How I use my dead time to keep languages present

I mentioned in my learning principles yesterday how using your dead time is a great way to squeeze in some extra contact hours with your target language. Today I wanted to elaborate on how exactly I do that.


Since Spanish is the language that I am currently learning, I’ll refer mostly to that. At the moment I am almost exclusively listening to the advanced episodes of the Notes in Spanish podcast when walking somewhere or when I’m on the metro. I used to listen to it when doing housework as well but since I outsourced that, there’s no need for that anymore.

The reason I am using this podcast is that it’s easy enough for me to follow. My brain doesn’t need to put in a lot of effort because I understand 95% of what is being said. Since I am walking somewhere, reading or watching something would be too uncomfortable and the metro ride is usually too short to watch a video. The material you are using should be easy enough to pick up one or two new expressions when you listen to it, but no more. The goal is not to learn a ton of new words but simulate immersion and keep the language present in your brain. Subconsciously you are re-enforcing common speech patterns and getting your brain used to the sound of your target language and it being a constant presence.

I usually listen to a podcast twice, unless I didn’t take particular interest in an episode. If there is an interesting expression or word that I picked up or want to look up, I make a quick note of that to keep it for further revision.


Ok this is essentially the same as listening but not quite. For example, the videos from the Visualpolitik channel I am watching are too long to be comfortably watched on a short train ride. Those I tend to watch while eating or cooking. The level is also a bit more difficult so I like to focus a bit more when watching those. The more difficult your source material, the more focused you’ll need to be (logical). Hence why I take my time when watching that channel.

The same goes for something even more advanced like a TV series or a movie. If you need to interrupt what you are doing, you’re already not using your dead time but bordering on learning consciously. However, then it’s better to stop whatever else you’re doing and only focus on the language.

In terms of vocabulary, I do the same. Make notes when I hear something interesting, otherwise just focus on the content.


I tend to not do a lot of reading in my dead time because I consider listening to be more important and because I already get plenty of vocabulary input from deliberate practice. There are two things you can do.

One would be to read a book on public transportation. Like with listening, it should be easy enough so your flow isn’t interrupted and your brain doesn’t have to put in too much effort. I used to read little short stories that had uncommon words translated at the bottom of the page. That way you could read a text that’s slightly above your level without interrupting the flow of the language too much.

Another option is to read something like a newspaper on your phone (if that’s your thing). The nice thing about it is that you can mark an unknown word and immediately translate it so your reading flow isn’t interrupted.

I feel like reading takes a bit more effort though. That’s why I tend to leave dedicated time to that like before going to bed.


Well I’m not a big fan of apps because they provide low-quality time with the language but dead time on the metro is probably as good an opportunity to use them as you’ll get. Since most people are addicted to their phones nowadays anyway, that’s at least a better way of using them. I used to do the same with Duolingo and it’s definitely not completely worthless, there are just better things you can do.


Flashcards are actually a really effective way to keep language present and revise vocabulary, at least in my experience. There are only a few problems with them.

First, it will very quickly not feel enjoyable at all (if it ever was) and you’ll come to loathe them. If you have the choice between doing flashcards or wasting your time on social media, you’ll probably pick the latter. You also have the problem that with an app like Anki (which, by itself, is great), you have the same problem that you have with gamified apps: it makes you feel guilty for missing days and that takes the enjoyment out of it. You don’t want to revise a ton of old words because you skipped two days, although it’s the right thing to do in terms of learning.

The second problem is that flashcards are actually quite demanding and you cannot switch off when doing them. You need to be focused on what you’re doing, otherwise you’ll find that you’re cramming them in your short-term memory (even with spaced repetition) but cannot really recall them.

Lastly, I found that flashcards work well at beginner to lower-intermediate level but almost not at all later on. The frequency with which you see the words at higher levels is just too low and doing flashcards starts feeling a lot like cramming words. I found massive amounts of input through listening and reading to be much more effective than flashcards. I still make notes of interesting new expressions but I do not make a conscious effort anymore to revise them when they’re not immediately useful. Instead I just go over my list in regular intervals and recall the contexts in which I’ve read or heard them.

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