Language learning and time management

Whenever the topic of learning a language comes up in conversation, I invariably end up trying to encourage the other party to take up a language or even improve one they already know, but since human beings are made of bone, muscle tissue and excuses, more often that not the answer is “I don’t have the time to do that”. While I’ve gotten to the point where I would rather not jump to conclusions (because circumstances vary person to person) nor be so judgmental, there was a time where my head usually translated this answer to “I just have so much to do, what with staring blankly at the TV for three hours a day after work and then playing with my iPad while sitting on the toilet.

I understand why the bearers of these life-or-death daily responsibilities wouldn’t want to devote that time to language learning. However, this blog post is aimed at everybody else.

People seem to misconstrue the phrase “you should learn a language, it’s fun” into “you should learn a language, it’s easy-peasy”, and then they get mad at the person who told them that after they crash into a wall made of grammar. Learning a language isn’t easy–at the heart of the activity, it implies at least a little bit of effort in memorizing and exercising what you’ve learned, and this effort requires devoting some time to the activity itself.

One of the biggest personality-changing effects that language learning has had on me has been the fact that it taught me about time administration. At 18 I was the kind of person who thought the day would last the same amount of hours if I woke up at 6am or at 11am–at 21, I realized the extra five hours between these wake-up hours meant two extra hours to learn Japanese, an hour or so to exercise, finishing work earlier, more and better spent free time, and last but not least, the possibility of going to bed somewhat earlier and waking up without looking like an extra from Walking Dead.

Time pockets

The time management trick I want to cover right now is maximizing one’s free time by using time pockets to study. But first, what are time pockets?

If you picture your day (the productive day, from the time you wake to the time you go to bed, not the 24 hour day) as a straight line, and your scheduled tasks as points in that straight line, the spaces between those points would be time pockets. These are usually the five minutes spent waiting for the bus, the ten minutes spent leafing through a magazine you’re not interested in at the doctor’s office, the twenty minutes between the moment you ask your girlfriend if she’s ready and the moment she really is, your morning commute and every coffee shop line you’ve ever stood in. They are downtimes we unconsciously squander because we’re not used to putting that time to good use (usually because we don’t know how long this downtime will last).

First of all, noting how much downtime you have every day is useful. Do you have a daily commute? That’s one. Ten minute break to stretch your back at work? That’s another. That hour you have no idea what to do with now, because your favorite show ended and the replacement doesn’t really please you? That’s a whole sixty-minute pocket! The idea is to measure the time you didn’t know you had, and then putting it to good use.

These time pockets aren’t study time in the broadest sense of the word. I mean, writing on a textbook is difficult while riding the subway and impossible while driving the car, and repeat-after-me exercises will probably earn you some strange looks at the bus stop. However, as I mentioned some time ago, a portable device such as a tablet or a smartphone has made study-on-the-go a no brainer nowadays, so all you really have to decide is the method of study you will use during that time pocket. Feeling like you need to improve your pronunciation? Download a podcast or listen to an audiobook. Forgot how to spell that damn word? Review your vocabulary with a SRS (flashcard) app.

The possibilities are endless as long as you know how to manage your time, so what are you waiting for?