Sunday, May 23, 2010

Convert more of your time to target language time

Native-language time vs. target language time is a zero-sum game. Though not as nerdy as this zero-sum game (which, btw, is available in numerous languages).
Continuing my posts inspired by Benny's Language Hacking Guide, Benny and I both clearly agree that there is a lot of time that can be reclaimed during your day that can be put towards language learning. He covers it in a chapter called "Making Time" (p. 159), while the current manuscript of our book has it under "Maximize time spent getting exposed to the target language" (Benny wins in the "punchy titles" category).

The basic idea that both of us describe is taking a look at any time you have during the day and seeing if you can eke more target language time out of it. This means converting dead time into target language time and converting time used for other languages into target language time.

To give you an example of how you might want to look at your time, let me show you how I currently apply the analysis to myself.

Let's first deal with dead time, of which I typically have very little because I'm already cramming it full of language-learning goodness. I typically fill small chunks of otherwise dead time with Anki reps, while listening to target language podcasts or native-speaker recordings of words I've previously messed up from RhinoSpike. For me, this dead time will include waiting for someone to meet me, going up an elevator, standing on the subway, walking around (yes, I do Anki reps while walking around; so far I've yet to run headlong into anything/anyone, but I suppose it's just a matter of time…), etc. Basically any time in which you're not doing anything can be converted into quick reviews. Both Benny and I recommend doing this with a smart phone and a spaced-repetition system like Anki, but the core idea is hardly new; in a book by Barry Farber first published nearly two decades ago called How To Learn Any Language: Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably and on Your Own(yes, the main title is exactly the same as the well-regarded language-learning forum, but I don't know of any connection between the two), Barry made exactly the same suggestion, but instead of pulling out a smart phone he'd break out a wad of paper flash cards.

For longer periods of dead time, you can be even more productive. My commute to and from work includes about 50 minutes each way on the train. While that sounds like it truly sucks, I can typically manage to get a seat, break out my laptop, and do whatever it is that needs doing. I of course apply that time to language learning as much as possible (although it's often prime blogging time, a topic we'll get to below). If you have a commute by car, you'll be limited to audio (and maybe Anki reps when stopped at red lights), but you should still be taking advantage of that time.

Dead time is simple enough, so let's move onto converting more time from another language into the target language.

For me, that means dropping English in favor of my target language of focus, Japanese. If I end up speaking or doing something in one of my other languages, I'm pretty content to do so. At my firm, I think I'm the only person who can review legal documents in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and German, so whenever a doc in one of those languages needs to be dealt with without actually needing to call in a native-speaking lawyer from another firm, the doc will show up in my inbox. I'm not worried at all about converting time spent using these languages because (1) it's not much time and (2) I could probably use even more time using these languages.

So, outside of those other target languages, the big question is how do I currently spend my time using a language other than my target language? Once you've gone through that analysis, the question you need to follow up with is which of these things are actually a higher priority than language learning? For those that aren't, the question last question is what action do I need to take to convert that time to target language time? Let's see how I fare…
  1. At work. While I'm using Japanese with pretty much everyone I speak with or write an email to, at the end of the day I'm still typically spending most of my time drafting agreements and the like in English. As this feeds the fam', it's definitely of a higher priority than language learning. Action: None.

  2. With the kids. Although I could speak my non-native Japanese or Chinese with them, I'm one of their main sources of English, so I speak only English with them and with my wife when the kids are in earshot. To stop doing so would lessen their English progress. The kids' language learning gets priority over dad's language learning, so there'll be no change here. Action: None.

  3. Reading news. This is definitely where I have the most time to gain. I've got tons of sites in my RSS feed on Google Reader and I'll visit several news sites perhaps once or twice a week. Few of these sources are in a foreign language. I skim a lot of headlines but read only read a small percentage of the articles. Even when I do read, I often stop reading midway through if it doesn't seem as interesting as the headline made it out to be. Still, though, this takes up time. Action: Replace English-language reading material with target language material, especially Japanese.

  4. Movies and TV shows. We don't have a TV in our house, so we don't watch a lot of movies or TV, but much of what we do watch has been in English. While there are plenty of great movies from any country, we've found few television series abroad that match up to the caliber of, say, The Wireor Madmen.Given that watching things like that is good for my wife's English, I'll probably need to compromise here to some degree, although we've already begun seeking out more Japanese movies and movies in other languages (we just watched The Wavein German with Japanese subtitles, for instance). Action: Increase amount of video for which the native language is not English and, when the native language is English, use dubbed audio as much as the wife will allow and, when she wields her spousal veto, at least use foreign-language subtitles.

  5. With my wife. When we were in the States, we decided to speak only English with each other as she was a grad student at the time and her English skills were a priority over my Japanese skills. Now the reverse is true, so the rule is Japanese whenever the kids are out of earshot. However, we can be slack in enforcing that some times, although lately we've been doing much better. Action: Keep speaking Japanese with my wife when the kids are out of earshot until it becomes second nature.

  6. Blogging and writing the book. I include in here the language-learning blogs I read and the comments I put up on other blogs as well. You might guess that this takes up a good chunk of time. Especially in the last month or so, I've been on quite a blogging kick, and that's probably gotta come down so I can put more time into my own language learning (and so I can pour more time into finishing the book). (That all said, this current kick has a little more wind in it, I think, so I'll probably ride it out.) Action: Reduce amount of time spent blogging, reading other language-learning blogs, and commenting on other language-learning blogs.
So that's me. I've clearly got some work to do.

What sorts of things can you do to convert more potential language time into target language time?


  1. I have a stack of vocab cards on a ring that I carry in my purse. I take it out when I'm on the elevator, in line at Starbucks, waiting on a friend, etc. It's easy to MAKE time for things you really care about.

  2. Agreed!

    And that's exactly what I used to do before I got an iPhone and put iAnki on it. Now that you've got a Droid, you might wanna check to see if Anki has a Droid app...

  3. FYI, "Settlers of Catan" are known to be NON-zero-sum game.