How to maintain several languages when you work in a 9 to 5 job?

Language enthusiasts or ‘polyglots’ love to learn new languages. There are even ‘hyperpolyglots’ like e.g. Richard Simcott, who speak more than 20 languages. But, like in nearly every situation in life there are two sides of the medal. In the case of languages we see the learning process on the one hand and maintaining a certain language level on the other one.

Maintaining several languages can be really challenging, especially when you work in an environment that does not give you any space for language learning and maintaining. Being in an office e.g. for eight to nine hours every day makes it sometimes hard to dedicate at least 10 minutes to any language.

I speak 5 languages (learning my sixth) and work in an office. Therefore, I always had the fear that some day all my language skills will be really poor, because I do not have the time or even the motivation to focus on languages for at least some minutes a day. That is why I have created a language routine in my everyday life that allows me to tackle several languages that I speak and learn. In the following you will find my six language routines that I try to implement in my everyday life, especially in order to be effective during ‘dead time’ i.e. time where I do not have any other things to do like commuting. 

1. Podcasts

Today I just read that 18 million Germans need to commute more than 30 minutes in order to arrive at their working place – and of course the same amount of time, if not even longer, to get back home. I am one of them, even though the distance between the apartment I live in and my work is only 7 km. But, well you are probably aware of the phenomenon of big cities and traffic jams … Let’s get back on track.

While sitting in my car and try to get through the traffic jam somehow I used to listen to the radio, although I am a big fan of Spotify and Co. I simply dislike creating own playlists, because you always know which song might come up next and I love the surprise. Well. One day I read an article about podcasts and suddenly the idea popped up in mind. Why not listening to podcasts in foreign languages while going to work? No sooner said then done. The next day I still was in my car going to work, but this time listening to a podcast in Italian, which I just started to learn. My idea was to get used to the Italian sounds and language patterns even though my vocabulary was very little. The podcast itself was about learning Italian the natural way like children do i.e. listening and then at a certain point start to use the words and sounds that you learnt before. How do I know what it was about? Well, I already spoke French and Spanish and realized very quickly that understanding Italian apparently is not the tough part rather than speaking the language. This knowledge gave me another idea. I started to download Italian podcasts about topics of my interest so that I could listen to the language on the one hand but also learn something new about the subject.

2. Music

Once arrived at the office I turn the computer on, get a cup of fresh brewed coffee and open my ‘TuneIn radio’ app. This app allows you to listen to a lot of radio stations all over the world. They have this nice feature where you can chose a radio station based on a certain language. Since I want to focus on Italian in 2019 I browsed a bit and found very quickly two or three stations that I liked. Besides the fact that music makes me happy and keeps my in a good mood I do listen passively to my target language Italian even though I have plenty of other stuff to do.

3. Music

Being informed is not only good for your general knowledge. It also helps your language skills when you read the news in a different language. That is why I use some five minute breaks for the current headlines like e.g. www.rainews.it for news in Italian, www.rtve.es for Spanish, www.bfmtv.com for French and sometimes also www.cnn.com for any English news. This method of course requires a certain language level since one has to deal with subject related vocabulary like e.g. special economic or political terms. If you do not aim to understand the news this ‘tool’ is also a good way to acquire new vocabulary. You can look up every word you don’t know in order to learn it. This is also something I do, which brings me to point no. 4.

4. Vocabulary apps

Instead of writing down the unknown words on a sheet of paper I prefer to use a language app like ‘AnkiApp’. The application is very simple. You can create virtual card decks where you add all the vocabulary you like to learn. One simply writes down the word or sentence of the target language on the front side and then add the translation on the corresponding back side. Like a real index card. Once you have done that you can profit of the actual benefit of the app. You start to study the words in the way that suits you best e.g. ask the app to show you the word in your target language so that you can tell what it means in your mother tongue. Or the other way around. After every card the app asks you how easy it was to guess the word. According to your answer after every word the algorythm of the app lets you repeat the hard ones more often.

The interesting part about the apps lies in the card deck which of course gets bigger with time. Another positive aspect about such app is that you can use it everywhere so even outside in the park while taking a sunbath. Remember, even 10 minutes a day is sufficient to increase your knowledge of a language or to maintain your level.

5. Conversations with colleagues

Not everybody will be able to implement this point into their language routine because it requires people around you who speak different languages. Fortunately, I work in a wine company that is specialized on the import of Italian and South African wines. The nice side effect is that there are also some Italians around who are always up for a nice chat in their mother tongue. That’s exactly what I ‘force’ them to do by simply starting to talk in Italian. Even though my level of Italian is faaaaaaar away of being fluent every conversation helps me to learn something new. And it doesn’t really matter if everything is said the right way as long as the other person understands what you try to communicate. Afterwards, you can always ask if you said it correctly or not and they surely will give you right ways of how to say it. This is probably the best way to test your language level because you get a direct feedback. I love it!

6. Movies

After a long day at work you sometimes do not have any motivation for some productive actions. Therefore, me and my girlfriend like to watch movies. In times of ‘Netflix’, ‘Amazon Prime’ and other providers of movies and series there is a lot of good films online. To take a decision is the tougher part! Regarding language learning and maintaining movies and series are also another good tool I use. Take for example the popular series of ‘casa de papel’ which is originally spoken in Spanish. Why then not watch it in the original language? It does not only help you learn new words but also allows you to understand e.g. the humor in your target language. Once again this step of course requires a certain language level, because otherwise you will not have any fun watching the movie or series.

I hope that my tips gave you sort of an idea what is possible even with limited amount of time. Do you have a ‘language routine’ yourself? If so, I’d love to read in the comment section below what you do in order to learn and maintain languages.

Cheers,
Daniel