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"I can’t find time to learn English."
As an English teacher, this is without a doubt the most common reason that people give for not making faster progress.
I get it. Everyone is busy and the world is full of distractions. Whether you are recently retired or you have a job and 3 kids, it is easy to feel that there's no time to learn a language or skill.
But it has never been easier to fit English into your day.
You can find online classes anytime that will fit your schedule, you have 24/7 access to English through podcasts and YouTube, and it’s never been easier to connect to native speakers online.
You might call this the “golden era” of English learning.
And, I truly believe that everyone—even the busiest of people—has 30 minutes a day that they can find to dedicate to English.
But it does take a long time to learn a language. To really become fluent in English, you need to consistently engage with the language for years. Ideally, you’ll work at it every day.
So I want to take some time in this article to give you some ideas for how you can find the time you need to really practise your English and see significant progress in it.
1. Set goals and priorities
Part of finding time to learn English is about prioritising it. If learning English really matters to you, it’ll be easier to find time to do it.
That means thinking about your goals. What do you want to achieve? Does learning English matter to you?
Does it matter as much as the other things you’re doing with your time?
When you think about what really matters to you, you set goals, and you prioritise the ones that are most important to you. If you find that English is near the top of your priority list, you’ll undoubtedly find it easier to make time for it.
2. Set aside time
When you’ve decided to prioritise English, the next step is to set aside time for it. It doesn’t have to be a tonne of time but aim for some time every day.
Try for 30 minutes, minimum. Say to yourself, “I’ll study English from 5:00 pm to 5:30 pm as a way to unwind after work.” If you set a fixed time, you are much more likely to stick to actually do it.
One of the reasons for this is that daily practice is more efficient. It will take you less time overall to learn English if you do it consistently compared to if you only do it occasionally. Consistent practice will end up saving you time.
Also, by setting aside time for English every day, it will become part of your language learning routine. When it’s routine, you will find that it’s much easier to make time to do it. And, in case you're wondering, there is no best time of day to learn a language.
Learn how to create your own system for learning English and stay on track with it.
3. Do the things you already do—but in English
One of the practical suggestions that I give to my students that want to learn English is to find ways to turn the things that they already do into English learning activities.
For example, maybe you already watch a show on Netflix at night. Or maybe you normally start the day by catching up on your favourite YouTuber. You can find more time to learn English by doing these same things in English.
Or, maybe you already like listening to interesting stories on podcasts… you can shift so that you do that with English podcasts (the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast is a great option if you’re an intermediate learner).
For example, I’m learning Portuguese. I already had as part of my morning routine to read the news. Now, I read the news in Portuguese. Making that change helps me achieve my learning goals, but it doesn’t “cost” me any additional time.
4. Do things that actually interest you
Another suggestion I give to my students that don’t have enough time to learn English is to try to use things they are passionate about and turn them into language learning activities.
We often don’t have trouble finding time for our hobbies; it’s not as hard to find time to do the things that we like to do. In fact, sometimes we’re so passionate about our hobbies that we do them even when we should be doing other things, like working or studying.
If you can turn your passions into English learning activities, you may find that you become really good at finding time to do them.
Here are some ways to do that.
- If you’re really into cooking, you can use cooking as a way to learn English.
- If you love searching for and listening to new music, try looking for music from English-speaking artists that you can really enjoy.
- If you love video games, play them in English.
It has never been easier to do things you like to do, but in English. You easily can find recipes, music, video games, books, photography lessons, TV shows and more in English online.
Doing these activities counts as English study time. And you don’t have to spend that much time doing it—you can fit it into your life without having to give up too much. Indeed, you might actually find yourself dedicating more time to the things you actually like to do when you can justify it as an English learning activity.
5. Do two things at once (but don’t multitask)
When it comes to language learning, I don’t advocate multitasking—doing two different tasks at the same time.
The reason is that it generally doesn’t work. Our brains are wired to pay attention to one thing at a time. So when we try to do two tasks at the same time—like studying while watching TV or having a conversation while reading—we have to shift our attention back and forth between the two tasks. The result is that we end up doing neither task very well.
But it is possible—and efficient—to do a single task that accomplishes two of your goals.
For example, perhaps you’re trying to learn how to do video editing. And you also want to learn English.
Now, you could spend an hour going through video editing tutorials in your native language and then another, separate hour studying English. Or, you could spend an hour learning how to do video editing in English. Or even two hours. This is much more efficient—that one task accomplishes two things at the same time.
Think about if there’s any way for you to accomplish your other goals and priorities in a way that also helps you learn English. For example:
- Perhaps you’re learning photography. You can find an online course in English that teaches photography.
- Perhaps you’re in a book club. You can try reading an English translation of the book. Alastair just mentioned to me that he’d spoken to a member of Leonardo English from Spain who had always wanted to read Harry Potter, so she bought herself the entire collection in English. No doubt she will be picking up some great ‘magical’ vocabulary as well.
- Perhaps you’re interested in learning guitar. You can choose to learn an English song on the guitar and study the lyrics.
- Perhaps you want to catch up with friends or family more regularly. Try having your phone call or coffee date with your conversation partner in English.
- Perhaps you’re currently doing online dating. Why not begin chatting with potential partners in English?
Using English to accomplish your other goals is one efficient way to find time to learn English.
I’m kind of obsessed with listening activities.
The reason is that they are effective—we know that comprehensible input is an essential part of language acquisition. They’re also easy to do anywhere, they’re cheap, and can fit into your schedule while you’re doing other things.
Doing listening activities while you’re doing other things is a great way to build English into your day without spending any extra time.
And the best listening activity to do? Well, I'm a little biased, but for intermediate learners and aboveI'd always suggest the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast.
7. Make use of “down” time
I often find myself somewhere with little pockets of downtime—maybe I’m waiting in line at the pharmacy, out for a walk, or waiting for the bus. I often try to make use of this time by using it to study Portuguese.
My favourite way to do that is by using a spaced repetition flashcard app. I use Brainscape and I’ve also used Anki, another free option. Both of them let you quickly run through a series of flashcards of words that you’re learning. It’s a very effective way to learn new English vocabulary and it’s a great way to make use of those little extra moments when we can’t do much else.
But you can also make use of downtime in other ways.
- For example, you could silently try to name the things you see in English.
- Or, you could imagine yourself having a conversation in English. You could “play” both sides of the conversation.
- Or you could go through the alphabet and try to think of items in the house (or animals, or products at the pharmacy, or food items) that start with each letter.
Each of these is a way that you can turn that “wasted” time into an English-learning activity.
8. Learn actively (but don’t worry about always learning actively)
We talk a lot about active learning on this blog. There’s a good reason for that: passive learning is not a very effective way to learn a language.
When you can, it’s much better to engage with your English film, book, or podcast actively. You’ll learn more quickly that way and you’ll ultimately save time.
But, also, you don’t have to always learn actively.
One of my favourite ways to learn Portuguese is with podcasts. I typically listen to them while I’m doing other things: in the morning while I’m eating breakfast or in the evening while I’m doing the dishes.
I know this isn’t the most effective way to learn, but I am still learning. Best of all, it turns time when I would be doing something else (like the dishes) into a bit of a Portuguese lesson.
For me, remembering that I can do some activities more passively helps me make time for them.
9. Join a supportive community
We’re better at prioritising language learning when we’re encouraged (or pushed!) by other people.
I use Portuguese every day. That’s not because I’m especially dedicated to it; it’s mostly because I have friends and family that speak Portuguese. It’s built into my social life.
Perhaps you’re not lucky enough to have English-speaking friends and family. That’s okay; there are lots of places you can find that same kind of community from people who speak English. One great place for it is the Leonardo English community. Others could be Reddit forums, Facebook groups, or even in-person Meetups.
Finding a community of English-speakers will help you have a reason to use your English and will help you make time for it.
You can find time to learn English if you want to
Trust me, I understand feeling like you’re so busy that you don’t have time for all the things you want to do. Between all the books I want to read, all the things I want to learn, all the wine I want to try, all the trails I want to hike… it feels like I could fill several whole lifetimes.
Add onto that family and work commitments, and it can easily feel like we don’t have any time left for things like learning English.
But you can find time to learn English if you want to. And you’ll need to find time for English if you really want to learn it—you won’t get fluent in English if you just do it for ten minutes a day (regardless of how many apps promise you otherwise).
So think about whether learning English matters to you.
If it does, then prioritise it and set aside time. Find things you love doing, and do those in English. Turn the things you already do into English-learning activities. And then see if you can add English elements to other activities (it’s easy to do that with English podcasts!).
If you do those things, you may see that it’s not as difficult to find time to learn English as you thought.