My CRAZY 5AM Language Routine

language study routineFor the last month, I’ve been on a crazy new language learning routine.

I get up at 5 a.m. every day to study Cantonese, and have seen some exceptional results…

So what possessed me to start waking up at 5 a.m.? Don't I get tired? What exactly do I do at such an early hour? And what can you learn from my crazy experiment?

Let me tell you! The answers might surprise you…

What: Cantonese
Where: London
When: 5 a.m.
Why

I recently moved back to London after spending an exciting year in Egypt.

Coming back to London was the perfect time to take stock of the languages I’ve learnt over the last few years: Japanese, Cantonese and Arabic.

Though I learnt them in fairly quick succession, learnt is a relative term. I have a long way to go in all of them.

Now that I’m back in London it’s time to focus. I asked myself: What do I really want here? What matters to me? How do I want to spend the next years of my life?

There were a lot of factors to consider, and it wasn’t an easy decision to make, but in the end, I decided to focus on Cantonese. 

And not only did I make the decision to continue learning Cantonese, but I decided to take it to the C2 level, making it my strongest language yet…no easy task!

To light a fire under my feet, I set myself an ambitious, but fun goal…to emulate Chris Parker's success in China, and appear speaking Cantonese on Hong Kong television! I have absolutely no idea how I'll manage to do it, but it's something cool to aim for, and it will be a sure sign of success when I finally achieve it!

So, I made the decision to focus on Cantonese.

That was the easy part.

Now I need to make sure I can follow through with it. But how?

Simple, I created a kickass routine!

My 5AM Language Learning Routine

Here's what my study schedule currently looks like.

5 a.m.        wake up shower and have breakfast
5.45 a.m.  intensive study (45 minutes)
6:45 a.m.  listening drills as I walk to a local cafe(20 minutes)
12 p.m.      more listening drills as I walk home (20 minutes)
1 p.m.         talk with tutor on iTalki (30-45 mins)
6:45 p.m.  brief review of study from the morning (15 mins)
8 p.m.         watch TV series from Hong Kong (30-45 mins)
9:30 p.m.  sleep

There are a couple of important things to note:

First of all, I get up at 5am because it works for me. Don't get hung up on the early start. You could perfectly well get up at 7am and do the same schedule.

Secondly, I work a lot. This language schedule fits around a 8-10 hour working day.

And that’s precisely why I wake up at 5 am. Allow me to explain…

Core Language Study Time

I wake up at such a crazy hour because it’s my core study time, and this is really the most important point I want to get across in this article.

You need a fixed time in your day when you can sit down and do some focused study

I choose to wake up at 5am because I know it's the only time in the day I'm guaranteed to get my focused study done.

Understand, I'm not saying 5am is the time everyone should set as their core study time. But what I am saying is that you need to find a regular time in the day where you can focus on language study, and nothing else.

That means, not browsing YouTube or listening to audio courses whilst half-asleep on the metro, but proper, sit-down, intensive study.

If you’re like me, once the working day starts there is simply no way to reliably find 45 minutes of uninterrupted study. There are simply too many possible distractions and interruptions.

That’s why these 3 reasons are my fuel to get up in the morning:

  1. In order to improve my Cantonese I need to have a period of intensive study every day
  2. This means fitting it in before my workday even starts and when everyone else is sleeping
  3. Improving my proficiency in Cantonese matters enough to me that I am prepared to wake up at 5 a.m. to get the job done.

Fitting in your intensive study every day means…

Even if you do nothing else that day, the day has already been a success.

Isn't that amazing? That's why it's so important to find your core study time every day.

The Pillars Of A Strong Study Schedule

Aside from the core study time, there are two other parts in my day that I consider to be pillars of a strong study schedule.

  1. a 15-minute review at the end of the day
  2. speaking time (mostly on iTalki)

Review time is simple – all I do is look back over the material I studied in the morning. The point is to reinforce what I've already learnt, not to learn anything new.

This extra “point of contact” in the day has revolutionised my studying. It's very simple, but means you no longer have to wait 24 hours before reviewing what you've learnt, which is great news for your memory!

The speaking time is also a non-negotiable part of my routine.

These speaking sessions resemble casual conversations more than lessons. I define a topic in advance, and we spend the time discussing that topic. (I'll often stick with the same topic for multiple sessions, as the repetition is helpful. ) Although we do stop to discuss new vocabulary or grammar points, my focus is squarely on maintaining the conversation, rather than learning lots of new stuff.

In the few weeks I've been following this schedule, I've quickly built up a level of confidence I never had before in Cantonese. Although I still make plenty of mistakes, the thing I really notice is that speaking the language has become normal. This gives me a kind of confidence which I love, and helps me to focus on speaking better, rather than worrying about my performance.

The model for many people is to have one language lesson a week, where the teacher points out your mistakes and teaches you new things. I prefer to have shorter, more regular sessions. When you need to speak every day, your brain soon adapts to the language. When you learn to snap into “language mode” at a moment's notice, fluency and confidence are never far behind.

If you struggle to fit speaking sessions into your day, consider a 30-minute session on Skype at one of the following points of the day (depending on your commitments and the timezone of your tutor):

With these three elements, I have a rock-solid routine:

  1. intensive study
  2. review
  3. speaking practice

But as if that wasn't enough, I've found there's even more I can do to elevate this routine from good to great…without a great deal of extra effort.

Dead Time and Downtime

I like to make a distinction between two different kinds of time in your day.

You’re probably familiar with the concept of dead time. It's time you’re spending on something unavoidable, like sitting on the train, doing the ironing, or waiting for the bus.

I’m lucky not to have a great deal of dead time at the moment, but I do walk to a cafe every morning, which takes me 20 minutes each way. During these walks, I’ve been using Glossika Mass Sentences to practise Cantonese sentence patterns, which has been really helpful, and a good change of pace from the rest of the day.

During a 20-minute commute, it’s easy to sit back, daydream, and not do much. But this kind of dead time really adds up. Consider this…

A 20-minute commute is equivalent to…

And this is study time you get for free! You don’t have to sacrifice anything else to do it.

Downtime is slightly different.

Downtime is when you’ve reached the end of the day, you’re tired, and you can’t usefully do anything that requires any effort.

By the time it gets to 8pm, I’m pretty tired! I don’t try to radically alter my lifestyle at this point…we all need downtime! So I make a simple change. Rather than kicking back in front of the TV in English, I do it in Cantonese instead!

I’m a big fan of Hong Kong TV, and can watch it for hours… so that’s exactly what I do! What’s important to note is that this is not study time. So I’m not trying to learn from the TV I watch. I just watch it, and try to enjoy it… just like I would in English.

Opportunities In Your Routine

With this combination of core time, dead time, and downtime, I’ve got a language learning schedule I really like.

I don’t stick to it 100% all of the time, but I try to whenever possible. By trying to keep it up every day, the occasional bad day doesn’t really matter.

Even though there are days when I spend over 3 hours on Cantonese, I don’t have to create all that time in my day.

Sure, I need to commit to the core study time.

But the rest of the time is already there in my day. I just need the self-discipline to uncover it and dedicate it to language learning.


Has this inspired you to make some changes to your routine?

Is there more you could be doing to spend more time studying languages?

Let me know in a comment below, and please share this article on Facebook if you found it useful!

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