Back to Back Issues Page
Short on time? Get more hours from a busy day-- Language Lore Ezine -- Issue 002
January 12, 2010

"But where will I find the time for language study?" you might ask, now that you've arrived in country. Good question.

If you work full time, you have to cram more activities into a day that may already be overwhelming.

If you are an at-home spouse, you must establish a home, raise a family, and negotiate day-to-day life in an unfamiliar setting. Your challenge is to carve out time for language study from a full day devoted to family support.

Let's address the needs of the employed and the at-home spouse separately.

Expanding Time: Hints for the Employed

Begin work as a full-time language student. Many employment conditions--salary and such benefits as travel, housing, and training--are negotiable. Before you start work, negotiate time to study language as a part of your employment package; two months spent on language learning, you can argue, will benefit not only you but your employer (and his customers, clients, beneficiaries). If work absolutely must begin on a certain day, negotiate to arrive in-country two months early (at your employer's expense, of course).

Naturally, your employer wanted you four months ago. Your work demands so much you will never catch up. You are dying to tackle the job, and you feel pressured to produce. Look at it objectively. Your employer has survived without you for years. What, really, is another two months?

Is two months impossible? Go for a month--still enough time to get your language learning off to a running start.

Negotiate daily release time. Are work demands too great to allow full-time study? Accept the job, but spend the first two hours each morning in language learning. Or knock off at 3:30 each afternoon for two uninterrupted study hours.

Get double duty from your work time. If you are a skilled laborer, practice language while you work (lay a brick, count to ten; lay a brick, describe aloud your actions, etc.). If your skills are less tangible (managers, teachers, etc.), squeeze your on-the-job language study into moments when communication is less important, for example, the walk to the restroom, pencil sharpener, or filing cabinet; those moments spent daydreaming or planning evening activities. Use those moments to speak silently, describe, question, drill yourself. Click here for examples of language learning drills. They add up. Also try the following suggestions.

First, practice at work. As soon as you communicate well enough to perform your job, urge coworkers to speak to you in their language. Actually, you can begin sooner: you need not understand all of every conversation with every employee. Identify those with whom you have leeway, e.g. those in other departments, someone else's admin, etc.; with them emphasize language practice over understanding.

Second, you can practice on breaks. Arrange language practice with coworkers during coffee breaks or tea time; set aside the lunch period for conversation as well as sustenance.

Third, practice while commuting. If you drive, talk to yourself. If you walk or take a bus, chat with others. Read an example of how to strike up a conversation in the host language. Find a coworker who lives in your direction, travel together, and use the time for language practice. Or work by yourself on vocabulary building with small sets of cards.

Look for job-related language learning opportunities. Find work projects that can expand your language ability. If you are well along the road toward language mastery, perhaps you can teach a new skill, write or translate a personnel or project manual into the target language, create a training program for host country staff, or translate government regulations from bureaucratese into colloquial prose. Click here to rate your own language ability (and to measure your progress).

Training others or preparing training materials can provide excellent language practice. Don't wait until you are fluent; team up with a native speaker. Your language ability will improve dramatically in the process.

Creating Time: Hints for the At-Home Spouse

In the past, the unemployed American female living overseas who was neither student, indigent artist, nor heiress, was a wife. She accompanied her soldier, businessman, teacher, or government husband. She raised the kids, kept house, entertained, ran errands and somehow created a meaningful life as a support person. Often she had little choice in the matter, and frequently, neither cultural orientation nor language training.

Many women (and increasing numbers of men) still find themselves in this position. If you are among them, the following tips are for you.

Dropped into a strange society, you are left to your own wits. Daily treks to the market replace your weekly trip to the grocery store. You may wash clothing by hand, or find, hire, and supervise household staff. Routine errands take hours. What with setting up a new household, scrounging up the furniture that was promised but never came, finding sources for your basic consumables, child care, and schooling, your desire to carve out time even to consider language study may seem unrealistic.

Your task differs strikingly from that of your employed spouse. You must create a structure that fosters learning. The trick is one of perspective: you need to fit language study into your daily routine rather than add time to an exhausting day. Read an example using shopping for language practice. Difficult? Yes, but try the following.

Reconceptualize your routine as grist for language study. Your daily routine presents opportunities to learn language; use it to your advantage. You have to shop, for instance, but don't just go shopping. Go on field trips to the market and use them as language learning experiences. Survey your impending tasks--meal preparation, child care, staff management, sightseeing--and organize language learning activities for each. Click here for ideas about how to use your daily routine for language study.

Set aside language learning time. It is crucial that you reserve time to study language in the first days of your stay. This is when demands on your time are greatest, when errands are all-consuming--and when you set the patterns that will become your routine during your stay abroad. Set aside language learning time first in order to rest from the treadmill of settling in. Set a tone that enforces your belief that language learning is important.

Capitalize on your role as a support person. Plan and supervise a language learning program for your spouse. Chances are he or she will feel inundated at work, unable to follow through on language study. By developing your spouse's program--thinking up topics, creating drills, organizing session, finding and working with mentors--you will hasten your own language learning. Helping your spouse sharpens your own language ability. Click here for goal setting ideas. You will become your family's best target language speaker. Read more examples of how to use daily activities for language practice.

Best regards,
Terry Marshall

Back to Back Issues Page