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…

  • My vocabulary has grown
  • My listening comprehension has improved
  • I can speak more fluently

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.

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):

  • Before you start work (at home, or in the office before everyone else arrives)
  • During a lunch break
  • After work (before leaving the office, or in a cafe)

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…

  • 40 minutes a day
  • 3 hours 20 minutes a week
  • 14.5 hours a month
  • 174 hours a year

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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  • Jeff

    I am retired living in Panama so dead time and down time are not too important for me. I study later in the morning and in the afternoon. What would help is to review what I have learned for 15 minutes what I learned in the day to help me remember the following day.

    • Absolutely! Give it a go and let me know what happens! Ironically, I always find that the more free time I have, the less efficient I become… but that’s just me! 🙂

  • Ethan

    I really enjoyed this, Olly. Impressed by your goals to get C2 in Cantonese and speak on Hong Kong television; very ambitious and inspiring! I’d love to do the same with Catalan.

    When learning Hebrew, I did find my speaking accelerate substantially when I was speaking 4-5 days/week. But I split it between 1 day with a tutor and 1 day with a teacher (from italki) and then 2 days with exchanges and maybe one day a casual chat with a friend. Chatting on whatsapp was also very useful for new vocabulary and learning the alphabet.

    Thanks as always for the inspiration!

    • Hi Ethan, great to hear from you. Yes, this thing about tutor/teacher/exchange partner is interesting. I think it depends a lot on you, how much time you’ve got, what stage you’re at, how you like to learn. I enjoy mixing things up a bit too, and meeting people in person as much as possible.

  • Jon

    Hi Olly, really usful blog post. I have a pretty early start too but a much longer commute resulting in lots or deadtime on the train in which I struglle to stay awake let alone study. There were a few things I’d like to ask though;
    – What sort of things specifically do you fill your ‘Core Study Time’ with?
    – Are your 30-45min Italki sessions paid or with Exchange Partners?
    – Do you think there’s a risk of burning out with this schedule?
    It looks like I have a similarly busy work day to you so there’s no reason I could take some of these ideas and put them into a strong daily learning schedule.

    • Hi Jon. If you’ve got a long train commute, that might be the ideal time for some intensive study. I wonder if there’s a way you can wake up enough for it to work! (Any good espresso bars near you?)

      Great questions, here goes…

      1) Lots of people have asked me this, so I’m going to write a blog post about it next week!
      2) Paid. I don’t have time for exchange generally. (At least not during the day)
      3) Yes. My solution for this is to go easy on myself if I have a bad day. And there are bad days. The trick is to be kind on yourself, don’t beat yourself up about skipping bits and pieces, but to the make sure you get back on the horse the following day! Also, I’d come back to the point that there’s no need to start at 5am. That time just happens to work better for me.

  • Thanks for this, Olly! I will be sharing this with my English students who are working on creating study plans that work in their daily lives.

    I found your take on “dead time” vs. “downtime” to be important for knowing when your brain is more or less receptive to learning. It seems like the commute TO work would be best described as dead time, and the commute HOME could be dead time or downtime depending on the person and how they are feeling that day.

    This article is a great reminder to look at our lives, moods and daily schedules and find something that works for us as individuals.

    Thanks again!

    • Hi Sabrina, that’s a great point about the commute BACK from work! I guess for me, because it’s still quite early (midday), I’m still fresh. But I take your point about the commute home at 6 or 7pm!

  • Hi Olly, very inspiring post! Your routine rocks 😉 Just like you, I personally tend to study early in the morning (but 5 am is too early for me 😉 and exploit all the dead times to have short but effective learning sessions throughout the day… I admire your determination to reach C2 in Cantonese, it’s an amazing goal! Keep it up!

    • Thanks Luca… I’m going to give it my best shot! It won’t happen overnight either, but it’s a goal that inspires me!

  • I definitely agree with looking back over what you have been doing at various points during the day. For me, it’s a great use of waiting time that I put the difficult vocabulary into a “Words I can’t Remember” Memrise every day (how I wish I could edit courses on the go with Memrise!), and that’s the mobile component of my study. Your routine is certainly intense, though luckily not quite as CRAZY as the headline would have us believe.

    • Depends on your definition of crazy, I suppose! :p

      • 5am starts – crazy. 9:30pm bed time – super crazy.

        • Standing on your head while reciting Cantonese – super duper crazy

          • Karaoke bar in target language – so crazy it’s awesome

          • Cool… now it looks like I’ve got LOADS of comments on this post! 🙂

  • Nate

    You are simply impressive my good sir.

  • Vincenzo Lagioia

    Uitstekend! Olly, definitely amazing ideas you came across. Nowadays, I am fully immersed in Dutch, which I consider an amazing language. I have plenty time daily daily but I am quite lost when it comes to intensive study. Essentially, I am committed to 3 hours study time. In this, I do two sections of 25 min each where I focus on vocabulary growth, grammar patherns and connected speech. In another words, give myself the opportunity to fully immerse in the language. After these sections, I go extensive reading or listening. Also, some anki drills. But again, studying intensively as you pointed out, is essentially what I do?

    My goals are: take Dutch to C2 level. But momentarily, I am commited to improve the language on the go, everyday tasks that I am weak. And what kind of listenings drills?

    Good post, Olly

    • Yes, that certainly sounds like intensive study! My question for you would be: Are you also creating plenty of opportunity to speak, listen to and read the language?

      Intensive study, for me, doesn’t necessarily have to be all that long every day. It can be just as effective to do a short amount, but then go out and try to use what you’ve learnt in practise – speaking with people.

  • dandiprat

    Glad to see your routine is working out for you. To the extent that I have core study time it’s at the end of the day usually. As a fellow Cantonese learner I’m curious what prompted you to focus on that language as opposed to the other two languages you mentioned? I’m doing it because my in-laws speak it.

    • Linguistically and culturally I find it so much more interesting than Mandarin. I often develop strange obsessions over things that I can’t necessarily explain myself. Another big part of it is wanting to go back to something I’ve learnt before and do it better.

      • dandiprat

        I see. Good for you. No need to have a concrete reason in mind, although nothing wrong if you do, either.

  • msjazz

    Awesome post Olly! I’m already doing the early morning start to get more French study time in before the world wakes up 🙂 I love the idea of adding an end-of-the-day review, so will definitely include that in my schedule now!!

    • That’s cool! How’s it working out for you?

      • msjazz

        It’s going great! I even make my to-do list in French in the morning so I can learn relevant vocab and keep refreshing it in my memory during the day as I cross things off!

  • Great idea!
    I’m piloting this idea starting this Monday with a schedule that involves reading, writing, listening and of course speaking.
    Reading and listening in my core time, and writing and speaking in the afternoon (if I have an Italki session scheduled: speak. Otherwise: write).

    I actually like the 5 AM idea, because I can focus on everything regarding language learning, without interrupting my work schedule.

    • Hey David! Yes, that’s exactly why it works for me. If you study before the day begins, then even if you do nothing else that day, the day has been a success! Good luck – let me know how it goes!

  • Mel Vargas

    During your downtime, do you watch with subtitles on or off? I find that when I watch with the subtitles off, I tend to want to pause and search for the words in a dictionary, which doesn’t really give me a downtime.

    • I would watch without subtitles if I could. Unfortunately, most TV that I watch in Cantonese has subtitles hardwired into it, so I don’t have that option. For the extensive listening that you’re trying to achieve with watching TV, it’s probably more effective to turn off the subtitles if you have the option.

      I understand the feeling about wanting to pause. Instead, I suggest keeping a notepad and paper, and just jotting down everything you want to look up. You can look it all up later after you finish watching!

  • Terry Fontenelle

    With Glossika did you only use the audio or did you also use the three books that come with it?

  • Ron

    Hey Olly,
    Quick question. How do you maintain your other languages as you have decided to focus intensively on Cantonese at the moment?

    • Hey Ron, simply by taking every opportunity to practise. I go to language exchanges, talk to friends on the phone. But that’s not for all the languages — French and Arabic for example I rarely speak, but I don’t worry about it too much. For me, learning lots of languages isn’t about being able to always be awesome at them. There are ups and downs. But I’m confident I’ll be able to recoup whatever level I need…when I need it.

  • Heather

    I decided to challenge myself and take up your routine, even the rising at silly o’clock to do it! I just started yesterday and am blogging about my experience of it. To be honest, I’m a bit at sea and don’t know if I’m really taking much in in the intensive study, or just reading and writing down what I see. As for the listening part, I went to NorwegianClass101 and signed up for the free account and started listening to an advanced audio session (I’m not really at advanced level, more upper intermediate) BUT, even though I only started yesterday, I can now understand every single thing in the text without reading. That’s 3 x 20 minute sessions including this morning. I watched a tv show without subtitles last night and understood about 85-90% of it. So, very impressed with the speed of it. Now, if only I could speak 85% as fluently as I hear!

    My only complaint is that the some of the sentences are quite long so it’s difficult to repeat what they say in order to try and get the accent and intonation quite right.

    Anyway, looking forward to seeing how I fare!

    • Hi Heather – great to see you’re giving it a try! It’s normal to feel a bit at sea. I don’t normally become aware of the benefits of the things I’m trying out until after a few weeks. What really works for me is just focusing on ONE THING. Then you just do it, and keep it up. You’ll soon start to see the benefits! Great job!

      • Heather

        Thanks Ollie! When you say focus on one thing, can you expand upon that? Do you stay with a piece of text or a video until you know it by rote, and can speak every sentence line by line? I read and listen to texts every day for my online class, so it’s impossible to focus on one thing. Of course, this course won’t last long, so perhaps I’ve answered my own question. Haha.

  • Anna Liashenko

    Yes, it’s super inspiring! There’re many people who share their ways to learn a language nowadays but actually self-organizing tips are much more important. Language learning is about self-discipline, ability to be productive, effective and to follow your own plans.
    Thank you very much for the article!