How to Learn a Foreign Language in 30 Minutes a Day

I recently wrote an email to a family member. She’s Lithuanian and the last time I saw her (3 months ago) I did a pretty decent job at saying ‘hello, how are you?’ and then looking blankly as she answered. In contrast, my email was an actual conversation that translated meaning. It was the beginning of a eureka moment for me and a confirmation that my new approach is paying off.

Frankly, just try and shut me up.

Man labai labai patinka kalbėti lietuviškai. 


Did you know that 43% of the world’s population speaks 2 or more languages and 13% of the world’s population speaks 3 or more? That means that almost half of the world speaks a foreign language. That also means that the mono-linguists out there are almost in the minority.

I expect 43% is the lowest that figure will ever be again. For next week, next month, next year, more and more of us will have foreign language communication skills and, moreover, more of us will want those skills too*.

I’ve not reached fluency in any other language than my native tongue. I’m basically a mono-linguist with a predisposition to saying ‘hello’ and ‘thankyou’ in as many different languages as I can. Bonjour!

Interestingly, aside from Ireland, the UK (in joint second position with Portugal) is where folks are least likely to be able to speak any foreign language. Uh-oh UK! Not cool.

I have a compulsion of playing around with language no matter where I travel and love to really utilise some very basic skills. But my attention is currently focussed on Lithuanian: I’m taking classes, and taking self-study seriously.

But learning languages is not easy. It takes a lot of time and a lot of focus and a lot of dedication. A language such as Lithuanian has 7 cases, 6 declensions, several diacritics and a sentence structure that, for a native English speaker at least, can be tough to get one’s head around.

Here’s some stats:

The Foreign Service Institute is responsible for training US diplomats and ambassadors to speak foreign languages. Since 1947 they’ve built a very strong bank of data regarding language learning for English speakers. According to them, a native English speaker looking to reach fluency in Lithuanian could expect to do so in 44 weeks (308 days) with a total of 1,100 hours (an average of 3.5 hours a day).

Basic maths puts 44 weeks at just short of 7,400 hours. Let’s break that down:

  • Average sleeping hours: 7.5 hours per night.
    • In 44 weeks that’s 2310 hours
  • Average working hours: 37 (37.4 according to the ONS) per week.
    • In 44 weeks that’s 1628 hours
  • Average time in the bathroom (washing and doing your business): let’s call it 1 hour a day, although it’s a very loose estimate.
    • In 44 weeks that’s another 308 hours
  • Average time cooking and eating: we’ll generalise another 1 hour daily.
    • In 44 weeks that’s another 308 hours
  • Average commute time: the ONS report from 2011 shows a varied commuting experience across the UK but, using my own experience from a life in London, the time spent getting to and from work every day is around 90-120 mins. As we’re optimists, we’ll use the lower end.
    • So, in 44 weeks that’s 330 hours

Therefore between sleeping, working, commuting, eating and washing oneself, we’re already at 4,884 hours. Which leaves 2,516 hours of our 44 weeks remaining. That is, 34% of our time. Therefore, once we factor in those 1,100 hours of dedicated language-learning time, we have 1,416 hours left to ourselves. That’s time we might spend grocery shopping, working out, seeing friends and family, watching movies etc.

Look at it another way. 1,416 hours is 19.14% of our 44 weeks. We’re left with 20% of our lives to do with as we wish once we’ve done all of the essential stuff (not counting any number of other responsibilities like, being a parent, having a dog, running a side-hustle, going to the doctor/dentist/hairdressers, travelling, date nights etc) and the language learning.

Yes, that’s not much time left to do all those cool, sexy things but here’s the point: if we’re learning a language, we’re likely doing so by choice so 1,100 hours of language learning isn’t really to be subtracted from time that we can call ‘Me time’. It does, however, highlight a real sense of priority.

I learn for myself and I learn for another reason too. And I love learning. Period. But, like most of us, I’m pretty busy and, even though I’d very much like to, I don’t really have 3.5 hours a day, every day, to assign to language learning. So I’ve tried to simplify the approach to learning by finding a more efficient way of engaging with the language.

N.B. I’m not a language coach, a polygot or even a bi-linguist. The following has simply proven hugely helpful for me.

My approach to learning a language:

  1. Nailing the basics
    1. Learn how to read through understanding pronunciation. Where do you roll an ‘r’, and what sound does ž or ė make? Once you have this down, and with a good bit of focus you could have it down in less than an hour, you’re setting off with your best foot forward.
  2. Frequency dictionaries
    1. These are, without a doubt, a game changer. Frequency dictionaries list words in order of their usage within a language. Typically they’ll be split into Verbs, Nouns, Adjectives etc. and what they offer is a wide open door to fairly decent conversations from the get-go. Logically, if you can use the first 1,000 or so words of those dictionaries you’ll be having basic conversations with comfort. Get to just 4-5,000 words and you’ll have a vocab strong enough to see you through the C2 test of the Common European Framework of References for Languages. That’s considered Mastery. The CEF doesn’t go higher.
  3. Weekly one-on-one/two lessons
    1. This does help and it’s helpful for 2 main reasons: specific guidance from a native speaker trained to provide specific guidance to non-native speakers, and a degree of accountability: I’ve paid for a block of lessons so I’d better do my best to ensure I get my money’s worth…
  4. Using the language in everyday settings
    1. I’ve found that forcing myself to using Lithuanian whenever I can is incredibly useful in rewiring my brain. The more I replace my English with Lithuanian the more comfortable I feel using it and the smoother I am at doing so.
  5. Exposure and Immersion
    1. Being in an environment where I can really only use the language: in Lithuania/ in the company of Lithuanians, is incredibly useful. It offers little opportunity to escape and the pressure of successful communication being almost solely dependent on one language is a great motivator. Sure, English is spoken relatively prolifically in the Lithuania, and certainly among my peer group, but the real heart of the matter is respect. There’s not a valid excuse not to try as hard as one can to speak the respective language of the country one finds themselves in.
  6. Daily targets of new vocab acquisition
    1. My target, at set out at the beginning of the year for Project20nine, is 10 words a day. Not many, but in a year that equates to 3,640 new words. Hello CEF B2. It’s also incredibly easy to routinely learn this many words. In a day I might learn these whilst making a coffee, on the lunch break, whilst waiting for the rice to cook. Add a few more words in a day and bingo, you’ve taken an impossible job, and made lightwork of it.

I would also argue that finding any excuse to listen to the new language as often as possible is helpful (audiobooks, podcasts, music, radio, movies), just as reading books in that language is, even if it’s just a case of becoming familiar with words rather than necessarily understanding 100% of them. I also really enjoy Lithuanian puzzle books for the same reason and find attempting to tackle grammar workbooks aimed at kids a lot of fun.

Kitą kartą senų senovėje buvo senelis ir senutė (from Eglė, žalčių karalienė). 

…žinau. Kaip grazu.

That’s really it. In addition to points 3 – 6 I spend around 30 minutes a day, on average, working through various self-study Lithuanian learning tasks but do often have episodes of Lithuanian Out Loud on in the background or any number of YouTube videos filling the silence whilst working. Like staying in shape, it’s a bit of a lifestyle choice but not inconveniently so. It’s a conscious effort to ease as much learning into the day as possible, as conveniently as possible: looking at my desk and mentally listing everything on it in Lithuanian, replying to a text message in Lithuanian etc.

Learning a new language isn’t just for those of us we think a particularly good at doing so. If you think about it, a baby can learn a new language pretty well (that is, we are born into the world without any language…) so why can’t we do it now? We can all learn a new language, it’s just a case of choosing to.


This post is part of an ongoing account of the final 364 days of being a 20-something. Today the author doesn’t feel a day older than he should. In fact, if you asked him how he does feel, he’d probably tell you he feels no different to the way he felt at the beginning of being a 20-something. He would also tell you how much he enjoys being however old he is at any given moment and that he feels hungry. But then again, he’s always hungry

3 Replies to “How to Learn a Foreign Language in 30 Minutes a Day”

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