5 Killer Language Learning Strategies Guaranteed to Help You Make Time

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’d love to learn a foreign language but I’m just too darn busy. If only I had more hours in the day…”?

I have good news for you.

There are effective, surefire ways to make time for language learning. (Yes, even for those of you with the busiest of schedules!)

So sit tight and keep on reading, because here are my five best strategies to make time for language learning every day—and they actually work!


1. Apply the 80/20 Rule to Focus on What Matters Most

The modern world is a buzzing chaotic mess of activity and it seems to get worse with each passing year. In reality, however, the problem is not a lack of time, but a lack of prioritization. As Tim Ferriss shares in his best-selling book “The 4-Hour Workweek“:

Most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant. Being selective—doing less—is the path of the productive. Focus on the important few and ignore the rest.

This is where the “80/20 Rule” (a.k.a. “Pareto Principle”) comes in. This simple but extremely powerful tool can help you identify the most important, high-yield activities in your life, eliminate unimportant, low-yield activities and free up extra time for language learning.

In a nut shell—or rather, in a pea pod—the 80/20 rule states that a comparatively large number of effects tend to be the result of a very small number of causes. The ratio is often 80 to 20, but can sometimes be as extreme as 90/10 or even 99/1.

This interesting phenomenon was first popularized by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in the early 1900s when he observed that 80 percent of Italy’s land was held by only 20 percent of its population. Intrigued by the disparity, he then took his curiosity to the garden where he saw that 80 percent of the peas were produced by just 20 percent of the pea pods.

You probably don’t care about Italian real estate or peas, but Pareto’s discovery can have a major impact on how you live your life and whether or not you reach your language learning goals.

Spending just 10 minutes now to run an 80/20 analysis with these steps can free up massive swaths of previously unavailable time:

  1. Jot down as many recurring daily, weekly and monthly tasks as you can think of (work, chores, play, exercise, study, etc.)
  2. Review the list and star the tasks that produce the greatest, most perceivable pay-offs. These are the high-yield “big rocks” that you should prioritize.
  3. Now identify which tasks create the least benefit or greatest misery. Cross these off the list and do everything you can to cut them out of your life.

By applying the 80/20 rule to your language learning endeavors, you’ll increase results and have more time to practice.

2. Put First Things First: Schedule Time for Language Study Before Everything Else

Another way to make time for language learning is to make it a higher priority in your life, to have it come first.

Fit in the “big rocks” before your life fills up with “small pebbles”

Waiting for convenient chunks of time each day to study your target language? Good luck with that; chances are you will end up waiting forever and never even get started. Despite our best intentions, the important things usually get crowded out by the endless flood of little things that fill our days.

Don’t let yourself get “lost in the thick of thin things,” as Stephen R. Covey puts it. If learning a foreign language really is important to you, it’s up to you to make time for it in your day.

No matter how busy you are, you can carve out time for a few high-yield, life enriching tasks if—and this is a big if—you put them first.

Order of operations is critical here. As Covey demonstrates in his famous “big rock” demonstration, trying to squeeze in all the “big rocks” (important things in your life) is impossible if you let your life fill up first with all the sand and small pebbles (the myriad less important things).

Study first thing in the morning and right before bed

Studying a language right away in the morning has three key advantages:

  • It ensures that you put in at least a little study time every day, no matter how crazy your day becomes. Maybe you find out when you get to work that an urgent report is due by the end of the day. You may grimace at the heavy work load and late night ahead, but at least you can pat yourself on the back for already meeting your daily language learning target.
  • It reminds your brain that language learning is a top priority in your life. By literally “putting language first” in your day, it keeps the task at the forefront of your mind, and you are then more likely to return to language learning activities when “hidden moments” arise (more on this below).
  • It reinforces material you studied right before bed the night before. Repetition is one of the most important (and often neglected) elements of successful language acquisition. By quickly reviewing last night’s language material each morning, you create a poor man’s spaced repetition system and drive words, phrases and structures further into long-term memory.

Studying right before bed has three further benefits:

  • It creates a “habit sandwich”. You started the day with language learning and now you end the day in the same way. This positive behavioral symmetry feels good, increases motivation and helps strengthen the language learning habit (more on habit formation below).
  • It can help lull you to sleep. Maybe you are one of those lucky sons of guns who falls gracefully into La La Land as soon as your noggin hits the pillow. But if you tend to toss and turn, studying a language (especially more mentally taxing tasks like learning grammar rules, conjugations and new vocabulary) can be a powerful sleep aid. For most folks, it just takes five minutes looking at a declension table to draw the Sand Man near.
  • It sets the neurological stage for memory consolidation. Our brains interpret, consolidate and store new experiences and information as we slumber (especially during REM sleep). By studying right before bed, you help language cut to the front of the consolidation line.

Add language study to your calendar and to-do list

A simple way to put language learning first is to schedule blocks of study time on your calendar each week. Treat these like urgent appointments you cannot miss or reschedule. This is your sacred time.

Or if you prefer, you can use a task management system to remind you each day to put in some study time. I’ve tried dozens of task management apps, but my two favorites are:

  • Asana.  Pros: Free for the basic version. Available on all major platforms. Simple, elegant design. Cons: Too simplistic for some business needs.
  • OmniFocus. Pros: Extremely powerful task and project management system. Integrates well with the “Getting Things Done” approach. Cons: Expensive! $39.99 for Mac, $29.99 for iPad and $19.99 for iPhone.

Putting language learning first by scheduling time – or even literally doing it first every day – will result in more time spent on your foreign language goals, and in return, more progress.

3. Harness “Hidden Moments” Throughout Your Day

Harnessing your hidden moments, those otherwise meaningless scraps of time you’d never normally think of putting to practical use, and using them for language study—even if it’s no more than fifteen, ten, or five seconds at a time—can turn you into a triumphant tortoise.

—Barry Farber, “How to Learn Any Language”

Listen to audio as you do other brainless activities

Listening is one of the most important components of learning to communicate in a foreign language, and lucky for us, one of the easiest to fit into a busy schedule. Since listening doesn’t require use of your eyes and hands, you can get valuable listening input by listening to audio lessons and podcasts as you go about a host of other activities:

Review flashcards whenever you find yourself waiting

Assuming you have free use of your hands, waiting for things is the ideal time to review flashcards. Even 10 seconds is enough time to review a few cards.

Get in the habit of whipping out your flashcards, whether you’re using physical cards or an app.

In fact, an can make it even easier to review quickly, since it can offer targeted review sessions. FluentU, for instance, lets you turn any word from the program’s authentic videos into a flashcard, and it tracks your progress in studying these words. That means you can jump straight into reviewing the words that need your attention whenever you find yourself:

  • Waiting in line at the store.
  • Waiting for the elevator.
  • Waiting on hold.
  • Waiting for a call to connect.

Schedule a 15-minute tutor session during every lunch break

Being able to speak is the primary goal of most language learners, and there is no better way to reach that objective than daily speaking practice.

Just 15 minutes of speaking practice with a native speaker or tutor is enough to help solidify the material you’ve learned in your input activities, identify holes in your vocabulary and grammar, and build motivation to continue learning the next day. Moreover, knowing that you will be speaking with a tutor each day gives you that much more incentive to put in the study time beforehand.

4. Stop Choosing to Study: Make Language Learning a Robust Habit

Willpower is a finite resource, and every choice you make throughout your day, no matter how small, uses up your precious reserves. Dubbed “ego depletion” by psychologists, this phenomenon is the reason why many people feel so exhausted after shopping and why most find it so difficult to fit in study time after a long, hard day.

The good news is that you no longer have to rely on the whims of willpower if you transform language study from a conscious daily decision to a hardwired habit. Here’s how:

Create positive “habit loops”

The “habit loop” is the reason you check your e-mail 100 times a day even when trying to do more important tasks, and the reason you reach for a box of doughnuts even after you have promised to quit sugar. As Charles Duhigg lays out in “The Power of Habit,” these powerful loops are comprised of four steps:

The E-Mail Habit Loop:

  1. Cue. You hear a message notification sound, feel a vibration in your pocket, or see a new message notification on the screen.
  2. Routine. You check your email inbox for new messages.
  3. Reward. You get a temporary distraction from difficult, uncomfortable or boring work you should be doing, and feel an increased sense of self-importance or belonging if you receive new messages.
  4. Craving. After checking for new messages and returning to other work, you start anticipating how it will feel to receive the next “inbox reward”. As soon as the next cue appears, the habit loop is triggered all over again.

The Doughnut Habit Loop:

  1. Cue. You see or smell the doughnuts.
  2. Routine. You stuff 2 bacon-covered maple bars into your face.
  3. Reward. You experience the delectable taste on your tongue and get a temporary rush of energy as the glucose spike surges through your blood.
  4. Craving. After your blood sugar crashes, you begin to again crave the sweet doughnut goodness and find yourself back at the box.

But not all habit loops are bad for us. With a little psychological engineering, you can hijack the cue-routine-reward-craving loop and apply it language learning. The first step is to create an obvious cue for language study:

  • Place a stack of flashcards on your nightstand.
  • Put your favorite language learning apps on the home screen of your smartphone.
  • Set a recurring alarm or calendar event to review at set times each day.
  • Fill in the blanks in the sentence, “After I ____, I study a language for 15 minutes.”

The routine part is fairly straight forward; just do whatever language learning activities you enjoy most or get the most benefit from:

Next comes the reward. This is the most important part of the habit loop; the piece that keeps the whole thing spinning round and round and keeps you coming back for more without even thinking about it. You know yourself better than anyone else; make sure to identify innate and external rewards that will provide true gratification:

  • The buzz from learning new things. Regularly add in new materials and topics to keep things fresh. Try stretching a bit beyond your current level of comfort and competence.
  • Edible treats or guilty pleasures. Allow yourself that glass of wine with dinner or an episode of your favorite trashy television show only if you have completed your language study for the day.
  • Study streaks. Each day in row you study, your streak gets longer and longer, and you will be that much more motivated to not break the chain. More on this below.

If you have chosen inherently enjoyable language learning routines and effective rewards, you should naturally find yourself craving your next study session. You may even end up adding more than one session a day or extending the length of each. If not, try mixing up your routine and testing out more immediate or tangible rewards (e.g. placing a piece of chocolate on your desk that you can’t eat until you finish).

Identify your “keystone habits”

When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.

―Charles Duhigg, “The Power of Habit”

You may have noticed that when you hit the gym, you are that much more likely to hit the books, too. This is because exercise is a “keystone habit”, a heavy domino that – once tipped – influences a host of seemingly unrelated behaviors.

But the reverse is equally true: skip the gym and you will probably skip studying. Take some time to identify your keystone habits, those powerful triggers that have positive or negative ripples throughout your life. Then do everything you can to eliminate the bad habits and maximize the good.

Use a habit tracking app to monitor your progress and build momentum

While your smartphone will not miraculously change your behavior for you, habit tracking apps like Chains.cc or Habit List can at least help monitor your progress and create a positive feedback loop to help keep you going. The more days in a row you complete a habit, the stronger it becomes and the higher the motivation to not break the chain.

5. Set Social and Financial Stakes

Trying to build a new habit is hard, but you can stack the deck in your favor by leveraging the power of competition, social accountability and commitment contracts.

Choose a partner in crime

Pick at least one friend to study with, or better yet, compete with. Not only is it more fun to learn with other living, breathing human beings, but a little friendly competition can significantly boost compliance.

As Tony Stubblebine (CEO of Lift) points out:

“You’re 50% more likely to succeed in your goal if you know at least one other person doing it.”

Make your goals and daily progress public

Beyond just your study buddy, I suggest sharing your learning goals and daily progress with the world at large. You can start a language learning blog, share progress with 100daysproject or just make daily update posts on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Knowing that people will see whether or not you have studied each day can help provide the added push you need on days when you really don’t feel like studying.

Use Stickk or Beeminder to put your money where your mouth is

If friendly competition and public accountability aren’t strong enough motivators for you, try leveraging a more tangible stake: your money. Services like StickK and Beeminder allow you to tie specific financial stakes to each of your goals.

If you fail to hit your daily or weekly targets, a predefined amount is charged to your credit card or sent to an “anti-charity” in your name (e.g. if you are a proponent of gun control, you can choose the NRA as your anti-charity).

“People who put stakes—either their money or their reputation—on the table are far more likely to actually achieve a goal they set for themselves.” ―StickK

We’re all busy people, but if you want more time for language learning then start using any of these five strategies today. The more repetition and consistency you have with your language learning, the faster you’ll advance towards your targets.


John Fotheringham is a linguist, author, entrepreneur, pun aficionado, and full-time silly goose. As both learner and teacher, he has spent the last decade testing first hand what works, and perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t. He shares these results on his blog, Language Mastery, in his podcast, The Language Mastery Show, and in his comprehensive language learning guides, Master Japanese and Master Mandarin.

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