Are You Too Busy To Learn a Language?

Too Busy To Learn a Language?

“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”― H. Jackson Brown Jr.

We all like to make excuses. When we’re late to a meeting, it was because of the “unusually” heavy traffic. When we have bad grades, it was because the prof was “unfair” in his/her marking. When we don’t travel, it’s because it’s too expensive or we have kids. The list could go on and on of course, but today I will focus on a particularly pervasive excuse that I hear very often: that of one’s lack of time.

Old clockWhen it comes to learning a foreign language, many people say something along those lines: “Yeah, hmmm, I would be interested in doing it, but I’m too busy, I simply don’t have the time.” This excuse stems from two simple problems: the first is that people overestimate how long it takes to learn a language up to intermediate fluency (it really doesn’t have to take 5 years; the secret is about consistency). The second problem is that people tend to overestimate the time they spend on doing daily activities (such as work).

Today, we’ll take a look at whether this argument  holds any ground, or, rather, whether people (not you, of course!) are most likely just lying to themselves and making excuses. I will then introduce the concept of what I term “dead time,” and show you how you can learn a language without even making the slightest change to your schedule. And as if things weren’t already as awesome as they are, in next week’s article, I’m giving you 10 quick and really super useful tips to make better use of your time, tips that will dramatically increase your productivity, thus allowing you to do more things in less time.

Are You As Busy As You Would Like To Believe?

Scientific research has shown that people tend to overestimate how much time they spend or spent on an activity during a particular period. This conclusion was made by simply asking people the following question: “How many hours a week (day) do you spend working (watching television, doing house cleaning, etc.)?” It turns out that people say they spend more time doing activities (such as work, playing tennis, etc.) than they actually do. In other words, people think they are busier than they really are.

For example, Americans (in addition to citizens of many other countries where studies took place) tend to report longer hours than when they keep a more accurate diary of their work. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, a person who actually works 40 hours in a week will, on average, report working 43. But here is where it gets interesting: the more hours that people work, the more they exaggerate. Americans who say they work 75 hours a week tend to be exaggerating by as many as 25 hours.

Jean de La Bruyère once said, and I think there is no quote more appropriate for the context of this article, that “Those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its brevity.” Are you one of those?

The truth is, whether we’re talking about a billionaire living in a mansion or a homeless person sleeping in a carton box, every single person on this earth has the same 24 hours in a day. Some people are really good at managing their time, some… not so much. Not to worry if you’re not the productivity god you thought you were, though, because this is something that you can easily work on.

Make Use of Your Dead Time

Dead time is the term I use to refer to periods of time, typically in between various activities that take place throughout your day, that are wasted because you are doing nothing besides staring into the air or getting angry at people. The largest amount of dead time is Rush hourusually when people commute to work/school. The average travel time to work in the United States is 25.4 minutes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If we multiply this by two, this means commuting to and from work takes an average American 50.8 minutes/day. Typically, people who commute to work either listen to the radio or get angry at the “unusually” heavy traffic, or do both. If you take the public transport, you probably listen to your MP3 or play silly games on your phone (I’m guilty of this too).

Other examples of dead time would be when you walk to/from meetings or when running errands, when taking a plane, during breaks at work/school, or in the morning before commuting to work/school.

What I’m proposing, then, is to simply use this time to your advantage to learn whatever it is you want to learn. And a language happens to be an especially easy thing to learn while driving or riding the bus, thanks to audio language learning methods such as Pimsleur or Michel Thomas. Fifty minutes a day using these methods (and perhaps coupled with radio/music/podcast listening practice in the target language), over a period of 2 to 3 months, will usually be enough for you to reach low intermediate fluency in a language such as Spanish, French, or Italian! And this, theoretically speaking, would not require you to make any changes to your schedule to accommodate such a routine.

I understand that it’s a bit hard at the beginning to actually get into the habit of using your dead time doing something productive such as learning a language, but once the habit has become sort of ingrained (it takes about 20-25 days), it become second nature. Before you know it, you’ll be understanding a new foreign language, and you’ll be ready and confident to start practicing with natives.

Are You In?

Do you have much dead time throughout your days? Do you commute to school or work? Do you think you use your time effectively enough? Let me know in the comments section down below, and if you know of any additional tips to make good use of your dead time, let everyone know too (include plenty of examples!). And don’t forget to watch out for the next article where I’ll be introducing 10 quick and easy tips to help you jumpstart your time management skills.

By Lingholic

  • www.lingholic.com is all about the art of learning languages. Learn how to learn and dramatically improve your foreign language acquisition ability.

  • Show Comments (13)

  • Lucas

    Are you a wizard or something? I was thinking “How in the world I’ll make time to study japanese!?”, right after that I clicked on your website’s link and I saw this nice article. Thanks! This article is very useful!

    I think my main problem right now is that I need to organize my time. I’ve been very busy studying lately, but I do believe I have plenty of dead time that I can make use of. I’ll be waiting for the next article.

    • Haha! Glad to hear my article came out at the right time 🙂

      Organizing and tracking one’s time is really crucial in making good use of it. It’s really easy to waste time these days (especially with the internet and the latest technologies), so it’s more important than ever to dedicate certain blocks of time to specific tasks rather than “multitask” and lose focus.

      I hope you’ll make good use of your dead time, and be sure to check for the next article, I’ll give a lot of really useful tips to not only make use of your dead time, but of your productive time too! Looking forward to hearing your experiences applying my advice!

  • Kevin

    The biggest quarrel I’ve had with learning a language is how mind numbingly boring it is. Of course, I know it’s not supposed to be that way even if you can’t go live in the target country. I have plenty of time and have been doing Rosetta Stone for the past 34 some days about 45 minutes a day and although it’s taught me a lot, near the end of Level 1 [there’s 5 levels!] I’m starting to get into things that are slightly more complicated considering they don’t explain anything. For example “indirect pronouns” in Spanish. I have no idea what those are and because it doesn’t go out of it’s way to explain it to you you’re kinda left in the dark. I’m sure they could easily put a page of text [or less] for each Lesson to explain it. For those unfamiliar, there’s 4 Lessons per Unit and 4 Units per level so it wouldn’t be heavily reading based.

    • If you’re finding it boring, then look for other ways to do it! Learning resources are just that – resources. There’s no law that says that you have to spend an hour every day on Rosetta Stone until you finish all five levels. Of course, that’s what RS wants you to believe, so that you’ll buy their materials and encourage other people to do the same. Go look for something different: a novel, a TV show, a native speaker to converse with, a podcast, a different program (I quite liked Pimsleur), a grammar book that isn’t too dry (I’m currently using two Practice Makes Perfect workbooks and am finding them very helpful for verb tenses and for pronouns).

      (disclaimer: I have no love for RS, either as a student or as a teacher. But I would have the same response to any program that a learner is finding tedious.)

    • Hi Kevin. I personally find Rosetta Stone boring, and I wouldn’t be able to go through their lessons for 45 minutes a day, but some people really enjoy the program though. “Studying” a language can be boring, but it’s usually only necessary to put raw effort and study during the early stages of language learning, after which you can really start (well, continue I should say) to “enjoy” the language (by talking with natives, listening to movies, reading the news/blogs, etc.). Whichever stage you are in, see learning as a game and always remind yourself of all the positive things/experiences that this new language will bring to your life.

      If right now what you are doing seems unbearingly boring, try out a different method. Try watching movies with English subtitles at first, and look up grammatical concepts that you don’t understand on the internet. And try speaking will natives either online or by meeting friends or groups in your city. Hope this will help!

  • I’ve been trying to use my “dead time”, but I have to admit that I’m not always organized enough. I’d love to get into the habit of listening to podcasts while taking the dog on an extra walk every day – good for me, good for him, good for language learning! Using Pimsleur or Michel Thomas during a car commute is a great idea.

    • Yes, it does take organization. As stated though, the hard part is really the first 20-25 days, after which the habit will have stuck and it’ll become second nature. Walking the dog is an excellent example of “dead time.”

  • Philip

    I listen to MT or Pimsleur during my walk to work. I can’t do it every single time, if I’m too stressed it just doesn’t work and I switch to music, but 9 out of 10 days i do it.

    • Hi Philip! That’s great. I understand that sometimes we’re stressed or we simply don’t have the mood for listening to language learning methods while commuting to school or work, but I think it’s really great that you’ve been able to maintain a 90% commitment!

      How long have you been doing this? Have you seen noticeable improvements in your language skills during the past couple of weeks/months?

  • Parker

    Any recommendation on language learning methods that I could download and put in my phone so that I could listen to it while making use of the dead time? Currently learning French and Korean language is my goal.

  • Prathap G

    I chanced upon this website, and am thoroughly enjoying it. Remarkable work.

    • Thanks for the kind comment Prathap! It means a lot.

      What language(s) are you learning at the moment?

  • Cat Ramos キャット ラモス

    Excellent post! I listen to MT French during my commute to work. Sometimes, I tend to speak out a little loudly and people would look at me like I am an alien 🙂 Fine with me, though 🙂

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