning of.
Time yourself as you read through it once aloud.
How long did it take you? 30 minutes? 15 minutes?
However long it took, write down the exact time.

Next, time yourself again as you read through the same text a second time aloud.
Write down the time again. Any change?

OK, once more. Read through it again. Write down the time. (It may surprise you.)

Now, wait a day or two and read through the same page again.
Write down the time again.
Never mind that it still feels slow and hard.
Just look at the numbers.
The numbers don’t lie.


Great writeup. In addition to this, I found that listening also helps a surprising amount in reading faster. A big part of reading faster is predicting what is coming next in the text or dialogue. Listening hones that constant unconscious predictive motor, so you can just glance over the text confirming your suspicions. Often just seeing familiar shapes (kanji or string of kana) can let you get the meaning and move on.


By the way, this is much weirder than my other advice, but one thing I like to do is: to avoid comparing myself to other learners or adult native speakers and getting discouraged, instead I imagine as my study-antagonist a hypothetical native baby who was born the same day I started studying.

Someday that baby’s definitely gonna surpass me… (Hypothetical Study Antagonist Baby surpasses us all in the end) and the baby probably already talks better than me. But dammit I can still read better than that baby can!! And thanks to hard work I think that may end up being true for at least a few more years yet.
Take that, baby!

I suppose the only real lesson from that is - it’s easy for us to forget we weren’t born with reading built in. It’s a long process for everyone, every time.


As everyone basically already pointed out, how fast you will achieve “fluency” will depend from person to person and it depends even more on what you learn and how you learn it.

After pretty much exactly two years of learning japanese I can say that:

  • Hiragana fluency is achieved somewhat fast

  • Katakana fluency definitely takes longer, I sometimes still have to read unknown words slowly and think about them to understand them (what helped me getting used to Katakana words is changing the language of your PC/phone to japanese, as most words will be Katakana)

  • Kanji depends on exposure, as some kanji/kanji compounds will be used more than others

@rodan 's progress is what seems to be a pretty good gauge but again, everyone works best with a different pace.

Also this


I just locked the baby in my basement


Hiragana took me 3 weeks to read smoothly.
Sometimes katakana still trips me up.

Fast forward several years later.
I can easily glide through paragraphs of text as long as they have furigana with it.
I did this by reading books and looking up words that pop up many times.

This doesn’t account for understanding though.
With native materials I understand maybe 5-10% of what I read but I’m trying.

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See, I don’t think it’s a problem with your kana knowledge. Of course you’ll become better at reading kana as you practice but long senteces written in kana can be tricky even for the Japanese natives. You need to know a lot of vocab and grammar to split the sentence in a meaningful way.

But as you learn more Japanese you’ll get better at reading it. I’d assume you can already make sense of the NHK News Easy even if it’s difficult. Over time you’ll learn more vocab and grammar and it should become much easier. And as you progress on WK you won’t need the furgana to read the kanji.

As for my own experience, I’ve been actively learning Japanese for about 4 years now. About 2 years ago I passed JLPT N3, which naturally requiers reading a lot of text in Japanese under a time constraint. I was pretty comfortable reading and understanding the text but my reading speed wasn’t great. Also back then was around lvl 30 on wk (don’t mind my current lvl I rest from 60 just recently). Now I’m reading a novel in Japanese and after adjusting to the author’s style I can pretty much read it fine, only looking up a word or two per page.

When I start reading a sentence I’m trying interpret it’s meaning as I go, and every new word gives me more context but I won’t be certain until I reach the end, because most important verb is usually in the end. So I kind of try to predict what the sentence is say and keeping all the important info (subject, object, clauses etc) in my working memory until I finish the sentence and can either confirm my predicted interpretation or reassess the meaning based on the last part of the sentence. It’s quite different from English where the subject and verb are at the start of the sentence you just get more context as you read further. You’ll need to get used to this different reading strategy.

In summary, keep up doing WK, learn grammar, and practice reading as often as possible (but try to keep it level appropriate, don’t jump into complicated stuff until you’re ready).


I’d also point out that kana sentences can be deceptively difficult. I hear a lot that even native Japanese speakers find reading stuff in all kana pretty exhausting, since it makes it a lot harder to figure out where words start and end, what’s a particle and what’s part of a word, which of a number of homophones a word is, etc. I still definitely feel like the sentences I struggle with the most are more colloquial ones with kana words and grammar points and particles all piled on top of each other :joy:


Everyone has pointed out, accurately, that this is largely impacted by how much time you spend on getting exposure and practice. I’ll add an observation:

This is very little practice and exposure, particularly for a language so different to something you’re comfortable with (English and Dutch, both using the same writing system at least). I’d go so far as to say that one hour per day is a light and casual pace.

The US Foreign Service Institute once put together a list of roughly how much time it takes to have a fair amount of proficiency in a given language, link below to a page that cites it. This is admittedly geared for native English speakers, but it characterizes Dutch as a language pretty closely related to English.

For Japanese, they put it in a bin of languages at 2200 hours, with Japanese specifically earmarked as even more difficult than average within that bin.

At 1 hour per week that’d put you at right around 42 years :slight_smile:


Some good stuff here.

Aye agreed. Quality for comprehension; quantity for speed.

I think this goes along with the quantity thing since I’ve found the same. With listening, I don’t have the luxury of lookups, but I always surprise myself in how much I can pick up without it.

I’m on year 3 so I’m still in the running. :joy:

Great advice overall though.


One thing to remember about the FSI is that their estimates are based on candidates learning at least 8 hours a day, since that’s basically their job.

So that 2200 hours is about 55 weeks if you take weekends and evenings off. It’s probably closer to 8 months with the remainder in country given that, again, it’s a job.

So that one hour a week is double the time at least since concentrated study is more efficient.


all the advice on how to get better has already been given ^^

on the original question of “when”, think about how long it took you to get good at reading the latin alphabet. to the point where it’s completely instinctual. and you were exposed to that alphabeth pretty much constantly.

i’m maybe 800 hours in (800 hours of active learning, not counting passive exposure and reading for fun). hiragana flow pretty smoothly (but that doesn’t mean a sentence written in hiragana makes any sense, there’s a reason japanese uses kanji), but katakana still slow me down, and i trip over some of them.


I feel very compelled to mark this as :white_check_mark: Solution to my question!! :dancer:

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