No, language learning isn’t just an activity afforded by students, retirees and the independently wealthy.
While getting comfortable in a new language takes a substantial time investment, you could absolutely work language learning into a busy schedule.
So here are five tricks to learn any language on a busy schedule—or rather, five tricks to spice up any daily routine with a little language learning!
- 1. Snooze Your Way to Foreign Language Fluency
- 2. Link Language Learning to Everyday Tasks
- 3. Use Flashcards Without Borders
- 4. Narrate the World Around You
- 5. Write on the Go
1. Snooze Your Way to Foreign Language Fluency
You’ve probably heard that it’s a good idea to work on your new language right before bed so your brain keeps processing what you’ve learned during the night and you wake up a bit more fluent than you were before you went to sleep. But have you ever tried doing a little language learning immediately after waking up?
Yes, I realize that at first glance this seems like an absolutely terrible idea. If you’re anything like me, your state of mind immediately after waking is such that brushing your teeth is mildly challenging, preparing a decent cup of coffee makes full use of your mental faculties and learning a new language is completely out of the question.
However, consider that you can start your day off with some language learning without even having to get out of bed–that’s starting to sound better, right? If you have an alarm clock or, more likely, a smartphone that lets you use custom alarm ringtones, simply create some voice memos involving new vocab words, grammatical structures or whatever else you want to “study” while cowering in bed and wondering how it can be morning again already.
By using these memos as alarm sounds, you’ll have your brain fired up for language learning right from the break of day. This moves a little slice of your language practice into that gap between the time your alarm gets going and the time you get going. The best part of this technique is that the more times you hit snooze, the more you learn!
There are several smartphone apps that let you set voice memos as custom alarms. For instance, the My Voice Alarm iPhone app allows you to “wake up to the sexy sounds of your boyfriend or girlfriend’s voice, while a romantic song plays in the background”–or, for our purposes, wake up to the sexy sound of new foreign language vocab words while a romantic song plays in the background.
My Voice Alarm is another iPhone app that lets you record our own alarm sounds. Over in Android land, apps like Talking Alarm Clock and Speaking Alarm Clock will do the trick.
If you want to take your learning-while-snoozing game up a notch, you can buy this alarm clock that lets you add custom sounds. It has the bonus feature of being able to actually leap off your nightstand and roll around your floor when it goes off (although, personally, the idea that my alarm clock could spontaneously come to life and begin moving around at its own discretion is enough to keep me from falling asleep at night).
Even if you’re like me and feel little inclination to do anything other than guzzle coffee most mornings, give this technique a shot. You might be surprised to find that you can actually get some language learning done even while hitting the snooze button like your life depends on it. At the very least, you’ll get some speaking practice in just recording the voice memos!
2. Link Language Learning to Everyday Tasks
The average person drinks about half a gallon of water a day. If you think about it, half a gallon is a lot of water, and drinking this much water a day is a significant commitment. It would take a fair amount of time to drink half a gallon of water in one sitting!
But you never hear anyone say “Oh, I’d like to drink half a gallon of water a day, but I’m just too busy!” or “My schedule is packed–I think I’m going to have to skip my half-gallon of water today” or “I really want to drink half a gallon of water a day, but I guess I’ll have to wait until I retire.” The one ingenious trick used by billions of people who manage to fit drinking half a gallon of water a day into their busy schedules, of course, is that they take many smaller helpings of water at regular intervals throughout the day.
So if you want to fit half a gallon of language learning into your daily routine, why not use the same approach? One easy way to do this is to link your language learning to the little tasks you perform dozens of times over the course of a day. Promise yourself, for example, that you’ll learn a new vocab word every time you take a drink of water.
Your thirst will then act as a periodic reminder not just to get a drink of water, but to keep on top of your language learning. Plus, you’ll be doing part of your language learning in frequent little sips rather than trying to find time in your busy schedule to gulp everything down at once. (This language learning strategy can also double as an educational drinking game, although not one I’d necessarily recommend.)
By binding your language practice to repetitive everyday tasks, you’ll turn routine daily chores into powerful language learning tools and get in your half-gallon of language study before you even know it. The power of this technique is limited only by your imagination and the repetitiveness of your daily routine!
Here’s a place where being addicted to checking your smartphone can actually work to your advantage. If you commit to, say, learning a new word and using it in a sentence every time you look at your cell phone, you’ll be amazed at your progress (or, worst case scenario, you’ll start thinking twice before reaching to see if you have any new text messages).
3. Use Flashcards Without Borders
If you’re a flashcards kind of person, you probably already know that flashcards are great way to integrate language learning into your everyday life. They’re portable, convenient and extremely powerful. (And if you’re not a flashcards kind of person, you should think about becoming one.)
But if you’re trying to figure out how to learn a language on a busy schedule, sometimes just having flashcards isn’t enough. Sometimes you need a reminder even to look at your flashcards in the first place.
And this is one place where going old-school and making some actual paper flashcards can help. Once you’ve written up your flashcards, distribute them across different places where you’re bound to run into them as you go about your daily business. Put a couple in your kitchen to find when you wake up in the morning, leave a few in your car, place some on your desk at the office, and so on.
Then as you go through your day, you’ll have regular chances to review a few vocab words at a time (or whatever else you decide to put on the flashcards) without having to make any effort whatsoever to schedule in your language learning. When you finally lie down to go to sleep at the end of your day, you’ll be surprised at how much you’ve learned with so little effort. And you may be equally surprised to find a few more forgotten flashcards lurking under your pillow, so you can get in some last-minute vocab review before slipping off into dreamland.
You can also take advantage of today’s technology and opt, instead, for digital flashcards. These take up no tangible weight, living in the bytes of your smart device and available for instant access no matter the time and place. So even if you only have a few minutes to spare, whether on the bus or while waiting for your food to be microwaved, you can still pull out your phone or tablet and flash through a few decks.
Digital flashcards can also fit in more than just a word and its definition. Take the language learning app FluentU, for instance. FluentU lets you create custom flashcards from authentic videos made by native speakers. These interactive flashcards include text, audio, image and video to make your studies more comprehensive. You can review these flashcard decks with personalized quizzes that show you vocab at optimal times for long-term memorization.
4. Narrate the World Around You
For a language learning strategy that you can use literally anywhere, try practicing your new language by keeping a running narrative of the world around you. Besides giving you a chance to review all the words and grammatical structures you know, and to build fluency by keeping a running monolog, this technique is infinitely adaptable.
Walking down the street? Try narrating the things happening around you.
Waiting in line? Talk about the other people you see and even make up stories about them (using your inner voice–not out loud, of course!).
Stuck in a boring meeting? Maybe describe what the meeting is about and try translating some of what’s being said.
In addition to being a useful tool to help you learn any language on a busy schedule, narrating the world around you is a great way to practice thinking on your feet in a new language. Responding to the things happening around you will help you get better at drawing on your new language on the fly, and having all the new words and grammatical structures you’re learning ready at your fingertips.
5. Write on the Go
One of the best tricks to learn any language on a busy schedule is to start a language learning notebook and make it your bester Freund. If you’re already keeping a vocabulary book, all the better–just block off a section you can use to start building your written fluency while you’re on the go.
Depending on your personal preferences, there are a few ways to do this. If you’re the practical type, you can integrate your language practice into everyday organizational tasks by using your language learning notebook mainly for to-do lists and notes-to-self. If you’re more introspective, you can start keeping a diary in your new language, writing down your experiences and thoughts whenever you have a chance. If you’re feeling creative, you can even try maintaining a notebook of stories and poems. Or, if you like variety, you can go for some mixture of all three!
Writing on the go is basically the written equivalent of narrating the world around you. It’s a highly adaptable technique that’s great for fluency-building. If you use these strategies to integrate writing and speaking practice into your daily routine, plus the other strategies listed above, you’ve already relocated a huge chunk of your language study into the little empty spaces that recur throughout everyday life.
In the end, you won’t be able to get rid of dedicated language study time altogether. To return to the nutritional analogy: Even if you drink your half-gallon of water in little sips over the course of the day, you’ll still want to eat dinner at night (it’s just not practical to eat your dinner in periodic bites over a span of 12 hours).
But the trick is to make sure you don’t have to eat your dinner and drink half a gallon of water at the same time. Use these techniques to integrate a good portion of your speaking/writing and vocab practice into your everyday routine, leaving only the essentials for your dedicated language learning time.
And before you know it, “I wish I could learn a language, but I just don’t have time” will become “I didn’t think I had time to learn a language, but I learned one anyway ’cause I’m a boss!”