5 Insane Productivity Secrets for Learning a Language in Lockdown

Olly Productivity Secrets

Being stuck at home isn't ideal.

But that doesn't mean you can't turn it into a great opportunity!

In fact, this is an ideal timeframe to make some major progress in your language learning – but only if you use your time wisely!

So in this post, I'm going to show you exactly how to run an effective language learning project over  8 to 12 weeks at home.

You'll learn:

These are the exact tips I recommend my students use to stay productive when working through my Uncovered courses.

And on that note…

If you're looking for the ideal self-study course to learn a language from home, these are ideal.

You'll learn through my famous StoryLearning method, and work your way up to conversational fluency fast, without getting bogged down in grammar.

Check out my Uncovered courses here.

Anyway, back to my productivity secrets…

My Experience With Language Learning And Productivity

Olly working from home

I speak eight languages. And I have learnt all my languages by myself. So as you can imagine, I've had to learn how to organise my time well.

My first big experience of enforced home time was when I was living in Qatar. I lived in Doha, the capital city of Qatar, for a year and a half.

Doha is a funny place. I actually quite like it but it’s very quiet. There is not much to do. So the weekends tended to be very long!

And so, I found myself with huge amounts of time on my hands. And that was when I first came face to face with how to best organise my time so that I stay productive.

Since then, for the last five years or so, I've been running I Will Teach You a Language. I run my business at home so that's where I do my writing and other tasks.

My lived experience day to day is figuring out how to organise my time in between work, life and different languages.

I consider myself quite good at productivity and time management which is why I want to share some language learning productivity secrets with you to get through this lockdown period.

Learning Languages Through Input

My approach to learning languages is to learn through story, which is a big contrast to traditional language learning at school.

What I remember about languages at school is a lot of grammar rules, lists of words and tests. With story learning, as I call it, it’s totally different. Instead of sitting down and learning and memorizing vocabulary and grammar, you immerse yourself in the language through stories.

Then with a little bit of help from me on top, this is how you actually learn all the grammar and the vocabulary naturally. So it’s a lot more fun and it’s a lot more effective.

At the core of this method is the concept of input. Input is where you get exposure to the language by listening or by reading, as opposed to speaking or writing where you're outputting or producing language

When you learn through story what you're doing first and foremost is getting input every single day. By reading and listening to the language you're giving your brain the chance to learn the words, the phrases and the grammar naturally.

So, at the core, when it comes to learning languages from home at the moment, among the thousands of possibilities open to us, what you want to do, above all, is get regular input.

You know sometimes how you sit down and you think to yourself, “There's so many things I could do to learn a language today. I've got hundreds of books and courses and things like that. What should I do on a daily basis?”.

If you only do one thing every day then get your input. As a guideline, a great aim for you would be 30 to 60 minutes of input, in other words, of reading and listening, every day. If you make that your one thing you do daily, then you're going to set yourself up for success.

You know the expression that a rising tide lifts all boats? So, this is like a rising tide approach. There are lots of different ways to learn a language. As you learn, you're going to have lots of different mini language questions about grammar or about this word or that word.

But if all you do is focus on input, that means your listening and reading, as the tide rises all of your questions will become answered and your knowledge will expand. That's where fluency comes from.

It’s a much more holistic approach. I'm not so concerned with the nuts and bolts of learning little bits of grammar. I'm interested in doing the important things that grow your overall knowledge.

So that's why the main thing to do during this lockdown is to get lots and lots of input.

1. Your Language Learning Environment At Home

If you've tried to learn anything about habit building in the past, you'll have learned that you need to control your environment first.

For example, if you want to stop eating chocolate, what's the first thing you do? You get all the chocolate out of the house. Because if it’s not in the house you can't eat it.

How do we make our language learning as efficient as possible?  Start with your environment. This is even more important now because we're in unfamiliar territory. I know you're dealing with quite a few difficult things right now. There's a lot of fear. And we're all feeling it.

Our boundaries are suddenly gone: going to work at a certain time, having lunch hour, finishing work. You're used to having bedtimes in order to get up for work the next morning. But that structure has disappeared.

You don't necessarily need to wake up at a certain time especially if you live on your own or just with a partner. You can probably wake up whenever you want. If you've got kids, you know just how much of a handful this is right now because you're responsible for giving them a routine. And they've probably got lots of pent up energy.

It’s an extremely difficult environment. So, before I can even talk about language learning, you've got to deal with these aspects head on. Because otherwise you're not going to be effective in the language learning that you do. So let's take a look at the key things that you've got to get right to set up your environment.

Turn Off Distractions

Number one is to shut off distractions. So that means if you've got any notifications on your phone, turn them all off.

I do this religiously with my own phone: I have zero notifications. Just turn them off, you don't need them. Phone calls are important of course, so don't turn off call notifications.

But turn off anything else, such as WhatsApp and especially social media. Because every time you're distracted, it takes around 20 minutes to get back into a focused zone. So just get rid of all distractions on your phone.

Implement A No News Policy

It’s also really important to have a no news policy. A lot of us are addicted to news at the best of times. And social media makes it a lot worse with all that click bait that's in our feeds. With the current Coronavirus situation, everyone is looking at a lot more news than normal.

But if you think about it, you don't need regular updates throughout the day. I encourage you to make a decision about how much news is enough and to stick to that. Personally, what I like to do every day is just watch the UK daily briefings at 5 p.m.

I try not to look at the news in the morning, or at lunchtime. I just have a blanket no news policy. And that gives you extra capacity in your brain.

You're not going to get worried and you're not going to get distracted. But anything important you can still catch up on at the end of the day. Or whatever time suits you.

Create A Dedicated Study Space

This is especially important if you live with other people. You've got to have a space where you can sit down and study. If you're trying to study languages on the living room table with plates and books and things and people running around, you're not going to be able to focus.

Effective language learning is all about depth. So, try to create a study space for yourself that you can go to daily. It’s really important that you take a bit of time now to create a space where you can sit down and study. This signals to your brain this is serious time now.

So, here's a recap of what you need to do:

What you're doing here is controlling your environment. You're removing all of the things which are likely to cause you problems with studying.

This isn't just for language learning. This is good practice and good health in general. But hopefully you can see how if we get this wrong it’s going to be very difficult to go on and learn languages afterwards.

Invest In Noise Cancelling Headphones

Here's a pro tip for you: invest in noise cancelling headphones. I have a pair, but I resisted buying them for a couple of years. But after I invested in them, it absolutely changed my life.

They're quite expensive: about $300 – $400. But when you put them on and you play some music or whatever in the background you won't hear anything going on around you.

So, if you do have issues with noise and people talking around you in your household these are ideal. Click here to find the ones that I recommend.

Again, these headphones are expensive so don't feel obliged to invest in them. Only do so if you can afford them. But they do have the potential to be absolutely life changing.

2. How To Structure Your Day

You're in control of your environment now. So, let’s move on to structure. Given the current situation, you need to think more about structuring your day.

Now, I've never been on lockdown before. But I'm sharing some tips that I found helpful during a similar situation where I had a lot of time on my hands.

You'll see that a lot of this is common sense. But often it's common sense that's the first thing to go out the window in unusual times, isn't it? So, let’s just recap these structure tips.

Stick To Daily Waking Up And Bed Times

First of all, stick to bedtimes. It seems like a silly thing to do. But I've found that when you don't have any structure in your life, it's all the more important to actually impose some structure, so that you're more likely to get things done.

So similarly to bedtimes, start your day as if you're going to work. One thing that I'm really adamant about is that when my alarm goes off in the morning, and I still have an alarm now, I actually start the day as if I'm going to work.

So that means that: I wake up, I have a shower, I get dressed and I do my hair. Now, as I'm at home, I don't really need to do any of this.

But I find that sticking to this wake up routine gets me in the right frame of mind for productivity. So make sure you wake up and get ready as usual, even though you don't have to.

Decide On And Commit To Work And Study Times

It’s also helpful to decide on and commit to work hours and study hours.

In my particular case I'm still working. And so I need to actually define my study hours. Personally, I'm studying from six till seven in the morning at the moment.

But I have also studied in the past from eight till nine at night. So, set whatever study time works for you. One hour of language study per day is a great duration to aim for.

The important thing is to define and decide on these times. Then once you have decided on them, stick to them and protect that time. If you have a calendar you can actually mark those times on there.

All these actions build the scaffolding around your study time, making it more like that you'll show up and do the work.

Communicate Your Study Times With The People You Live With

If you do live with other people tell them what your study times are. That way, they won't interrupt you.

So, you can say, “Mum, dad, I am dedicating 8 p.m. till 9 p.m. to learn Spanish, so please don't come and ask me to do the dishes in those times because that's my study time”. I'm sure family members or flatmates will be very accommodating, especially if you ask them nicely.

If possible work in a room with a door that you can close. That way, the people you live with aren't going to interrupt you unless they have good reason to.

If you're sitting on the couch or at the kitchen table and people are walking by, what happens? They start a conversation. It’s not that they're trying to hijack you, but that's what happens.

But, if you can find a quiet space where you can shut the door, and ideally stick on your noise cancelling headphones, you can get into your own little world where people will just leave you be.

3. Your Daily Study Time

So, what are you actually going to be doing each day? For a period like this I highly recommend that you have a fixed goal or rather a goal for a fixed time period.

I've done a number of language challenges. And this is the method I found most effective for making progress.

For example, last year I learned Italian and documented my 3-month Italian challenge on this blog. I went from almost zero, through to having a one-hour interview in Italian by the end of that time period.

Product Goals vs Process Goals

My main strategy for that 3-month period was to have a fixed time goal per day. And that brings me to an important difference in goal types, between product goals and process goals.

A product goal is where you say what you want to have achieved by the end of a period. For example, I want to be fluent in Spanish. This is a typical goal. But it’s not a good goal. Why? Because you can't directly influence that. There is no such thing as a set number of things you can do that will result in you being fluent in Spanish.

Another example of a product goal is: I will learn all 1,000 Kanji from my book in the next 12 weeks. Kanji are Japanese characters or rather Chinese characters in Japanese. Again, it’s not a particularly helpful goal because you can't directly influence how many you will learn.

However, what you can do is influence the time that you put into language learning. So, if you say, for example, I will study for one hour a day for three months or I will study for 30 minutes a day for the next 8 weeks, then that is something you can control and measure.

These are examples of process goals. And I'm a big fan of process goals because usually with language learning you can't directly influence how good you get. But you can influence the amount of time you spend on language learning and the actions you take. 

That's why, what I'd like you to do after reading this post is choose your process goal. Ask yourself: what will you be doing and for what time period every day? That is the kind of goal that is going to give you a lot more success during this time.

Choose One Resource And Go Deep

I always suggest that you go very deep with one resource. Everybody's got 100 language books, 10 different apps, and a few different courses. We're all inundated with these different options for language learning.

But the thing that’s going to get you the most value is going deep on one thing. Why? Because depth of focus is what brings you the most results.

So, what I suggest for the lockdown period is: choose one program or resource alone and make it your goal to work through that during your daily periods of study time. Your study time is the one hour period (or 45 minutes, or 30 minutes, whatever suits you) I mentioned that you need to define and put on your calendar.

Because no matter which resource you use, the depth of focus will get you the results. Jumping like a butterfly from one thing to the next won't.

So, decide on one thing that you're going to do, one program or one course of action that you're going to take, and then go deep on that.

Create A Streak

No, not that kind of streak! There are a number of apps that have a streak concept built in. The idea is that each day you make progress towards a goal, you record it in the app and this builds a “streak”. As you see the streak build day by day, you won't want to break it!

So, for example, if you're planning to do one hour a day of study, then every time you do those 60 minutes you record and track that.  After you've hit your goal for 5, 10, or 15 days, the idea of breaking the streak is going to be horrible. And that will to help you keep your momentum and focus.

You can also create an accountability streak. So, I'm in a few WhatsApp accountability groups with friends on specific topics.

For example, I have a fitness WhatsApp group and every time I go to the gym, I put a post in my WhatsApp group about what I did.  Everybody does the same thing and it gives you a way to be held accountable for your goal.

What To Do If You Miss A Day

The other thing is to do is recognize and reward yourself for the language learning you do.

It’s very easy to beat yourself up about the one day in the week you missed a study session, rather than acknowledging the six days that you showed up and spent an hour working on your new language.

So, it’s important to remember the positives and not let yourself get overwhelmed with negativity if you do have an off day. Because that will happen and it’s totally normal. Just remember to come back when you miss a day, because skipping one day isn't a reason to quit.

That said, you have to find a balance between rigor and being too easy on yourself. I've been guilty of this in the past. When I missed a day, I would say to myself: “Oh it’s okay because missing a day’s fine so I won't beat myself up about it”. And before you know it every other day is a missed day…

Here you're working with a time frame of eight to 12 weeks of lockdown. Let's be honest, it’s tricky to learn a new language to fluency in just a few weeks. So, what you're aiming for is to build a strong foundation. That way, you can speak and understand the language. And then you're ready to go out and take it on to the next level afterwards.

If you need some help getting started or getting back on the wagon, check out my post on how to do one hour of study in five minutes. 

4. Speaking Your New Language At Home

If you're anything like me, speaking a foreign language with somebody is the most motivating thing of all, whether you're a beginner or more advanced.

I recommend that you use this time to take lessons on Italki, which is my favorite platform for finding language tutors to speak to.

Speaking also adds a social element to your language learning. And when you're stuck at home, connecting with another person has obvious benefits.

Block Book Your Lessons

The way I approach speaking sessions is to always block book lessons in advance. So, for example, if you go onto Italki and you book a pack of 10 speaking sessions then what you can do is schedule them in advance on specific days.

For instance, you could schedule your lessons on Mondays and Fridays at 10 a.m. so you know you have a speaking session on these times and days. That way you're using external accountability to make sure that you actually study. If you've got to be there at 10 a.m. then you will be there at 10 a.m.

So, if you like the idea of speaking, I recommend you find a tutor on a platform like Italki and block book lessons for the next few weeks. The bonus is that they can be very affordable.

Notice that I actually use the term speaking sessions rather than lessons. The way that I suggest you approach studying is to use my Uncovered courses for studying the language in your own time, during your 1-hour of daily study time. And then you go out to practice the content with real people.

So although the Uncovered courses don't come with tutor time included, I've done everything I can to facilitate that. You'll also see that inside the courses there are lists of recommended tutors. And you'll also find speaking packs written in the target language for language tutors.

For example if you're doing Spanish Uncovered and you have a Spanish tutor then you can give these speaking packs to your tutor. This will give them exact instructions on how to help you practice the language point that you've been studying inside the course.

5. Language Immersion From Home

Immersion is the idea that you surround yourself with the target language so that it's everywhere you look and listen.

Now, this can be tricky to achieve. For instance, if you're at the the office all day it’s difficult to be immersed in your target language.

But right now, you have an interesting opportunity. Because when you're at home you have greater control of your environment. So you can set it up for successful language immersion. Here are a few suggestions.

Language immersion is in addition to your 1-hour of core study time. You don't necessarily need to sit down at your desk with the door closed to immerse yourself successfully in the language. As you'll see, you can use immersion while you're doing other tasks, even non-language ones.

Make TV Your Language Learning Partner

If you watch TV in English or in your mother tongue, the easiest thing to do is switch that into the target language. Netflix has some fantastic foreign language options, as does Disney Plus. So, if you want to watch “The Lion King” in Japanese, for example, then you can.

In fact, you can create a rule for yourself that you don't watch any TV in English or your mother tongue for the rest of the lock down period.

Sneaky Ways To Use Your Computer For Immersion

On Google and Facebook, you can swap out your default language for your target language. Simply go into Google settings and Facebook settings and change the target language to Japanese or French or Italian.

Let’s face it: you're using the computer every day so you may as well just get that extra bit of exposure from websites and applications you already have installed.

YouTube Language Learning Secrets

This is a really cool trick that I heard from Matt versus Japan, which is an excellent YouTube channel.

Create a second account on YouTube that is just in your target language. So, let’s say you're learning Japanese. You might not know this, but you can set up multiple YouTube accounts using the same email address.

So once, you've set up this YouTube account, visit it and only click on videos in your target language. That way, you're training the YouTube algorithm to show you videos in that language.

If you want to watch videos in English or your native language, switch back to your original account so that you don't start to mix the two up.


Also, this is a great time to listen to podcasts whether you're washing the dishes or cleaning the house. Here in the UK we're still allowed out for runs and walks so I listen to podcasts while I'm out.

I've put together some recommendations for learner podcasts in various languages:

Use listening to podcasts as an opportunity to create an immersion environment in your ears!

Productive Language Learning In Challenging Times

So there you go. I've just shared my language learning approach which is all about input and story-based learning. I've also shared my best tips for setting up a productive study environment from home.

Now you've got what you need to use this lockdown period to make some serious language learning progress.

I know there is nothing earth shattering in there. But all these different points and actions together will conspire to help train your brain over the next few months to start to shift into the target language.

I guarantee you will be amazed at what you can achieve in just a very short time.

If you want any particular inspiration for this have a look at my Italian project and you'll see what I was able to do in the space of two to three months.

And hopefully you can use that as an inspiration for what you might be able to do in this period as well.

Share you story in a comment. What language are you planning to learn during the lockdown? Do you have any tips for staying productive while at home? 

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