Language learning for busy parents

So, you want to learn a language (or improve one that you already have a foundation in) but you have kids and wonder how on earth you’ll find the time. 

I get it. 

Having a family is a full time job on top of a full time job for many people. Where do hobbies fit in when you have a super busy life and already feel like you have no time? Plus, as an adult, won’t language learning be impossible for me if I don’t have hours upon hours a day to dedicate to it or the time to attend language classes?

Nope and nope. 

Hey, there! I’m Jesse. A poet, non-fiction writer, English tutor, writing mentor, language enthusiast and…

…mother to five! 

That’s right, I have five kids. One, two, three, four, five…kids! Ages 14 to 4 (so, no, they aren’t all grown up).  I’ll give you a second to wrap your head around that. It’s unusual, I get it. I’m used to the shock when people hear about my family dynamic (especially if they’ve met me through language learning) or if they see us out and about. It’s not very common to have such a large family anymore, especially in a household that juggles a lot of hobbies and work responsibilities. 

Let me also tell you that the secret to making time for it isn’t that your partner watches the kids while you take some time to study. My husband is a wonderful dad and really supportive of my goals, but he works six days a week (around 50 hours per week) and all of my language learning takes place without him. I think the only time I’ve enlisted his help was when I wanted to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and asked him to take the day off so I could travel to Miami. 

So, what is my real secret?

Goal planning and self discipline. 

Now, this is a huge topic that we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of, but I want to give you some motivation and a few tips about how I make time for languages in my busy life with a huge family while working and… oh, I forgot to mention… we’re distance learning in this post-pandemic craziness. 

That’s right, my kids haven’t left my side since March 2020 and I’m averaging about 15-20 hours per week with my target language (Japanese). 

I don’t tell you this to flex (or to tell you that you should build a schedule just like mine), I just want you to know that you can do it, and I’ll be happy to help you along the way! 

1. Find “dead” time in your day. 

Think about your average day. Is there “dead” time where you’re not really doing anything productive? Where you could fit a little language learning in? By “dead” time, I mean times where you could easily do something different and it wouldn’t make a huge difference. To put it frankly, time that you’re wasting. My biggest dead time is when I’m bored and sitting on my phone or going on social media.

Let’s try something right now. Open the screen time tracker on your phone. I have an iPhone, but I’m sure this is also in the settings somewhere on other non-Apple devices. If not, there are great apps for it that I’ve used in the past before Apple added this feature. 

How much time do you spend on your phone in a day?

How much time do you spend on social media?

How much time is spent playing games or browsing apps like Reddit? (That’s a personal jab at my husband, haha). 

How much of that time could you change to make more time for language learning? I’m not saying you have to give it all up. You don’t have to delete your social media accounts or stop doing things you enjoy on your smartphone (and you could actually make social media very language learning friendly). But are you doing it too much? Can you do it less and make some space for language practice?

Is there a language app that you could download on your phone and play for a bit instead? 

Could you download the Kindle app and read a little in your target language instead?

Find your “dead” time today and see what you could adjust to carve out a bit of space for language learning. 

2. Consider what or where you’re willing to sacrifice.

Let’s look at your daily schedule now. Is it regular? If you have a newborn, the answer is probably no, absolutely not! I remember those days well (a little side note here, I used to be a doula and a student midwife who attended home births…so aside from my own birth experiences, I really, truly understand the newborn phase!) For newborn parents, I would recommend small bursts of language learning–on your phone when baby is sleeping on you, while you tidy up, etc. Contact with your target language is more important than sitting down and trying to focus for extended periods of time. This phase isn’t forever and is very different from having bigger kids. My best advice here is to just enjoy it because it’ll be gone before you know it! 

But if your kiddos are a little older and actually sleep or keep a regular schedule (which I absolutely encourage, especially in our pandemic insanity), there are likely a few times where you could fit your target language in. 

Could you wake up a little earlier and have an uninterrupted hour of studying in the morning before work or the beckons for cereal begin? 

Could you make a cup of herbal tea and sit down with your studies in the evening before bed?

If you stay at home with your kids, do they nap? (I’m laughing a little to myself here because I haven’t experienced naptime in about 10 years, so don’t worry, I got you if you’re also laughing). 

One strategy that I use to make languages a regular part of my life is to implement what I call “quiet reading time”. This is usually in the afternoon or evening when tech cravings are setting in and it’s too hot to play outside (Florida life) or dinner is cleaned up and everyone is looking at me for some entertainment. While this is easy for my big kids (I just announce “Hey! Quiet reading time!” and if they don’t want to read *cough, teenagers* they retreat to their rooms and play instruments or listen to music) my two youngest kiddos can’t read without an adult, so it’s harder for me to sneak away long enough to study. 

Cue audiobooks! 

I put on an audiobook (from the library, Audible, streaming services through our library and even YouTube) and declare the next hour *snuggle on a beanbag while I’m sitting here with you and my Japanese book for a bit* hour.  

But, to be honest, I don’t really do much language learning from 8 am – 10 pm. My day is just too busy. I have to sneak it in before or after (or by using apps on my phone for short, sporadic “dead” periods throughout the day). 

The short answer here is…sometimes you have to shake things up and sacrifice a little. Do I cringe sometimes when my alarm goes off in the morning and I know it’s going off so I can study in peace and quiet? Sometimes, absolutely. I’m human. But I set coffee to auto-brew and it’s already started by the time the alarm sounds, so I haaaave to get up and drink it. 😉 I’ve missed my opportunity to bail on my obligation once coffee is being made.

Sacrifice isn’t easy, but think about life with children. It isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s messy. It’s a lot of sacrifice. But it’s also worth doing, and there are moments of bliss in the chaos. What’s the worst that could happen with a little self-discipline anyway? You’re setting an amazing example for your kids and getting it done. 

3. Plan, plan, plan (and stick to it).

Now that we’ve looked at your dead time and where you could sacrifice in your day, it’s time to plan. Try to set goals in time rather than daily streaks. It’s easy to track and adds up more than you realize! 

For now, pick two priorities. What do you want to improve in your target language? For me, I’m working on vocabulary and grammar right now, so I’ve planned my study time to focus on these specific things. Every 3 months, I change my goals and adjust my activities. 

Here is where it is really important for parents. Now that you’ve looked at where you could make time, you need to know what to do with that time so you don’t waste any! 

So, for example, with a focus on vocabulary and grammar for Japanese, I am working through a textbook vocab list (Genki, if you’re familiar with Japanese) and using a Memrise course to review them. For kanji (which also includes vocabulary), I use the website WaniKani. Boom: 30 minutes a day with Memrise, 30 minutes a day with WaniKani. Both have apps (but also function on the desktop), so every time I’m sitting at my computer or on my phone during dead time, I open the app and review vocab for the 30 minute goal I’ve set for myself. If I see a shining opportunity open up where I have a bit of time, I know exactly what I need to do. After that time is up, if I’m still bored and just hanging out on my phone, I can do my usual dead time stuff. 

This can be done on lunch, while commuting to work (public transit only, of course), when you’re doing your usual morning scrolling and sipping coffee, etc. Fit it in when you’re usually wasting time on your phone. 

For grammar, I use the workbooks Try! for Japanese Language Proficiency Test prep. Carving time out to work with textbooks is the hardest for me (but my most beloved study method), so for this one, I wake up early. Five a.m., to be exact. But I’m also a writer, so I spend some of that time journaling, writing and goal planning before I crack open the grammar books. 

This is also a great activity to do during that “quiet reading time” I implement. 

And, before we go, I haven’t even touched on all of the ways that you can spend time with your target language with your kids or while doing daily tasks like cleaning, driving, etc. I’m sure other people have told you to listen to podcasts while cleaning or audiobooks while you’re driving, so I didn’t go further into that here. I absolutely do these things, too! 

I just want you to see that there is time. You just need to make space for it and do it every.single.day.

(Apologies for giving you a kick in the butt like only a mom can!) 

If you really want it (and I believe that you do!) you can totally do it. Find your “why” and “how” and see how much more time you can make for language learning this week. Write it down! Use the “Notes” on your phone or a good ol’ fashion Post-it note. Add it all up at the end of the week and see how much time you had that you weren’t even aware of. 

I believe in you!

Let me know how it went (or share your favorite busy-parent learning strategies with me) in the comments below. 

Until next time! またね!

Jesse (ジェシー)

Published by Jesse Albatrosov

English teacher + language lover helping foreign language learners master the English language through creative writing exercises and engaging conversation!

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