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Utilizing Idle Time for Language Learning January 8, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Learning Tips.

The greatest challenge of many language learners is. of course, time. We might have a college degree to complete, a career to pursue, or a family to feed. Where from our packed schedules can we still squeeze out time to learn languages?

If we think carefully about how we spend our days, we would realize that indeed there are a lot of times we are just … idle. My definition of idleness is when you are stuck in situations where pretty much your only free-moving body part is your brain. These include situations where:

  • You don’t have complete freedom with your head, hands, or feet. E.g., going for a haircut or dentist appointment
  • You would look weird if you do something different from the people around you. E.g., waiting in a line
  • You must look as if you are participating in an activity you really don’t like. E.g., business meetings, shopping with your other half

These periods of time do really add up in the long run. If we can somehow find ways to utilize them, we are overcoming one of the greatest hurdles in language learning.

I have hurt my back lately, and I have been visiting my physiotherapist several times in the past week. According to my definition above, I am pretty much idle during each treatment, which usually lasts for 2 hours. How can I utilize this period of time in my language learning?

Here are some activities I have tried:

(1) Sing Songs in Your Heart
We would often sing our favorite songs in our hearts while doing some daily tasks, such as vacuuming or driving. When you are idle, why not sing in your heart some songs in your targeted language that you have recently learned?

In my case, during the treatment, I would sing in my heart O Canada in French, and some French children songs I learned from the CDs that come with my daughter’s milk powder.

(2) Count Objects That You See
This is a good time to practice counting in your targeted language. Look around and start counting people and objects you see.

In my particular case, my physiotherapist would ask me to do some exercises in which I have to hold onto some weird positions for 15 seconds each. So I would count from 1 to 15 in French, then 16 to 30, and so on.

(3) Talk to Yourself
The idea is simple. You talk to yourself in your mind in the targeted language. A typical conversation would be something like this:
Yourself: Hey, how are you doing?
Yourself: Not bad, and you?
Yourself: I’m fine. So what are you doing here?
Yourself: Shopping with my wife. Can’t you see?
Yourself: Do you enjoy it?
Yourself: You bet! I just missed the game!
Yourself: Poor you. I think I can understand your feeling.
Yourself: Thanks for your kindness.

(4) Translate What You See
It could be a site map, exit sign, or instructions printed on the walls. See if you can translate it. If it is already in your targeted language, translate it to your own language.

In my case, I look at those body diagrams on the walls, and start translating ‘head’, ‘neck’, ‘leg’, etc.

(5) Translate What You Hear
It could be someone talking behind you in a line, or someone talking loudly on his cell phone. Try to translate what you hear in your targeted language (or your own language if it is already in your targeted language)

For beginners, it would seem difficult to translate everything. So you may want to try translating some keywords only.

In my case, while lying on my bed, I would occasionally hear my physiotherapist talking to another patient on the next bed. I would start translating their conversation in my heart.

(7) Memorize new vocabulary
You may be working on some new vocabulary already. It is a good time to try to memorize them.

In my case, I have started my plan of learning 93 new French words this month. I would pick 10 words at a time before the treatment and recall them in my heart again and again during the treatment.

I am sure some of you might have already been doing the above activities. Please let me know if you have comments on each one, or even better, if you have some other tips you want to share.



1. Joe - January 9, 2007

Barry Farber’s “How to Learn Any Language” has some good tips for using “hidden moments” for language learning.

I have very little idle time in my day to day life (waiting in line at the store and the library, or waiting on the phone are about the only idle times I have), but always take a long a pack of homemade flashcards to review. Even a few seconds can be helpful for review.

Portable MP3 players are very convenient too. If I anticipate any idle time at all, I’ll load up some listening material or a Pimsleur lesson and take along the device.

2. 米蘭 - January 9, 2007

For me numbers prove to quite difficult in comparison to words. I always wondered why when I hear numbers my brain is simply not able to immediately process them as quickly as standard vocabulary. To overcome this, when I go to the shops I regularly practice saying numbers in my head and do the same with car number plates.

I also talk to myself. I think having a conversation with one’s self is extremely important for fluency but not necessarily accuracy. I noticed I can now automatically spit out most of my learnt vocabulary without thinking but of course make tone mistakes. If you talk to yourself you are subject to mistakes as no one is there to correct your grammar or pronunciation.

I also like your number (7) tip, though I think I’m learning around 100 words per week while practicing the existing vocabulary I’ve already studied.

3. edwinlaw - January 9, 2007

Joe, I don’t have the book. Do you want to share something from that book?

As for MP3 players, I think they are great for language learning. Just that you cannot use them in some ‘idle’ situations, such as going for a haircut, swimming, or pretending to be listening to someone talking.

4. edwinlaw - January 9, 2007

Milan, I find the exact same problem when talking to myself. I just don’t know if my sentences are correct. But then you might not want to talk to someone who always corrects your mistakes either, as pointed out by Steve in his recent post.

Learning 100 words per week is amazing. Keep it up!

5. renato - January 21, 2007

I used this method to improving my English when I was learning it in my teen ages. Later I did the same When I decided to learn alone Spanish, Esperanto, Italian, French and Swedish. The same method didn’t function with German, Russian and Chinese. The reasons are: I don’t like German language. Russian and Chinese aren’t easy for Brazilians.

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