So, you want to learn a language.
Makes sense. Only good things can come from being bilingual, trilingual or straight-up poly.
There’s just one problem.
You can’t find the time.
You’ve tried and tried and just can’t seem to squeeze it in. Well, I’m here to tell you that if there’s a will, there’s a way. Even the busiest of us can make time to learn a new language.
But first—there’s good news and there’s bad news.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. Ready? Here it is: There are no shortcuts when it comes to learning a new language. You have to put in the time and the work.
It can be a difficult idea to process, as we’ve become accustomed to instant gratification. It’s understandable. Technology makes things happen faster. You probably wouldn’t even have taken the time to read this article if it took more than five seconds to load, and if you’re even bothering to read this introduction, well, thank you! Most of us just jump straight to the list.
Technology, however, isn’t as useful when it comes to making our brains work faster. So, language learning has to be done the old-fashioned way. Time and effort.
You can try to rush the process. We all want to save time and money, and accomplish our goals with effortless efficiency. I get it. But the irony is that if you rush, you just end up making this process longer, because when you do things half-baked, you’ll eventually have to go back again to bake them all the way through.
But don’t despair. We didn’t get to the good news yet.
The good news: even though you will need to carve out time, there are several ways to fit language learning into your already busy schedule without driving yourself crazy.
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The Principle of Fast Language Learning: Don’t Kill Time, Create It
One very commonly used phrase among busy people is, “let me check my calendar.”
The calendar is essentially a deity to people who have a million things to do every day. Without it, many of us would fall into a disorganized frenzy.
When you have projects to complete, lunch meetings, dinner dates, game nights, weddings, fantasy leagues and much more to attend, how can you also take on language learning without becoming completely overwhelmed?
This is where the calendar comes in. It’s your only hope for keeping track of it all. If learning a new language is something that’s important to you, then you can make time for it by scheduling it into your calendar.
Create a routine for yourself, and then make it stick by writing it into your calendar. When we ignore this step, language learning becomes something that we can easily push aside. That nasty phrase “I’ll do it tomorrow” will become a working part of your speech. Without a calendar to keep you honest, you’ll fall into a vicious cycle of procrastination.
(Of course, as hard as we might try, we can’t always follow our calendar exactly. Things come up. If that nasty four-word phrase does happen to work its way into your day, put a positive spin on it. Learn to say it in your target language so that it’ll at least be of some use to you.)
If your new calendar is going to work, you’ll likely need to start small. No one said that you have to commit hours and hours every day to language learning. All you need to get rolling are a few minutes.
Have you ever heard of the Pomodoro technique? If not, it’s about to become your new best friend.
You can get a full tutorial of the technique on this website, but to sum it up for you, you set a timer for 25 minutes, and for those 25 minutes you immerse yourself in your task with no interruptions. It’s great because in the entire span of a day, we can often find 25 minutes somewhere to do something that is important to us.
Don’t think you can? Take a look at what you’re really doing with all of those hours.
Maybe you’d have to cut out a TV show (and c’mon, DVR and streaming means you’ll never miss anything), or spend less time on social media (be honest, how many times per day do you really need to look at pictures of martinis, selfies and someone else’s vacation?).
Or maybe—and this may feel impossible to some people—wake up 30 minutes earlier to give yourself a little extra time in your day. It might be tough at first, but humans are adaptable.
You’ll get used to it, and you’ll learn to love the quiet time before the sun comes up where you can focus on doing what you love (or doing something that you don’t necessarily love, but you’re getting out of the way to have more time for the stuff you love later in the day).
It’s never going to be easy, but if you want to learn a language, it’ll be worth it.
So, shall we?
8 of the Fastest Ways to Learn a Language for People on the Go
1. The 1,000 Word Challenge
Here’s another good news/bad news scenario.
The good: Everyday communication doesn’t require memorizing an entire dictionary. It doesn’t even require half or even a quarter of it. If you aim to learn 1,000 of the most common words in your target language, you’ll be able to carry on some pretty cohesive conversations.
Learning 1,000 words won’t make you fluent, but those words will provide a stable foundation from which you can continue to build. Once you start to speak with people, you’ll be able to pick up new words and phrases, make connections and recognize grammatical patterns.
The bad: You have to learn 1,000 words. To people with little to no spare time, or at least people who feel like they have no spare time, learning 1,000 words might sound like an uphill battle. It doesn’t have to be, though.
Just do it in pieces.
Commit to learning at least 20 words per day. Schedule this into your calendar, and within two months, you’ll have memorized 1,000 words. If you’re ambitious, go for 30, 40 or 50 words. Carve out 30 minutes whenever you can. It doesn’t even have to be consecutive. You can break it up and squeeze in five minutes at a time. Just get the words in any way you can.
If you need some tips as to how to get this accomplished, keep reading.
2. The Sticky Note Takeover
For busy language learners, sticky notes are everything.
The trick here is to put them everywhere you possibly can. If it has a surface, stick a note on it.
For example, if you’re learning Spanish, grab a sticky note, write the word la pared on it, and then stick it on a wall that you pass by every day. Now, every time you pass that wall you’ll remember that the word for “wall” is la pared. Do that with everything: your bookshelf, sink, dishwasher, milk, coat rack and anything else you have at your place. You get the point.
These daily reminders will keep the words fresh in your mind. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you won’t need the sticky notes anymore. You’ll just know the words. You can take this a step further and put the sticky notes on your private workspace at the office.
Vocabulary Stickers will give you a running start. They offer durable, color-coded sticker sets in various languages that (literally) cover common items in your home and office and save busy people like you the time and hassle of making labels on your own.
You can go even further than that and change the language on your ATM card at the bank, so that your transactions will be in your target language. Maybe change the language on your phone if you’re feeling bold, or maybe on certain apps that you already know really well, if that’s an option. It’s all about immersion.
What’s great is that this method takes little to no time (once you’ve labeled everything and/or changed the languages on your devices). All you’ve done is optimized your daily routine.
So give it a shot. See how much you learn with a minimal time commitment.
3. Entertain Yourself
For people who are in the intermediate stages of learning a language, entertainment is one of the easiest and most fun ways to immerse yourself. There’s so much content out there nowadays that there’s something for everyone.
Get your favorite book or movie—and if you’re in the intermediate stage, it’s important that it’s a favorite—and then read the book or watch the movie in your target language. When it’s a story you know well, you’ll get much more out of it. You’re not going to understand every single word, but you’ll learn more than you won’t understand.
Your memory of the story and context will guide you and you’ll pick up a ton of new words and phrases. Even though you won’t understand 100 percent of the story, you won’t feel the frustration of missing out, because you’re already familiar with it.
This is crucial in getting you through to the end so you won’t throw away the opportunity to expand your knowledge base.
4. The Techie Tango
For better or worse, we’re attached to our devices. Our phones, tablets and laptops pretty much serve any need we can think of, short of physically feeding us and getting us dressed in the morning. So, why wouldn’t we use technology for our language learning needs?
The answer: We already do.
There are so many language learning resources available for download, a person can spend weeks just sifting through the options. It’s a good problem to have, but it can be overwhelming. We know you’re busy, so we’ll save you some time: here’s where you can find apps, podcasts, online tools and videos to get learning with your device.
These options are great for people with tight schedules, because they’re good on the go. For example, with the FluentU app, you can learn new language skills from real-world videos while you’re on the train, in a waiting room or wherever you can get Wi-Fi. It’s a burst of target language immersion, available any time.
Make sure you free up some space on your device and start downloading your way to fluency.
5. A Rendez-vous for Two
DIY language learning doesn’t always cut it for some people. That’s okay. You can never go wrong with one-on-one interaction or instruction. In fact, you can only go right. Finding a private tutor is a great way to enhance your language skills. You’ll get a tailored approach to language learning from a knowledgeable instructor.
At first glance, getting a private tutor might seem like the complete opposite of an efficient solution, but it’s actually perfect for busy people. Unlike a class that meets at a set time, with a private tutor, you’ll have more flexibility to set your schedule. If a last-minute meeting pops up, you can reschedule with your tutor, or if your schedule opens up, you can squeeze more sessions in.
You’ll also probably have more flexibility in terms of location. You can meet in a coffee shop, a classroom or save time traveling and use video chat.
Don’t know where to start looking for a tutor? WyzAnt is a great choice for finding a tutor to meet up with in your area, while Verbling is one of the top options for online tutoring.
On top of that, a tutor will be able to point out your strengths and weaknesses so you’ll have tailored sessions that focus specifically on what you need. That’s the epitome of efficiency and every busy language learner’s dream.
6. The Buddy System
Remember that from grade school? Our teachers made us hold hands with a partner for the sake of accountability. The logic here is the same. You’ll have someone to hold your hand, so you don’t stray too far while trying to get to your final destination.
The main difference between a buddy and an online tutor is money. You don’t have to pay a buddy (I really hope you don’t pay for buddies). This relationship is supposed to be mutually beneficial. They help you with their target language and you help them with English or any of the other languages you may know.
The great thing about a buddy is that they’re always with you, and I don’t mean in a creepy, hovering, stalker way. If you’re learning German but located in North America, for example, there’s a good chance that you’ll find your buddy online. Once that happens you’ll be able to stay in touch easily, whenever you and your buddy have time, via the internet.
Our smart phones keep us connected even when we’re not sitting at our laptops, and you can text your buddy as casually as you would any other friend with Skype, WhatsApp or any social media platform with private messaging. It’s a great way to incorporate your target language into your everyday life.
To save you some time, here are some websites to get you started in finding that special someone: Speaky, WeSpeke, InterPals, Ayni, Conversation Exchange.
7. Have a Few Drinks
No argument here, I bet.
For many busy people, the happy hour scene is an absolute must. After a long day, most of us want to take the edge off, and a cocktail or two usually does the trick. Don’t misinterpret this though. Getting trashed won’t help you speak fluent Mandarin (not by itself, anyway—more on that in a bit).
Language learning groups love to meet in bars. Try swapping out a few of your regular happy hour hot spots and find a group on Meetup that does happy hour. There’s no shortage of them.
Or try Mundo Lingo. This is an international group that does weekly happy hours around the world. People meet in bars and wear flag stickers to show what languages they speak, placing their strongest language at the top. Click “cities” in the upper right-hand corner to find events near you. Check out this video at a Lima group event to get a feel for what it’s like.
Whether it’s Meetup, Mundo Lingo or another group you happen upon, take a few days out of the week to make your happy hour productive. It’s an easy way to fit language learning in without having to sacrifice other things. It may be a little nerve-racking at first, especially because it’s new, but after a few trips (and a few drinks) you’ll loosen up and it’ll simply become a regular part of your schedule.
Now, back to getting trashed and speaking Mandarin.
Again, alcohol isn’t a magic elixir that’ll endow extra language absorption powers on you. If only. However, they don’t call alcohol “liquid courage” for no reason. Many of us can read, listen and answer questions on apps all day, but when it actually comes to speaking, we clam up.
This is where the drinks come in. Alcohol is the ultimate clam shucker. It’ll help you let go of all that self-consciousness and judgment and get you speaking freely. Obviously, don’t drink so much that you’re slurring and blacking out, but if you need to loosen up, throw a few back and you’ll start chatting without even thinking about it.
8. Haaave you met TED?
Barney Stinson had the right idea. You need some TED in your life. TED Talks are a language learner’s dream, especially language learners who are short on time.
You’ll find a TED talk in nearly any language you want with a quick YouTube search, and the videos are relatively short. You can even find TED talks that are under ten minutes long.
Many TED talks have subtitles, which is an added bonus for language learners, but if one doesn’t you can look at the transcript. Just click “More” and you’ll see “Transcript” in the drop-down menu. Since the speakers generally aren’t talking about language learning, but speaking freely in their native language about a specific topic, TED talks are probably ideal for intermediate level students and above (but if you’re an ambitious beginner, go for it!).
What’s also wonderful is the flexibility. You can listen to a TED talk while on the move. Whether it’s your commute to work, your lunch break or just a Saturday morning lounging around the house, you can find time to listen anywhere.
If for some reason you really hate TED talks (some people just can’t stand lectures) there’s an option on YouTube called Easy Languages that serves a similar function. The difference is that you’ll be listening to random street interviews as opposed to a lecture. Most of the videos are under ten minutes and there are subtitles in both English and the target language as this YouTube channel caters specifically to language learners.
With these helpful tips, you’ll definitely be able to make this work. So, go ahead and be efficient. Don’t waste any more time!
This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you
can take anywhere.
Click here to get a copy. (Download)
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