How to Learn a Language When You Don’t Have Time for It

In July, I received a very intriguing email. A reader was asking how I would go about language learning if I only had 30-60 minutes of free time a day.

I went ‘huh’, gave it a thought and did some reshuffling in my life to match the situation.

I enrolled in six courses, which shifted my student status from ‘full course load’ to ‘full course overload’. Then, I changed my job so that it absorbed all the remaining free time of mine. And, with all this, I still had to spend 3 hours a day commuting to my campus-and-back. As for the language study, I set myself a goal to spend at least an hour a day on Spanish and French.

So if you’ve ever seen that sleep-deprived, fun-deprived, no-personal-life, ‘ohhh-my-god-Monday‘ undergraduate student – that was me over the last four months.

Now, as this ordeal is over, my answer is the following. If you only – realistically – have 30-60 minutes a day for language study, you probably don’t have it.

As I look at my time-log/habit-tracker for September-December, I realize that on most days I failed to attend to my languages at all, let alone an hour-long study. And if I did so on a given day, well, that’s because I study in both Spanish and French and I probably had a lecture that time.

So. Bad news? No way to learn a language with a tight schedule? Get frustrated, close this tab, down a shot of tequila – R.I.P to your dreams?

Not quite.

No time for language learning – no problem

If you don’t have time for learning another language right now, that can be fine – depending on where you are at. There is a stage in language learning when 30 minutes a day is all you need. But there is also a stage at which the minimum requirement for the daily study is three hours of deep work.

An analogy can be useful here.

Learning a language is like driving a motorcycle: you have to upshift as you accelerate. You start with the first gear – not with the fifth, if you want to move anywhere at all. Similarly, you shift to a higher gear as soon as you feel you need to. You want to learn a foreign language in a similar fashion.

The ‘gears’ here are strategies you use at each language proficiency level. Your goals and methodology as a beginner will differ substantially from your philosophy and tactics at more advanced levels. Let’s see how.

When 30 min/day is fine: language learning from 0 to A2

Ironically, the perfect moment for launching a language learning project is when you don’t have much time for it.

On this very first stage, all you need to do is to devote half-an-hour per day to learning words. That’s it. No grammar, no textbooks, no reading.

Your goal here is to memorize 1000 words – and nothing else. As you learn this vocabulary you want to pay close attention to the sound/symbol association. In other words, you want to know how to pronounce a given letter in a given word. That’s not as straightforward as it seems, especially if you are dealing with a language that uses a different writing system (e.g. русский, ελληνικά, 日本語). But even if you don’t have to learn another alphabet, it all depends on your target language. (French spelling made me doubt my sanity for weeks, for example.)

You can use Memrise, Duolingo, SuperMemo or anything of the kind to complete this task. It doesn’t really matter, as long as your language learning app runs on a spaced repetition algorithm and gives you the pronunciation of words.

Once you got these 1000 words down your belt, stop this activity and move on. The most important word here is once: it means that you’re not switching tasks until you’re done. It also means that you delete your Memrise as soon as you’re indeed done.

Why 30 minutes a day?

Vocabulary learning is not language study per se, it’s just the prep work.

The point of the exercise is to prepare you (both mentally and linguistically) for the heavy lifting that comes. Consequently, these 30 min/day is rather an abstraction. You can spend 15 minutes a day or let it consume two hours of your daily life – the only difference is how fast you graduate from this level. (It may take from one to three months.)

At the same time, this practice will make you think about the commitment itself. If you’re troubled to find a daily 30-min slot for vocabulary learning, that’s great, it tells you something as well. At least you’re building a base for having an honest conversation with yourself about this whole language learning thing.

This idea is very close to the concept of the ‘lean startup‘. Playing around with free language learning apps allows you to test your idea with minimum investment. ‘Failing fast’ on this initial stage can save you time, energy and money. (Compare it with a typical approach: the one where you first invest in language courses, classes, and tutors, only to abandon them in a month, bored and broke).

But if you succeed, welcome to the next level.

When you need hours and hours: language learning from A2 to B2

The original question of my reader was how one could get from B1 to B2, given the time limitations at hand. And that’s a valid question, except for one thing.

You should never get stuck on B1 in the first place.

It’s useful to think about the A2 and B2 levels as of two edges of the precipice. Then, as a wire walker, you don’t stop in the middle and say ‘oh, damn, I don’t have time for that‘. It’s all or nothing. There’s simply no B1 there.

What separates A2 and B2 is hundreds of hours of comprehensible input. In other words, you need to ensure that your brain consumes large quantities of target language content, in the form of books, audiobooks, podcasts, and videos. Note: not a ton of grammar exercises, but lots of natural unorganized input. (For the exact strategies on this level, check out this post.)

After two-three months, you just realize that you understand native speakers and read books without much trouble. How this happens, I don’t know. My speculation would be that the brain collects statistics and extract language patterns from the raw material you feed it with. (For more academic hypotheses Google is your friend.)

The A2-B2 zone must be passed as quickly as possible and that’s why long and focused daily practice is so crucial. My typical approach here is to put most of my other projects on hold for two-three months and devote 3 to 4 hours a day to the language study (i.e. getting comprehensible input). The goal here is to get functional: to be able to use this language for other purposes.

To graduate from this level, I take a proficiency test on the B2 level (it’s often helpful to schedule it three months in advance to set yourself a deadline).

How to clear up your schedule for language learning

But I don’t have time‘, you will say.

Fine. You don’t have time – you don’t start it. That’s why you spend one to two months playing with Memrise on the 0-A2 level. This prep time creates you a wiggle room so that you can plan ahead and decide how to make time for language learning before you need it.

My practical suggestion here would be to implement two concepts: one is GTD and another is Digital Minimalism.

These two systems change my life with respect to the ‘I don’t have time’ problem. GTD helped me to get focused and organized and turned me into a task-completing machine. Digital Minimalism freed up hours of my time and brought clarity and peace of mind back to my life. (If you embark on the Digital Declutter challenge after reading Cal Newport’s book, try to bundle it with the intensive language learning practice I propose here. You’ll be flying.)

When it’s time to change your life: language learning from B2 to C2

So there you are: holding your B2 diploma, feeling all warm and fuzzy. It’s time to exhale and dust off. You’re on the other brink of the abyss, and there’s a Terra Nova ahead of you. What do you do next?

Go explore it.

At the B2 level, you’re a fully independent language user. It means that you can use your target language as an instrument for getting other things done.

So you once again shift the gear and get yourself using yet another set of strategies. In the B2-C2 zone, you want to get your target language hardwired in your brain – by using it as much as possible in your everyday life.

Note that this (again) is not language learning per se (most of the language learning happens between A2 and B2). But it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing left to learn here. It means that after B2 you hit the wall called ‘The Law of Diminishing Returns’ so that dumping on your brain masses of target language input ceases to be as effective as before. (You also should be dangerously close to burnout after three months of such practice.)

The only way to avoid this energy trap is to make further learning indirect. You need to deliberately create a scenario in which using this language forms an integral part of your life.

From learning a language to living the language

There are two ways you can go about it: switch your main activity to your target language or do the same with your peripheral activities.

The main activity is what we spend most of our time doing: for some of you it will be study, for others job, for yet others a mix of both. Now, if you’re a student, go on academic exchange or apply for study abroad. If you’re an employee, find a position that requires you to use your target language.

Alternatively, you can rewire your peripheral activities: make most of your free time French-/Russian-/Japanese-based. Consume internet content in your target language. Read your books in French, instead of English. Find Italian podcasts to listen on your way to work. Watch Netflix in Spanish.

Now, there is a problem there.

You will first need to find something to read, watch and listen: something that is not English-based and yet interesting. And, oh boy, it’s gonna be tough! You don’t have to believe me, just try it.

Googling “top Spanish podcasts” won’t help you to solve this problem. You’d have to explore the web and create a personal list from scratch, based on your interests. It will be very different from mine or anyone else’s. (I start my mornings with a fresh shot of philosophy from ENS lectures and seminars (en français, bien évidemment), but I don’t believe most people would share my enthusiasm.)

Are you in or out?

If making such changes to your lifestyle seems way too radical, my question is why did you want to learn that language in the first place? I am indeed a language-learning extremist but let’s be honest: you get the most from a foreign language only when you use it. What’s worse, there is no middle ground: if you don’t use it, you quickly forget it.

So if you want to end up speaking another language, you’ll have to find those three hours a day to get to B2 and you’ll need to make all the necessary changes to your lifestyle to reach C2. You want to be clear with yourself about this one before you commit to language learning.


Image creditsKaren Lau and Leio McLaren (@leiomclaren) on Unsplash

Author Details
Polyglot, Author and Founder of Linguapath
Hey! I\'m 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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