Easy Ways to Maximize Limited Language Learning Time

Hangul by Chita21

It’s a fact of life – most people are busy.

You’ve got a full time job or school to worry about, possibly a family to take care of, and countless other responsibilities. Not everyone wants to spend their downtime studying either, you need a little time to relax and have fun too.

When you add all of that up, there isn’t always a lot of time left for learning a new language. If you’re living in a country that primarily speaks the language you’re learning it’s not as much of an obstacle, but not everyone has that luxury. Thankfully there are some tips and tactics you can use to get the most out of both the limited time you can dedicate to practice and all the downtime you’ve got throughout the day.

Optimizing Learning Time

First we’ll look at some things you can do to optimize the time you can specifically devote to studying your target language. A lot of these have to do with making sure you’re as focused and productive as possible.

  • Have A Plan – Don’t go into a study session not really knowing what your goal is for that session. Studying without a goal almost always leads to aimless screwing around and that’s almost never productive. Instead, go into each study session with a plan not only for what your specific goal for that study session is but also with a game plan for how you’re going to work toward or reach that goal during that session. It can be as simple as ‘Memorize these 20 new words’ or as complicated as ‘Be able to write a poem in my target language’, the important thing is to have a goal.
  • Eliminate Distractions – If you have an hour set aside to study, use that entire hour to study. Do not check Facebook, do not watch TV, do not listen to music, do not get distracted by texts from friends or check your RSS or go read blogs (even this one). You can use a program like Rescue Time or Freedom to shut off your Internet temporarily if you’re not using it to access your materials. If you have to just download everything you need or print it out then turn your phone off and rip out your modem – you’ve dedicated this time to studying and damnit, you’re going to spend that time studying.
  • Take Controlled Breaks – I know, I know I just told you to buckle down and study for the time you allotted, and you should, but you should also take a controlled five minute break every 20 minutes or so. It turns out we tend to remember things better the closer they are to the beginning and ending of our study sessions. By taking a very short break every 20 minutes or so you can maximize your recall from the study session much more than if you sat there and studied for an hour straight. This is not free license to give into distractions and goof off. Your breaks should be no more than 5 minutes and they should be something that you’re not going to get sucked into. That means yes to getting up and stretching, walking around or doing some push ups and no to checking Facebook, your e-mail or just about anything online.

Optimizing Downtime

So now you know how to get the most out of your structured study sessions, but what if you don’t have the time to have structured study sessions. My first question would be ‘How much time do spend watching TV every night?’. Even excluding that, there are thousands of little moments of downtime each day, times when you’re waiting on something or not doing anything, that you can add up into a substantial amount of study time.

  • Master Passive Learning – Just because you can’t go live in a country that speaks your target language doesn’t mean you can’t master passive, immersive learning by building your own language bubble. When you’re in the car, at the gym or anywhere else you can have your headphones in or music playing listen to dialogues in your target language that you’ve selected or listen to music in your target language. Label everything in your house in your target language using sticky notes. Use your relaxing TV time to watch TV in your target language. Essentially every time you can be exposed to input in your target language make sure you’re getting it.
  • Use In-Between Moments – There are countless moments in your day when you just sit there waiting for something. Maybe you’re waiting for an elevator, for a website to load, for the microwave to finish, for your turn to order at a restaurant – frequently with the proliferation of smartphones people use this time to check in on Facebook and Twitter. Instead, use them to practice a phrase or grammar structure you’re working on or to flip through some flashcards of new vocab.
  • Talk To Yourself – It doesn’t have to be loudly, particularly if you’re at work or on the subway or something (although muttering to yourself in a foreign language might guarantee people give you a little space to get comfortable), but talking to yourself in your target language is not only a good way to reinforce what you’ve learned and solidify it in your memory – it’s also a good way to develop the muscle memory for speaking. Speaking a language is a skill, and just like other skills the muscle you use to practice that skill (your mouth and related bits in this case) need to build up the motor pathways from repeated practice to make the skill feel most natural. The more you chat to yourself, even if you just move your lips and don’t vocalize, the more used to speaking that language you’ll get.

With all of these tactics you really have no excuse for being too busy to learn a language – so go get started! If you have any other helpful ways to pack more practice and study into limited share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Chita21

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • Jay

    Hi guys,

    Great blog. Just curious, what do you two do for a living?

    • Thanks! By day Caroline’s a writer / web designer and I’m a personal trainer & nutrition coach. Bailey’s unemployed so she’s mostly in charge of moral support.