A Day in the Life of a Polyglot



This week I decided to go with an easy subject for me to describe: a typical day for me as it relates to language study. In later posts, I’ll go into more detail about each method I use, how to make it work, and why it works. But for now I’ll give you a general overview of what I’m doing right now.

This year the new language I’m learning (focus language) is Turkish. My goal is conversational fluency by the end of the year. The languages I’m trying to maintain (maintenance languages) are Arabic, French, German, Italian, Romanian, Russian, and Spanish. And two languages I use to speak a whole lot more of and now am just trying to keep from going extinct in my brain are Polish and Ukrainian.

Obviously, everyone is different, and some of the things I do may not particularly resonate with you. That’s okay. Think of this article as a language learning buffet; take what you think you would enjoy, leave the rest.

If I had a Language, I Would Learn It in the Mo-orning! (it’s from a song)

I like to wake up around 5:00 or 6:00 am. I start my day with a big cup of coffee ☕ and read a short article in one of my languages listed above. I rotate the language of the article each morning. I don’t really focus very hard or trying to learn new words. I just trying to give my brain a chance to wake up and enjoy the article.

For the next hour or so, I put my phone in airplane mode and do personal reading and focused thinking in my native language, English. The purpose of this is for self-improvement and I really feel it puts me in the right frame of mind for the rest of the day.

After that, I stand up and move around to get the blood flowing. I get my breakfast (usually a smoothie) and sit back down for one hour of focus language study. What specifically I do during this hour is always changing, depending on my own changing needs and interests. So right now for example, I start with five or ten minutes of reading a children’s story book in Turkish. I don’t usually write down vocabulary or try to memorize phrases. I use this reading as a way to get a feel for the language; to see it in it’s natural habitat as it were. It’s also like a little brain warm-up exercise for the Turkish to come.

After I’ve warmed up with a little casual reading, I usually study the language using a book like Teach Yourself, McGraw Hill or Assimil. As I study it, I make Anki flashcards for whatever words or phases I want to remember later.

Currently for Turkish however, after I’ve read a children’s story, I spend the rest of the time creating Anki flashcards from Ogden’s 850 Words in Basic English. It’s said that with these 850 words, you can say anything (albeit in a simplified way) in your target language. It definitely takes time to make your own flashcards, but I look at it as an investment that will pay off in the future. No matter what ends up happening with my Turkish, whether I’ll have many opportunities to speak it or not, I know I’ll at least have a solid foundation in the language.

Stolen Moments Throughout the Day

I love language apps. For the most part they make language learning fun and convenient. But I noticed a while back that I was getting overwhelmed with all the apps on my phone. I would hear of a new language app, download it and eventually start stressing out because I wasn’t giving it the time and attention that it deserved. (Poor, lonely little app 😢)

I decided to “go nuclear” and erased all but three apps on my phone. While all of the apps I had were good in their own way, I knew I needed to have fewer apps so I could focus the ones I had and do each one justice. Each of the apps I chose to keep gives me something a little different. They are Anki, Duolingo and Pimsleur. I’ll go more into why I like each one in later posts.

I use each of these apps a little bit throughout the day. So for example, while I’m shaving or doing the dishes or doing anything that doesn’t require my brain to be very engaged, I’ll listen to Pimsleur either in my focus language or a maintenance language. If I’ve already done one lesson that day, I’ll listen to something like music, cartoons, books, lectures, or news in my focus language. I try to find something with authentic language (made for native speakers, not learners) and on a topic that interests me.

I’ll use Duolingo or Anki for about five minutes at a time here and there throughout the day. For example, if I’ve finished a work task and I need to stretch my legs and get away from the computer screen for a little bit, I’ll take a pleasant little walk around the apartment to get the blood flowing while doing a lesson on Duolingo or reviewing some flashcards on Anki. If I’m tired, maybe I’ll do a little stretching or jump rope first so my brain can get with the program. With Duolingo, I usually shoot for trying to get one crown by the end of the day. With Anki, the goal is to review all of my flashcards for that day by the end of the day.

My phone only has three language learning apps and three dictionary apps.

I Would Learn It in the E-evening All Over This La-and! (it’s from the same song)

By the evening, I’m usually pretty zonked out (tired), so this is when I watch shows and movies in other languages. Currently, I’m mostly watching things in Russian since (1) that’s the language I understand the best after English, (2) that’s the language that’s the most important to me to maintain, and (3) it’s very easy to find content in it. If I’m especially tired, I’ll just enjoy the show. But if I feel up to it, I’ll occasionally pause the show and make an Anki flashcard from a new word or phase I hear.

My Routine’s Biggest Weak Spot

By now, experienced language learners may have guessed what this routine lacks the most; speaking. I do currently have a 1 hour, full-immersion Turkish conversation class each Monday. My teacher is great. She is very patient. She never breaks into English to explain things to me. She just uses Turkish that is very simple and slow enough for me to understand. But in an ideal world where I had unlimited time and money, I think I would have Turkish lessons 6-7 days a week, as well as conversation classes in my maintenance languages sprinkled throughout the week.

I do currently get a lot of speaking practice with Arabic, since I have many Arabic friends that I speak with almost every day, and also study groups that I attend every week in Arabic. I think I probably get about 6-10 hours of Arabic speaking practice every week.

I do get lots of reading and writing practice in Russian, Arabic, Romanian and Spanish, since I work as a document translator from those languages into English. But as far as conversational fluency goes, the majority of my practice right now is when I occasionally speak with a friend over the phone who knows one of my maintenance languages. So that’s something I’d like to think about how to address in the near future.

The best apps for learning a language are the ones that you use to speak with human beings.

Plan B

What I’ve described above is an ideal day of language learning for me. But as you know, life happens. Just like every other human, sometimes I am swamped and overwhelmed. On those days, my minimum language practice I shoot for is (1) the article in another language at the beginning of the day, (2) one lesson of Duolingo just to keep the streak going, and (3) just the review flashcards in Anki (no new flashcards).

So that’s my current language workout routine. It changes all the time because I love experimenting. Life, just like language, is not static. Any good routine (language or otherwise) needs to have flexibility built into it.

What’s your ideal day of language learning? What’s your plan B? Is there something you’ve always wanted to try doing? Or is there something you tried that didn’t work out? I would love to read your comments for inspiration down below.

2 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of a Polyglot

  1. Very helpful! THANK YOU!!
    I didn’t know about some of the apps. ANKI DROID is free on an android device. Just an FYI for an iPad or iPhone user, ANKI MOBILE is $24.99. The developer explains the difference on the website. I have an android phone AND an IPAD so I may get both. That way they only cost $12.50 each, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, Anki is also free for desktop. I usually make my flashcards on the computer (like in the picture at the beginning of the article) because I feel like it’s easier to make a flashcard fast when I can use a mouse, especially if you add a photo and sound to make the vocabulary stick better. Then I sync the app onto my phone and use that to review the cards throughout the day. Glad you enjoyed the article!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: