10 Ideas for Learning a New Language Five Minutes At A Time

We live in the most hurried, busy time the world has perhaps ever seen.

We have more engagements, more work, more distractions to fill more hours of more days and if you are like me, you still find yourself wishing you could accomplish – just a bit more.

Amongst all this business is a desire to master another language.  We all have our different reasons for this desire, but I I suspect that we all share one thing in common – a lack of time to really focus on learning the language.

Taking Control Of  Your Time

Part of this struggle is most likely our own doing. Thoreau reminds us that, “It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?

There is much that each of us can do to take control of our time and schedules and create some much needed space for the activities and tasks that are most impactful and fulfilling.  We need to be ruthless with our time, cutting out the fluff – which will be different for all of us – and focusing on those things that will get us where we want to go.

Filling in the Gaps

Cutting out the fluff is just one side of the the coin of busyness though.  The other side, and the one I’d like to focus on here, is thinking about efficiency with the time we do have and specifically with taking advantage of the gaps, the transitions that fill our days.

But where are these gaps and what do they entail?  As I look at my day, it is filled with tasks.  Writing this article is one example.  Going for a thirty minute bike ride this morning is another.

Taking a shower, brushing my teeth, working through email, convening a coaching call with a client and editing a Turkish text on which I am working;  all of these are examples of the sort of things we do with our days.

Your tasks of course will be different, but all have a beginning and an end and then a time of transition in between.  It is this transition time that I want to help you take advantage of today.

Some transitions will be short – shifting from finishing up email to working on editing the Turkish text may only require the time it takes to click from one application to another.

Other transitions will be longer – leaving work and commuting home may take upwards to an hour.

All transitions, no matter the length, can be captured and maximized to enhance and improve your language learning  journey.  

Ideas for Filling Transition Times with Language Learning

Learning a language five minutes at a time may not seem plausible, but if we fill in the many transitions of our day with high quality activities, it can be done.  It will certainly improve the language learning journey and speed your path toward mastery.

There are really four main transition types and with the right set of resources and ideas, each can be turned into a great time of learning.  It will take a bit of creativity and preparation, but it will be well worth the effort and will do wonders to add much needed interaction with the language to your already busy day.

Short Transitions

Short transitions are those that generally take less than a minute.  You finish up one task at work and as a good employee, you switch immediately to the next.

Generally these transitions can be very short.  They require only time enough to shut down one program and open up another, or complete one task and walk over to where the next one is set to begin.

Maximizing these short transitions is not easy, but it is worth it.

Idea: Flashcards

Whether using paper flashcards or a program like Anki, you should be able to easily squeeze in a review of ten to twenty flashcards in the course of a short transition.  This could allow you to review a couple of hundred new words every day – review that you would probably not get to if you felt you needed to set aside one large chunk of time to review them all.

Idea: Write Summaries

Taking a minute or two to write a quick summary of what you have just completed is a great way to practice producing with the target language.  It will allow you to practice talking – through writing – about what it is you do each day, an important topic to be able to discuss.  These summaries don’t need to be long or complex and will offer you the chance to use new words that are context rich – they are from your real life!

Idea: Watch Target Language Commercials

Finding and watching commercials in your target language can be both entertaining and a great learning experience.  Just find the translation of “TV Commercial” in your target language and then paste it into a Youtube search and you will find hundreds of short, fun, culture bound commercials which will expose you to the language, the people and the customs of the target language.  Here is an example I found in Turkish when I searched for “Çorba TV Reklamı” – soup commercials.

Medium Transitions

Medium transitions are those that are a bit longer, five to fifteen minutes.  Some are not necessarily transitions of that length, but are times in which you can sneak in five to fifteen minutes with the language.

Your lunch break may be a good example of one of these times.  If you have an hour, can you spare a chunk of time at the beginning or the end of this time?  I am sure you can.

Idea: Read

Always carry a book or magazine with you from which you can read when time allows.  You may be able to read an entire book, one chapter at a time over your lunch break in the course of a few weeks.

Idea: Listen

Having an ipod filled with target language listening material will ensure that you can take advantage of these medium breaks by listening to a podcast, a news cast or some handcrafted audio that you have created yourself.

Long Transitions

Longer transitions are those time when you have thirty minutes to an hour in between one task and the next.  This could be your daily commute to and from work, it could be a wait in the doctor’s office reception area, it could be while standing in line to buy the new iphone 5.  Any of the above ideas could be used to fill this time, but here are a few extras as well.

Idea: Make a Phone Call

If you have a significant chunk of time, consider making a phone call to a local native speaking friend to practice talking.  You may also tap into the power of modern technology and make a Skype call to someone overseas or to an overseas business to ask about a certain product of service.  These types of phone calls will give you a significant opportunity to practice speaking the language.

Idea: Watch a TV Series or Movie

If you have fifteen to thirty minutes, consider finding a popular TV series or movie online to watch.  If you were to watch fifteen minutes every day, you could get through a one hour program each week.

Idea: Livemocha or Duolingo Lesson

With a longer period of time, you may also be able to slip in a lesson at a free online language program like Livemocha, Duolingo or LingQ.  None of these are perfect, but they all offer an opportunuity to get a lot of language in a short amount of time.  Check out a few such programs: Livemocha, Duolingo, LingQ, Busuu.

Mindless Activities

The last of the transition times is focused on those activities that we do each day that require very little in the way of thinking; brushing our teeth, using the bathroom, scanning email, exercising, cleaning, doing the dishes, mowing the lawn.

If we can add some language to these times, we can significantly increase the amount of time we spend with the language each day.  Again, many of the activities above can be utilized during these times of mindless activity, but here are a few extras to consider as well.

Idea: Word Lists on Mirror

When brushing your teeth, an activity that takes one to two minutes twice a day, we do little other than stand in front of the mirror.  Consider writing down a list of the ten to twenty newest words or phrases you have been learning and taping them to that mirror.  Then you will be able to review, while brushing.

Idea: Audio Books

For those longer activities like exercising or mowing the lawn, consider listening to an audio book in the target language.  These can be difficult to find, but if you can, and if you can find an audio book of a story you have already read in your native language, you will create a great language learning opportunity.

Five Minutes at a Time

If you think learning a language in the gaps of life, those transitions that happen everyday, is impossible, think again.  If you apply some of the suggestions above, you will significantly increase the amount of time you spend with the language and this in turn will increase your chances of learning the language faster and of having more fun on the journey.

Harry Emmerson Fosdick reminds us that:

The world is moving so fast these days that the one who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.

You can do it.  Get started.  Don’t stop.

What ideas do you have to add to this list of activities that can be done in the transitions of our days?

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