How to Start Learning a Language Without Changing Your Routine


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?

Want to learn a language but not able to change your routine right now? No worries! Check out these tips 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.

Want to learn a language but not able to change your routine right now? No worries! Check out these tips to start learning a language without changing your routine.

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.

Related: 4 Essential Questions Before Learning A Language.

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.

-Check HelloTalk or Tandem for messages.

-Post a short video speaking the language you’re learning on Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook.

-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.

-Have a playlist ready on YouTube of longer videos in the language you’re learning that you can watch when you’re ready. Here’s some French and Spanish channels to get you started.

-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!

Want to learn a language but not able to change your routine right now? No worries! Check out these tips to start learning a language without changing your routine.

Double Up

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.

Switch-a-roo

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.

Keep track

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.

Want to learn a language but not able to change your routine right now? No worries! Check out these tips to start learning a language without changing your routine.

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.

Click here to learn more and get your copy of The Language Habit Toolkit.

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!

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About Lindsay Williams

Why hello there! I'm Lindsay and I do Languages. I blog, vlog and teach all things language. I blog about languages right here at Lindsay Does Languages, and about travel over at Mundo Trundle. If you're looking for language learning inspiration then stay a while. You might find just what you're looking for. :)
  • Anne-Marie

    I use a free gamified to-do/habit app called Habitica which I use to check off studying etc. There’s even a couple of language learning groups on there, and a weekly noun-verb-adjective challenge as well as others. The more stuff you check off, the more damage you deal to your boss.

    Some easy learning is the artist radio function on Spotify from an artist in your target language (which I listen to at work) and getting some spaced repetition in on the bus, as well as removing English as a language you understand on Facebook. You then get a translation link under all your friends posts. And let’s face it, if you’re​ mindlessly scrolling Facebook, you might as well be reading it in your target language!

    This is the bare minimum in a day I’m exposed to on a busy day.

    • Ahh that’s so weird! I have a post about Spotify coming out in a few weeks! πŸ˜‰ And Facebook? Yes! Social media is a great tool for language learning! πŸ™‚

  • “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.”

    You have amazing taste Lindsay. Did you just eat one biscuit? That’s very restrained of you. I used to love taking the top off bourbons and custard creams to get to the bit in the middle – yum!

    More seriously though, this list of activity + time required is really handy. I’m going to make a grid like this for one of my students and also include “place”. So if you’ve got an hour and you’re on the train you can read the chapter of a book. But if you’re in the car and you’re just going round the corner, you can listen to a song. Type of thing. So I’ll definitely be using some ideas from your list.

    Not sure if I or my students could manage memrise/duolingo + teeth brushing but why not!

    • Haha! I did love to deconstruct them! πŸ˜‰

      That’s a great idea to add place to the list! Look forward to seeing that! πŸ˜€

  • Camille

    Love the mix podcasts/songs idea! Nice way to add some “breathing space” πŸ™‚

  • Will

    I’ve recently discovered an app called Drops, which not only has really enjoyable image-based vocal review, it also limits the amount of time you can use it each day. While you can buy more time (& additional features) with a paid membership, I’ve actually been finding that only being able to use it for five minutes once or twice a day (time resets every ten hours, and you can get bonus time as well) is actually working in my favor. Not only does it keep me from getting sick of it by over using it, I’m thinking it might also help keep me focused on Russian instead of switching between languages on a whim like I usually do. Ironically, that’s because the app is so fun to use that I wanted more of it each day, so I downloaded the French & Japanese apps as well. I’m planning to do two sessions of Russian each day, plus one of French to try to revive what I learned years ago in schools. I’m not planning on actually learning Japanese any time soon, but knowing at least hirigana would help me type things into google translate or another dictionary, so I’m using Drops to study that when I need to do something a bit different. I’m hoping this will give me just enough of a taste of other languages to help me stay focused enough on Russian so that I can finally actually learn a language instead of just studying various ones on occasion.

    Another thing I want to try is writing short journal entries or other notes with the Cyrillic script. For now it would just be transcription of English words, sort of a reverse of romanizing Russian vocabulary words (something I’m trying very hard to avoid). I’m getting decent at typing with a Russian keyboard, but handwritten Cyrillic letters are a whole different beast, and I don’t want to wait until I have a decent bank of Russian vocabulary & grammar built up to really learn the handwriting. And writing the same basic words & phrases over and over gets boring fast, so even if I’m not actually practicing writing in Russian, at least I’d be practicing writing the letters (and pronouncing them, since it would involve a lot of phonetic transcription).

    So those are my two little things I’m working on making into a habit. I’ve already been more consistent studying Russian over the past five months than I have with any other language outside of school. (Well, other than French really, since I rarely studied Spanish & German even when I was taking them as classes). It’s only been the past few weeks that I’ve really been studying Russian with anything approaching regularity, but for it to have stayed even a conscious side project for five months is a big improvement over most of my language learning attempts, which tend to be measured in weeks with a year or more break in between. So hopefully having enjoyable & fairly unobtrusive quick study habits will help sustain my motivation & focus, and keep me from quitting entirely when I inevitably get too exhausted to do more concentrated studying on a regular basis.

  • Claudia

    Until recently, I used to think that studying for less than an hour wasn’t worth it. But when I’m studying for uni exams, an hour is a luxury I could use for sleeping or eating haha! Even if I had one hour left, my brain is so tired that the idea of picking up a language book isn’t appealing at all. This leads to weeks without studying, and when I finally “have time” to study my target languages I barely remember the last thing I learned.

    Now, I’m trying to apply the same idea you described. I’m trying to squeeze in a little language in my daily routine πŸ™‚ So far, I made it a habit to use Memrise after lunch, and at nigth before I set up my alarm for the next day. I’ll try all of your suggestions now πŸ˜€

  • Alejandra Noriega

    Lindsay as usual your tips are right on the dot! I usually give similar strategies to my students and I can see the difference between the ones who actually take those 5 mins a day and those who don’t! my biggest issue is applying these strategies when I’m learning a new language I just can’t create my own habit! However after reading this post I’m motivated so I’ll create a schedule and stick to it! thanks

  • For me habit is a big thing and putting my language practice into my calendar as a regular repeat event with specific time and duration has been making me actually stick to it πŸ™‚ Thanks for all the tips and breaking them down by duration, youtube playlist is a great idea, will definitely be using this one, thanks again.

    • You’re welcome, Julia! I’m like you – the repeat events at the same time really helps πŸ™‚

  • Yaabie

    I’m trying to get into the habit of washing up and listening to Rocket Japanese. Yes, I have to wash up everyday, and sometimes I’m even doing extra so I can finish listening!

  • Senorita DelCielo

    Thanks for the tips! I’ve been slacking, ready to get back into my language journey! I’m Intermediate Low in Spanish, but Im really interested in Korean and Chinese. Here we go! πŸ™‚

  • Julia Miller

    Great video as always, I think I am guilty collecting resources and then using just few…

  • Russ Gibson

    Two things I’ve been doing that are helping: (1) listen to Spanish-language music! When mowing the lawn, I’m listening to something anyway, so why not just switch to the top Latin hits?? And (2), there is a Spanish-speaking person at work. When I come across a word I don’t know, I write it down on a running list, and keep at my desk. I glance at it from time to time, no extra work or routine needed.

    • Ahh they’re both really great ways to keep going with minimal new effort! Thanks for sharing, Russ! πŸ˜€

  • Thanks Lindsay. You can add Hi Native to the category of when we have 30 seconds to five minutes. Browsing the questions in different languages, you can help people learn your native language(s). Improve your knowledge of your target languages by asking questions on the app.

  • Julio Martins

    I love this video! Choose materials that you really like, not those which are written “The best method of the world to learn ‘any’ language” in the cover.

    • Absolutely. Maybe it’s the best method some someone but that doesn’t mean it always is for you πŸ˜‰

  • Maria Louve

    Love your blog! I always loved learning languages, but after two years of working realise I had to lower my expectations. I couldn’t pursue a career and aim for fluency in a language. Instead I now make an effort to learn as much as I can to travel. I love your Kick-Fix ideas! I also recently discovered the power of doubling up. For example, every time I cook, I listen to a Pimsler lesson of the language I’m learning. It works for me because the lessons are interactive and you don’t have to write anything down.

    • Hi Marie! Thanks! πŸ™‚ Glad you’re already doubling up. My current favourite it watching Terrace House, a Japanese reality show, while I’m doing anything in the kitchen! πŸ™‚

  • Emily Peterson

    I just discovered your blog and love it ! Thank you for all of the great tips and advice for language learning… In particular, changing your country on itunes ! I had no idea and now I’ve found a bunch of new podcasts to listen to in French. πŸ™‚

  • Great tips – thanks Lindsay! Finding the time is so easy once you’ve analysed what you actually do and how much of it is procrastination…

  • keep up the good work