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Time Management for Language Learners | Jack of All Trades Master of None

Time Management for Language Learners | Jack of All Trades Master of None

I know, I know, before you scold me for giving my post such a cliche expression as a title, let me explain why I’ve done so.

For anyone learning a language, or even multiple languages, time management is a huge issue.

We have to decide just how we can use our language study time effectively so that we do not become a jack of all trades, master of none.

Unless, of course, your goal is to dabble in several languages rather than excel in any one (or a few). If that’s the case, then go you! Enjoy your language adventuring.

For those of you who struggle with time management and dividing up your study time, like me, let’s keep reading.

There Are Only So Many Hours in a Day

We all have lives, responsibilities, jobs, families, and tons of other things that are constantly demanding our attention. With all the other tasks that we are obligated to do on a daily basis, how do we find the time to pursue language learning to a high level, let alone pursue learning a new language at all?

Using Your Language Learning Time Wisely

While I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, I’ve tried my hand at implementing effective time management more than once in my life.

I first learnt how to skate the fine line between spreading myself too thin and effective time management by juggling multiple instruments (which is surprisingly a lot like juggling multiple languages). Each hour I spent with one instrument (or language) was an hour away from another. My time was divided and I had to make the decision as to whether I wanted to get great on one instrument, or just good on several.

I, of course, never quite made it down to just one instrument, but I did end up having to narrow down the number of instruments I had hoped to play and focus on a few. I didn’t like that I couldn’t do everything, but it was more important for me to be good at what I was doing than it was for me to be mediocre at lots of things. I was pursuing it as a career, after all.

Since, I’ve had numerous opportunities to work on time management and different strategies to stay productive.

In order to balance language learning, my career, a social life, and my job, I have to really make use of whatever free time I have to really improve the skills I want to develop.

I Just Don’t Have the Time to Learn a New Language

Along with “I’m just not good at learning languages,” the excuse for not learning a language that I’ve heard more than any others is “I just don’t have the time to learn a new language.”

But is that really true?

A thorough analysis of your schedule may be in order. Let’s take a closer look at all those 5 minute, 10 minute, and 15 minute pockets of time you have throughout your day and see how you’re using them.

Let’s Be More Accountable

For a day or two, pay close attention to how you use empty slots of time in your schedule. Are you using the fifteen minutes you have during your lunch break to check Facebook? Are you listening to the local radio in the car while you commute? Are you watching tv for an hour or more each night before you go to bed?

When we really pay attention to what we do when we have a bit of downtime, we might quickly realize that we waste quite a bit of time doing things we really don’t need to do, and we do them far more than we realize.

Start replacing some of the things you do when you have downtime with language study. You don’t have to fill every break in your schedule with language, but make an effort to do during a few of those blocks of time.

And there’s no such thing as a break in your schedule being too short for language study!

Even five minutes of free time can be used to get in a little bit more study, like a quick run through your flashcards or one lesson on Duolingo, so be sure to count it when you’re analyzing your daily activities.

Decide How You Want to Spend Your Time

The way that you divide your time up all depends on what your language learning goals are.

Using myself as an example, I want to learn Chinese well enough to pass the HSK 4 exam, maintain my French, begin learning Russian and eventually get it to B1 or B2, and then refresh my Italian, Croatian and German.

Based on my goals, I would spend the most time with my languages in the following order: Chinese, Russian, Italian, German, Croatian, and then, French.

I need to work hardest at Chinese because I have a very clear and advanced goal with a definite deadline. Russian is next in line because it is a language that requires a lot of attention due to the fact I’m just starting out. Italian, Croatian, and German may require some concentration at the beginning, but once I get back into them, they will be much easier to study than Russian or Chinese.

And finally, French is last because I can achieve this goal with leisure activities such as watching movies or television shows, reading, or listening to podcasts. There isn’t a lot of really active work I need to do with the language, so it isn’t a priority when I have to be really selective with my time.

I study multiple languages per day rather than dedicate each day to a language. That’s just my personal preference. Other learners may have a better time focusing on one language per day, but I like the variation and it keeps my learning interesting.

The one thing I don’t do, however, is study two different languages in the same block of time. I make sure to put a break between them, especially if they’re similar (like Italian and French). If I don’t have the option of splitting them up, I may skip studying a language that day and just focus on my primary language during that study block.

To get really specific, let’s say I had three hours to study on a Saturday. The first thing that I would try to do, is divide the time up into smaller chunks throughout the day. This will make the time I spend studying more productive because I won’t have to deal with the exhaustion one might face at the end of a marathon 3-hour study session. It also allows me the opportunity to put some time between the different languages I’m studying so that my head has an easier time keep them separate.

Once I decide how I’m going to break up my study time, I then decide how much of it each language is going to get.

So, for example, I would use at least one hour to study the most important language (Chinese), one hour to study the language that needs the most work (Russian), and I would then split the rest of the time up amongst the rest. If I feel something is really pressing, however, I might use all that time for the priority language.

It’s Okay to Take Breaks

Sometimes a break can actually be a benefit to your language learning. It gives your brain time to process, sort and store the new information.

[Tweet “Sometimes a break can actually be a benefit to your language learning.”]

Plus, it helps you avoid burnout.

But if you decide you need to take a break, try to avoid letting it last longer than two or three days. It gets harder to go back to it when you step away for too long. And the longer you go, the more review you’ll have to do when you start studying again.

Level Up the Time You Spend Studying

Study Your New Target Language Through an Old One

Another way to maximize your language study time is by studying a language through another that you’re strong in. For example, I could study Mandarin or Russian using French resources and tutors (and I do) rather than their English/American equivalents.

I also take my notes in every language I can except English (unless I really can’t think of how to translate it into something else). If you’ve seen photos of my notes on Instagram, you’ll see I often write the translations of new words in either French or Chinese.

See Also
Language Learning Reading Challenge

It really works for me.


Because this not only provides me with the opportunity to strengthen my French, but it also helps me move forward in my weaker languages. Two birds, one stone.

Use Technology to Remind You to Study

Have trouble remembering to do language practice during your free time? Try setting up your devices so that they help remind you. Set a language program to autolaunch when you turn on your computer. Set alarms to remind you to take a study break. Set your browser homepage to a site that you’re using to study your target language. Place your course book on top of your computer so that it’s always in front of you.

There are tons of ways to automate your reminders to study, use them!


My father always told me that I don’t have the right to complain about something unless I am actively making an effort to improve whatever’s bothering me. While there are some things that are harder to be proactive about than others, time management certainly isn’t one of them. More time can be found, even if it means sacrificing the time you’re spending on something else.

There are people who are really, truly busy, but many of us waste time on things like scrolling through Facebook, reading gossip columns or clickbait posts, watching more television than necessary each night, or losing all sense of time while on Youtube.

If we take the steps necessary to increase our awareness of how we participate in these “time sucks”, we can easily allocate more of our day to pursuing our hobbies and passions – language learning, music, art, film production, whatever it may be.

I’m not saying that we need to stop checking Facebook or Youtube entirely, or give up our favorite television emissions. Instead, I’m only suggesting that doing less of those things each day or week will free up more time for language study.

And if learning a language is something you honestly want to do, then it’s certainly worth the lifestyle change.

So who’s with me?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What’s one thing you spend too much time doing? Are you willing to give it up (in part or in whole) to be more productive?

And now, a bonus!

A list of language-related things you can do in various time intervals:

30 seconds – 1 minute

  • A couple of flashcards
  • Quick monologue where you can say something along the lines of 1) what you were just doing; 2) what you’re about to do; or 3) what you wish you were doing.

5 minutes

  • Vocab review on either Memrise or Anki
  • A Duolingo lesson
  • Glance at your notes from a previous study session
  • Brainstorm a couple questions you’d like to ask your teacher during your next lesson
  • Jump on HelloTalk to chat for a minute
  • Read a short article about your language
  • Listen to an Assimil lesson
  • Watch a short video on YouTube in your target language
  • Listen to one song and follow along with the lyrics
  • Extended self-talk
  • Write down a few expressions you’d like to learn to say in your target language

10 Minutes

  • More extended vocab review
  • Write a couple of sentences in your target language
  • Participate in the #IGLC
  • Watch a video on YouTube in your target language
  • Listen to a few songs in your target language
  • Play some sort of language game or work with a language app on your phone

15 Minutes

  • Listen to a short language podcast (the Pod101 series are all about this length)
  • Look up a grammar point that you don’t understand
  • Work on your Gold List by writing up a new list, or distilling an old one
  • Read in your target language
  • Chat with someone who speaks your target language on HelloTalk or Skype
  • Complete an entry on Lang-8
  • Watch one video on FluentU and then do a quick vocabulary test offered by them afterwards

30 Minutes

  • Do a lesson in your course book (or part of one)
  • Listen to a Pimsleur lesson
  • Watch a 30 minute episode of a television show in your target language (or half of an one-hour episode)
  • Chat with someone who speaks your target language on HelloTalk or Skype

1 Hour

  • Take a lesson with a tutor
  • Do 1 hour of focused language study
  • Watch an hour long episode of a television show in your target language

More than an Hour

  • Watch a movie in your target language
  • Do several of the things mentioned in the lists above

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