When Reality Hits: Time Scarcity in Language Learning

Working along the Swedish countryside


Pianist-composer, polyglot, Hongkonger, explorer, ex-programmer, ex-author-to-be, son and brother. Discovering myself through discovering the world. Blogging my language adventures and spreading the Cantonese joy.

Again, it’s been a while since I last posted! As you might guess, it’s truly been a crazy term for me at university. For starters, I wrote and rehearsed two musical compositions. And as the term progressed, it’s only gotten worse: at the time of writing (this sentence) it is the end of term, where piles of work come to a climax. Ironically, slowly through the months, I’ve cooked up this post about running out of time – for everything in general, but particularly for language learning.

In my last post, I suggested ways for me and you to juxtapose time for learning two languages at the same time. Unfortunately, when the free time you have isn’t much to begin with, splitting it up just leaves you with hardly anything left. In other words, I’ve put Kazakh aside. Despite this, my German has been improving by leaps and bounds, as well as my Polish, without needing hours and hours of intensive study. How did I squeeze the time to manage that?

It’s all about choosing the less intensive but consistent activities to keep, making use of ‘dead time’ (that goes to waste anyway) and putting the time-consuming ones on hold.

Things I don’t do

Studying German literature

Intensive study goes out the window.

  • textbook study: when I learnt German in university, I would work on my textbook regularly (other than going to class, of course), and go through the vocabulary and activities, plus online exercises. As for Polish, I spent at least 1.5 hours a day working on Glossika, covering reading, listening, dictation and translation. That goes out the window now.
  • intensive reading: I took a slightly different path when I learnt Swedish. Already knowing German, a related language, I devoted most of my time to reading newspapers and my reading textbook, including looking up all the vocabulary and testing myself with the exercises, after covering the basics. Considering the time-consuming and irregular (“I’ll read something everyday…”) nature, I bode it farewell as well.

Things I do

This isn’t the first time my free time has been taken over, and every time it happens, I’ve tried different ways of capitalising on my little time left:

  • flashcards: the single best way to make use of your ‘dead time,’ e.g. during commutes and waiting. Whenever I took the bus from Lund to Malmö, I quickly flipped through the 50 new words of the day in my Anki Polish deck. Flashcards take little time and each session can easily broken down into several, in case you only have a few minutes.
  • reading: my current #1 hobby is reading, regardless of language. I casually go through the Polish version of Throne of Glass (don’t ask me why) on my phone whenever I take the underground, while I prefer to indulge myself in my shiny new e-reader when in the loo.
  • podcasts: my favourite way of making use of time through multitasking. When I was in Sweden, I always had some podcast playing while cycling through the city, which didn’t require much of my attention anyway. As an avid polyglot, I only listen to podcasts about languages or in my target languages (e.g. this post on my favourite Swedish podcasts), though that covers a lot of ground already.


    Finding my inner German animal.

  • goldlist: now we start to get into the ‘dedicated time’ territory. I’ll be writing more about this soon, but in short, the Goldlist method is a way to learn and consolidate vocabulary through handwriting. It takes at most 20 minutes for each session (writing 9~25 words), and actually forbids you from doing more than one session consecutively. Personally I really enjoy going through and ‘distilling’ my older vocabulary when I need a break from my papers and readings, and I find this really effective in the long term.
  • youtube: another activity that requires your concentration. A lot of my friends have learnt foreign languages through extensively watching TV dramas, which I’m absolutely not interested in, so I resort to YouTube instead – which incidentally takes less of your time per video. If you regularly watch English/American youtubers, the biggest genres actually have counterparts in lots of languages, or you could just pick a vlogger and follow him/her. On a weekend, when you need time off from work, you could just binge-watch all the videos in your target language that YouTube recommends. It’s that simple: watch a few of them, and YouTube will automatically start recommending more from that country.

I’m not kidding when I say I miss the carefree days in Sweden with much less workload. (i.e. with nobody forcing me to do what I’m supposed to do in the first place.) But this is just life, and we make do with what we have! Thankfully, the term break is approaching, and I get to be the master of my time again. What about you? How do you juggle your work or studies with your language learning hobby? Does it change through the year? Tell me in the comments!