Hindrances to language learning: time

Posted on 28/09/2011


I’d love to, I really would, but I just don’t have time. 

How often do you catch yourself saying that?

Now, obviously I don’t know you, and I’m not going to assume that, like me, you have virtually no family obligations and a job that allows down time during the day. I’m not going to assume that you have shedloads of spare time you are currently idling away on twitter or with another rewatch of The West Wing (not, I hasten to add, that that counts as idling).

In all likelihood, you are busy. There is washing to be ironed and folded; children to be picked up from school; cooking and cleaning and oh, yes, that pesky job, too. Maybe you’re trying to fit in some reading or writing or another hobby too. Maybe you have a newborn who demands every ounce of energy you can squeeze out of your exhausted body. (In which case, my wisest advice would be to skip the rest of this blogpost and come back in a few months’ time, when you are getting some sleep at least.)

But there is always five minutes.

If you learn to harness the power of five minutes (goodness, I sound like an American self-help book, sorry about that), you will advance quicker than you think.

An exercise I get my students to do to warm up sometimes is this:

Think of a word in French for each letter of the alphabet. 

If they’re intermediate or advanced, I get them to then put those words into sentences.

You can do that while you’re ironing.

You can do that while you’re in the car, or on the metro. And while you’re in the car or on the metro, you can also be listening to podcasts  like the ones from Radio Lingua, or CDs like the excellent BBC Quickstart series. You can look around you, and spell out the words you see on adverts if you’re learning the alphabet; you can, in your head, describe the people around you if you are learning adjectives. You can whip out your vocab book and read over the last few words you’ve written down, because you do carry that around with you at all times, don’t you?

It does, I admit, require creativity. And, yes, stamina and discipline: really, it would be easier to listen to music when you’ve had a hard day at work. It would be easier to close your eyes and have a snooze on the train in the morning. It would be so much more immediately gratifying to whizz through Facebook updates on your smartphone.

So you do have a choice. But here’s the thing – though our life circumstances are different, and though this will mean something different for each of us, we do tend to make time for what we want to do. For what we value. Hence your Facebook updates. Hence your West Wing rewatches. Hence, hopefully, time with your spouse and children. I’m not saying give up those things; I’m not saying chain yourself to your desk for an hour a day. But grab the few minutes while you can. And if you’re feeling yourself resisting that, then it’s probably not a time issue; it’s probably a motivation issue. But don’t worry – the next blog post is going to be about that.


— for more hints and tips on language learning, buy Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language here in the US and here in the UK.
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