Let me guess – you want to learn a language but you don’t have the time? I get it. We’re all guilty of the “not enough time” excuse. But those people you see online that speak 27 languages? They have the same number of hours in the day as you or me. You do have the time to learn a language, and you might not even know it yet. Ready to start learning a language without changing your routine?
I’ve always been a creature of habit. When I was in primary school, I would come home each day and watch Zzzap!, The Queen’s Nose, and Get Your Own Back and eat a custard cream. Sometimes a bourbon. But always a biscuit.
When I moved up to secondary school, I’d come home and log in to MSN while I did my homework, and fill my big plastic cup with water. Until I spilt it all over my laptop one day. This was before the whole “put it in rice thing” was common knowledge so that laptop was a goner.
And now, I still like my habits, my routines. I know where I’m going and what I’m doing each day and if someone rings the doorbell when I’m working or calls me on the phone when I’m supposed to be learning languages I’m thrown way out of whack.
Whether or not you are also a creature of habit like me or prefer to live a much less structured daily life (or have to due to work, family, or other commitments), I truly believe that anyone has the time to start learning a language.
So with that in mind, let’s do this thing.
Accept That Your Time Limits Your Progress
Yes, you can learn a language in a short space of time, but you can also learn a language over a long period of time and there’s no right or wrong here, it simply depends on your personal preferences, abilities (in terms of knowing what to do and how to do it, not special language gift from the gods), and the time you have to dedicate to it.
So by deciding to learn a language without changing your routine, the first thing to do is to accept that your progress will be slower than if you go all in and study for hours each day.
I’m not trying to put you off here – I’m only telling you this because once you accept it, your language progress is likely to be more stable as you’ll be less likely to give up or burnout. Slow and steady wins the race.
Assess Where You’re At
The first thing to do is to assess your current use of time. Is there any part (or parts) of your day where you regularly find yourself scrolling Facebook or letting YouTube autoplay? These are potential times when you could be language learning.
Knowing this will help you to take action on what we’re going to learn as we continue this post.
5 Minute Fix
Maybe those time slots you’ve discovered are a little bit unpredictable in terms of how long you have each day. That’s why it’s a great idea to have some quick fixes up your sleeve. No matter if you’ve got 30 seconds or 30 minutes, you can squeeze in a little language. Here are my favourite suggestions to get you started:
30 seconds to 5 minutes
-Have Anki/Tinycards/Memrise ready on your phone to whip out and get a word or two in. Careful with Duolingo here as your progress won’t be saved unless you finish a session.
-Leave webpages in your target language open on your browser on your phone. When you’re in a queue and can’t play sound, this is perfect.
-Have a playlist of your favourite songs lined up to play in a YouTube or Spotify playlist.
-Open up your notebook and copy out a couple of sentences you’ve already written or write some new ones.
-If you’re learning a language with a different script, write a few characters either in a notebook, on a scrap piece of paper or in the air with your finger.
-Review dialogues and vocab already in your head.
-Write a tweet in the language you’re learning.
-Check the pronunciation of a word on Forvo.
5 to 10 minutes
-Sit down for a longer Memrise/Anki/Duolingo session to learn something new or review lots in one go.
-Book an italki lesson.
-Listen to an episode of Pod101/Class101.
-Learn or revise the conjugation of one verb in one tense. Write or say it out loud and if you have time create sentence examples.
-Watch a video on FluentU.
-Write or record a voice message to a new friend on a language exchange site.
-Write an entry on Lang8.
-Listen to an Earworms track.
-Submit a text/audio to Rhinospike.
10 to 30 minutes
-Read an article in the language you’re learning. If you’re not sure where to start, here’s all the reading resources for language learning you’ll ever need.
-Listen to a Glossika lesson and take full advantage of it.
-Watch an episode of your favourite TV show – either in your native language with subtitles or in your target language with or without native or target language subtitles, depending on your level.
-Review a full lesson in your course book or workbook.
-Write a short story in your target language.
-Learn or review a full conjugation of one verb in different tenses OR one tense with various verbs.
-Listen to a song, sing along, translate lyrics, spot particular vocab or grammar points.
30 minutes to 1 hour
-Have an italki lesson (of course, you’d need to know in advance that you’re available unless you catch someone on instant tutoring).
-Study a new chapter in your course book or workbook.
-Read a text in your target language, identify new vocabulary, check it and add to your own Memrise course, and write your own sentences to record and share on social media or save to your phone.
-Watch an episode of your favourite TV show in the target language and take notes to take it further.
-A combination of all of the above!
Everything mentioned in the last point are all great ideas to help you learn a language but only useful if you know you’ve got some time to work with. But what about when your days are pretty random? How can you be sure to still get some language in?
By making it a habit.
The easiest way? Doubling up, or habit-stacking as it’s sometimes known.
Chances are there’s already parts of your day that are habit-based. Maybe you also watch The Queen’s Nose eating a bourbon. Maybe you also log into MSN when you get in every day.
Or maybe you do neither of those things because we’re not living in the early-noughties anymore. Either way, you definitely have some habits in your day that I guarantee happen every. single. day.
Brushing your teeth is a great example. Brushing your teeth is likely already a well-formed habit in your daily life. Well, learning a language and making that a habit works in the same way. But to make things easier to begin with, stack your new language habit onto your already formed teeth-brushing habit.
That means that while you’re brushing your teeth with one hand, you could be on Memrise, reading a book, or watching a YouTube video with the other.
Or if you’re very much un-ambidextrous, simply make it a “brain habit” to think in your target language when you’re brushing your teeth. You could start by counting, or repeating new words in your head and seeing if you can put them into sentences.
Whatever you choose, this is the simplest way to begin a language habit and start learning a language without changing your routine.
Similar to doubling up, if you’re lucky enough to have subtitles or audio dubbing for what you’re watching, you can also bring that into the mix and switch languages. However, this might not be too easy if you live with and watch TV with others who couldn’t give two flying hoots about your desire to learn Polish, Spanish or Tagalog.
In which case, make sure that the time you get with media alone is as best spent as possible. Switch your morning news reading to sites or apps that publish in your target language, switch news podcasts in your podcast feed to your target language (SBS and NHK are great places to start), and switch your music habits to some bangin’ choons that just happen to be sung in your target language.
However, going all in can be tricky and if you find yourself craving a little listen to your favourite band that sings in a language you fully understand, do it. There’s no harm in a bit of both and mixing things up before switching things up.
When I used to drive a 30 minute commute every morning and evening, I’d set up my iPod to play one podcast in my target language followed by one in my native and then another in my target language. On the way home, I’d do the same thing but with music. This way, it didn’t become a chore or a burden and I always looked forward to the journey.
One of the best ways to make something a habit is to actually track it and make sure you’re actually doing the thing you want to be.
My good friend and fellow language fanatic, Kerstin Cable recently launched The Language Habit Toolkit to help you do just that.
If you’re ready to start learning a language and make it a habit without changing your routine, this is the perfect tool to support you as you do so. The Toolkit consists of PDF pages that you can print out (and maybe even stick into your notebook like Kerstin does!) and fill in to keep track each month.
You also get supporting content including Kerstin’s video walk-through and the Language Habit Handbook to help you out when you get stuck.
Pick the Right Resources
One of the best ways to make the most of the time you have is to waste as little time as possible picking resources. But how can you do this, especially if you’re starting to learn a language for the first time?
In the video below, I go into detail about the resources I’ve used to learn Spanish + share tips on how you can pick the right resources for you too.
What will you do to make language learning a habit? Share in the comments below!