Hyperproductive U: How to Use Commute Time to Learn a Language

Author and founder

It’s early morning, and you’re already packed in that bus/train/subway for at least a half-an-hour. A-a-a-a-argh. But did you thought that it can be a huge advantage on your way to fluency? Let’s see how many options you have to use this time to learn a language. Allons-y!

If you live in a big city, I bet you spend at least an hour on moving your body around the city in all sorts of directions. And this daily commute plays a big role in increasing your average dead time.

Dead time – the time you’ve successfully killed due to the misconception that you cannot do anything useful in the current situation.

R-r-right… But how can you possibly practice a foreign language in a bus?

Simply by turning this dead time in your advantage. Just one hour a day would give you 365 hours over the course of the year. It’s more than a half of time you need to learn any of romance languages.

Let me tell you my story.

I’m a happy resident of Toronto, and this city happened to have the 6th worst commute in North America and the 2nd longest average travel time (96 minutes both ways) overall (sic!).

I spend HOURS on transit. To be precise, I need at least 1h30 to reach my campus and another 1h to get to my work. And using this time to learn a language is now my well-established habit.

During my first academic year, I learned 2013 new French words, which equals to 6 levels of French in Memrise. I didn’t spend an extra minute of my life on memorizing this vocabulary. And that’s the power of dead time.

Even if you are not that lucky to live in Toronto or another city-traffic jam, you still can use this method to your advantage.

Let me show you how.

How can you use dead time to learn a language?

Where are plenty of things you can do while moving from the point A to the point B (whatever they happen to be). And your activities will really depend on your current goals and your energy level.

Yes, I know, being deadly tired in a bus is a national hobby.
But let’s get over it.

Learn new vocabulary

Honestly, that’s the best thing you can do during your travel time to learn a language.

First of all, you usually know how much time takes your daily commute from home to work. Second, if you travel by bus or by subway, the journey requires minimum attention. So you can devote all your cognitive resources to deliberate language practice. Third, being on a bus puts you in unescapable conditions, and it’s very easy to build a habit around it.

So next time you climb on a bus, open Memrise or Duolingo and learn a dozen words in a language of your choice. If you’re done with this portion, start a new lesson. Then, on the way home just repeat this vocabulary!

Make it automatic. You won’t even notice how fast will grow your lexicon. And all this without scheduling a single language learning session!

Listen to your target language

Here, you have plenty of options: audiobooks, podcasts, radio, songs… And this is where you have to make a quick estimation of your energy level and pick an appropriate activity.

Nothing can be worse than a podcast on the language you don’t understand about the topic you’re not interested in when the deadly tired you are packed in TTC train during the rush hour.

So don’t torture yourself.

Listening to podcast and audiobooks in your target language is a great idea. But you have to make sure that:

  • you can hear your podcast (and not a voice of a person who sits right next to you)
  • your brain is still paying attention (this is where your motivation comes into play: if you’re mentally exhausted you will check off fairly quickly);
  • you can understand at least 70-80% of the input (well, you have to choose the right material. “Right” here means “adjusted for your level of understanding”);
If your internal sources are depleted you can opt for enjoying some music. But since you want to use your commute time to learn a language, listening to the radio or songs doesn’t liberate you from responsibility to pay attention. And to help you with this one, try the next trick…

Translate songs

I think it’s a great asset to your language learning. If you’re anything like me, you probably already found enough songs in your target language that you can listen over and over again. So take the next step – start translating your favorite songs in your first language.

This learning approach will boost all four language skills:

  1. Reading and understanding. In most cases, you will need lyrics to translate a foreign song. You’ll probably even read it twice… or thrice. Then, you’ll want to translate words you don’t understand. And guess what? You will add +X words to your everyday vocabulary;
  2. Listening and understanding. Lyrics for a song are like subtitles for a movie. You read them and you try to correlate what you see with what you hear. Result? You become incredibly better at understanding speech;
  3. Writing. Switch the direction. Choose an English song and try to translate its lyrics in your target language. In this case, your brain will have to work on vocabulary, grammar, and style that will result in the improvement of your writing skills.
  4. Speaking singing. Yes, yes. Just don’t do on a bus. Choose a more private place (like your shower, for example)

As you can see, translating songs give you a huge advantage in many ways.

I use lyricstranslate.com. It’s totally free to join and to use. Plus, you will find yourself in a friendly multilingual community so nobody will crucify you for a bit inaccurate translation. Moreover, you can always ask the natives to proofread your work.

Watch videos

What can be better than sitting in the corner of a train and watching White Collar in the language you learn – all on the way to college?

However, do not restrict yourself only to the TV series on Netflix. There is also YouTube. I don’t have to tell you that it’s free, multilingual and full of interesting content.

One of my latest challenges was studying French for 3 hours 50 days in a row. With this goal in mind, I decided to spend at least an hour on YouTube working on my listening skill (what a good idea :) )

I found just three well-established French bloggers but each of them had thousands of videos and tutorials. During this period, watching them, I not only practiced my French but also learned WordPress, search engine optimization, content marketing, and many other exciting things.

Using your commute time to learn a language will help you to kill two birds with one stone (sorry for bloody proverb). Master your target language and deepen your knowledge in another topic – and you will feel like a productivity ninja.

Essential tools of language learning ninja

Ok, since we figured out the list of activities, then all we need is to climb on the next bus all guns blazing. Take a minute to check if you’re ready to learn a language on the go.

Your phone (preferably charged)

As you might have noticed, you need just one simple thing to practice the art of effortless language learning. You are holding it in your hands.

Your phone is a tool of titans.

Unless its battery died.

The conclusion is simple: keep it charged or buy a power bank.

WiFi or strong signal

The reason why Toronto has the 6th worst commute is easily understandable. They didn’t hit upon an idea to install wifi routers in TTC trains. So while in Moscow everybody can enjoy full-speed WiFi even underground, poor Canadians go offline the second they get on a train.

So if you’re lucky enough to live in a city that doesn’t try to save money on WiFi – you know what to do.

If you are like me, download your podcasts, YouTube videos, and the next Netflix series before you dive into that underground, disconnected from the world. You can also profit from the offline mode in Memrise and download language courses at home to always have them in your pocket.

Otherwise, your time to learn a language will turn into your time to procrastinate.

Good headphones

I want to die every time I forget my headphones at home. Not only you feel helpless and unable to do anything useful, but there are always individuals discussing their personal problems over the phone. Out loud.

Anyway, I hope you got my point: invest in a pair of good headphones. They will save yourself millions of nerve cells just by cutting this kind of distractions.

Language learning apps and resources

The last thing I want you to check is your language learner toolkit.

There are lots of things happening in the world of brain science. Every day we discover new ways to study more efficiently, memorize new words almost effortlessly and spend less time to learn a language. Every day we create or update language learning software to implement these techniques. And you want to be in the loop.

Like an old Japanese kung-fu master, you want to keep your arms sharp and ready for a battle at all times.

So make sure to grab tools essential for every language learner. Explore them. Use them on a daily basis. And you will start speaking you target language faster than you expected.

I hope this post will help you to find that there’s much more time in your day when you can actually practice a language. And I’ll be more than happy if you share your thoughts on the topic in the comments below. Vale!

Author Details
Polyglot, Author and Founder of Linguapath
Hey! I am Alina Kuimova, and my long-lasting obsession with learning languages led to the creation of this site. Apart from being a grammar enthusiast, I enjoy reading smart books in any language available, finding easier ways for the brain to learn things and buffing productivity stats by 180%.
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