One misunderstanding people have when they arrive on my site is that they apparently need to have precisely my (current) circumstances to learn a language – and every day I receive comments from people with their laundry list of reasons why it’s not possible for them, including that they are too old, languages just aren’t their thing, and of course that they can’t travel.
I’ll actually come back to the topic very soon again, because this week I’m shifting my more formal Chinese learning lessons to be mostly online so that the majority of my outside interactions are truly naturally social, and it’s been so easy to find good online teachers (I’m currently reviewing several sites to find the teachers and will let you know which ones I’d recommend using).
However, today I want to focus on one of the biggest reasons I tend to hear from people: that they can’t learn a language because they work full time.
Some of us have to work for a living!!
I find this excuse quite frustrating to read because they say it like they are the only ones – they have a 40-hour week and spend time with their family. Right now my situation is quite ideal for language learning as I only work half time (about 4 hours a day), so I’m an easy target for the “It’s easy for you, but I…”
Sorry but time is a terrible excuse, and if you really think about it you will find a way to make the time even if you are busy.
And don’t use my current flexibility as your excuse. In fact, most languages that I speak fluently were learned while I worked full or double time. I’ve worked as an English teacher, a Mathematics teacher, a translator, an electronic engineer, and countless other jobs like working in offices or stores to support myself. Each time it was full time and each time I learned the language anyway.
Even while learning German in Berlin I was writing the Language Hacking Guide (you try writing an entire book in English, designing it and researching and interviewing people… with a looming C2 exam )
I think it’s quite fair to say that it would be incredibly hard to reach a level like fluency in the very short matter of time that I’m aiming for if you are also working full time, but you can do a LOT despite working so much. You can find a goal that is very ambitious, while still fitting with your demanding schedule to be realistic.
To prove this, it’s time that I fill in some gaps in my story, so let’s go back to the year 2004 (then skip forward briefly to 2007), and I’ll share how I learned to speak fluent Italian even though I was working a ridiculous amount of hours per week the entire time!
Taking on my second foreign language: Italian!
It took me six entire months to realize it, but once I got into speaking Spanish, I managed to reach a pretty good level in the next six months I was living in Valencia. I still had a lot to learn about the process of doing it correctly and improving my confidence to not be afraid to make more mistakes, so in those next six months I’d say I reached the European level of B2 (upper intermediate). Several years later I’d come back to Spain for a few more months to improve upon that and to sit and pass the C2 exam.
But for now it was time to move on – I went to Germany first, but was surprised to see that I couldn’t even order a train ticket in the language! My entire time in Germany in that visit was spent at an English immersion school teaching children, so I didn’t improve on my high school German at all.
At the time, I wasn’t inspired to learn German but I still figured that it was time I got serious about the challenge I had set myself of becoming a polyglot, so I set my sights on Italian. I bought a phrasebook (which was unfortunately German-Italian, so it wasn’t much help) and hoped on a train to Rome.
One of my Italian friends from the Erasmus student exchange program in Spain, Daniele, offered to put me up in his house while I looked for a job. We spoke in Spanish (both of our Spanish still had a long way to go at the time but we always understood one another), and I stayed in his house, which was a bus and then metro ride into la città vecchia. His mother prepared some of the most amazing food I’ve ever eaten, and was the first person I got to try and use my broken “Espaliano” on.
It’s true that you are at a huge advantage in skipping between languages within the same family, but Italian and Spanish also have quite a lot of very important differences. As well as this there is a danger of just having one replace the other, and forgetting the first one, but luckily the job I’d end up finding would make sure that wouldn’t happen!
I was in Daniele’s house for about 2 weeks, and most of that time was spent out looking for work. I did a little studying (now with some books in English) on the bus and metro, but nothing solid enough to get a real foundation. Still, I was confidently using my Espaliano (Spanish, while attempting to use Italian pronunciation, like cena with a “ch” sound and as many words in real Italian as I knew), and despite confused looks it was enough for me to get my point across and vaguely understand what was said to me.
My goal while in Italy was to leave speaking really good Italian, while not completely destroying my Spanish in the process.
My 63 hour a week job: Receptionist at an International Youth Hostel
Finally, one of the job applications I had sent in came back enthusiastic to meet me! One of Rome’s most important youth hostels was looking for a receptionist. As well as English teaching jobs, I had applied to every hostel that I could find, because the thought of working this job sounded really cool (and way back when I was in uni, I used to watch an Australian soap opera set in a youth hostel, so that romanticised the job a lot for me).
The interview was to be in Italian and English, and my incredibly broken Italian still put me further ahead than his other English speaking applicants, and I had the bonus of genuinely speaking decent Spanish (which my boss could too and confirmed my level), so the job was mine! As you can imagine, being a native English speaker and having any other languages in the tourist industry puts you quite far ahead of the competition!
The job had some incredible perks; first I worked in their branch near Termini, which was a 5 minute walk to the Colosseum. This meant that going for a little stroll meant that I would walk through some incredible timeless sites, and had lots of fun activities and great food all around me. The next perk was that I had free accommodation included! I lived in the hostel itself, but it wasn’t so bad since our room was just for me and the other receptionist.
To make it even better, a few weeks later when he saw me take some initiative with guests and the hostelworld rating go really high up with mentions of the helpful staff, he transferred me to the main hostel in his chain at the Vatican city walls. Despite being on a tight budget, I was one of the very few lucky people in Rome to have a view of the Sistine Chapel from my window. You really can’t ask for a better location in Rome!
But of course there was a catch. Two actually.
The first was the pay – an abysmal €10 a day. Not an hour, a day.
This is almost as good as nothing when you are right in the middle of the most touristed city in Europe.
I didn’t have to worry about accommodation, but I spent that immediately on food (which had to be eaten out since our hostel had no kitchen). Luckily, I had saved a little from teaching English in Germany, so I wasn’t under so much pressure, but knowing the terms meant I told my boss in advance that I could only work for him for about 3 months. This wasn’t about saving money, but the experience of living in Rome and learning the language. I’d exhaust all my funds by the end of the 3 months, but figure out what I’d do about that later.
The second catch were the hours. Boy, was I ever earning every single cent of that €10!!!
Work would start at 6pm, and then it would end at 6pm. No, that’s not a typo – we had 24 hour long shifts. We slept between midnight and 6AM, but were “on call”. Once I had to get up at 4AM when a guest knocked on my door when it was my shift, to unblock the toilet. And another time at 3AM two guests were squabbling over who had the bottom bunk. Fun times!
Then when 6pm came, the other receptionist would take over and we were free for 24 hours! It’s the most curious timetable you can imagine. Alternating the days, not counting the 6 hours asleep and dividing it, it works out as an incredible 63 hours a week (an odd number because of the odd number of days in a week).
Working with the strange timetable to improve my Italian
If you sleep eight hours a night, then you have 112 hours a week to play with. If you work full time for 40 hours a week, then there’s still 72 hours left over. Maybe you have to commute for an hour a day, and you have family or other responsibilities, but you still have a LOT of time that is going somewhere, which you could perhaps be more efficient with. (When people complain in comments that they have no time after reading my ridiculously long 4,000 word posts I really have to roll my eyes If you really had no time, you wouldn’t have all that time you spend complaining about it!)
I would sleep in on my off days, so I would still get about 8 hours average sleep a night. This gave me 49 hours left over after subtracting work hours. I had no work commute (this time – but see below) so I took that time and squeezed it for every ounce of what it was worth.
Studying in the hostel was a huge no-no. Apart from there being too many people there, I wanted to spend every second not working away from the place I was trapped in for 24 hours (I had to get the other receptionist to pick up food for me, since I couldn’t leave). So, after a quick breakfast I went straight to the Biblioteca Nazionale and went through their Italian learning books for a few hours. Then it was lunch time already and the clock was ticking before I’d have to get back for work!
In the afternoon I of course found ways to practice Italian by speaking it to as many people as I could. Despite my shyness, I invited a cute romana out for a coffee as regularly as I could. I’d meet up with Daniele back in his house to have some of that fantastic home cooked lunch and see how his mother was doing, and watch incredibly silly Italian gameshows with them for an hour or two (the hostel TV had to be left on a music video station, which drove me crazy because they played the same American pop songs over and over).
Despite the busyness of this city, I found those I bought food off to be quite chatty, which was a huge help.
And when I got off work at 6pm, I’d make sure to head out and try and interact with as many people as I can and build up a social circle. As always, I knew that hanging out with the expat community wouldn’t get me far in learning the language so I found alternatives.
Learning while at work
When you have the kind of hours my job had, you do indeed have dead hours that would otherwise go to waste. This is typical in quite a lot of jobs of this kind. I’d usually have time in the late morning to go through a list of vocabulary to memorise, while all the guests were out being tourists. The morning was hectic with people asking many questions about what to do in the city, and checking out, and the early afternoon was the most annoying time since I had to single handedly clean the entire hostel, and as soon as I was done and opened the doors again, everyone would flood in to check in or take a break from sightseeing. So I’d only really have an hour max to do some studying, but I used it anyway.
I got so annoyed by being exploited like this (other workers were mostly Americans without working visas, so they didn’t have a choice, but I could legally work anywhere in Italy, and was still doing it off the books for the sake of the experience and living right in the middle of the city), that a month or so in, in my off hours, I did some investigating in Italian and got in touch with pub crawl tours, which I would secretly promote to my guests when they asked where to go out that night. For every person I sent to the pub crawl, I’d earn €1, which started adding up very very quickly when you are as convincing as I can be.
On my off days I’d even hang around the hostel to gather a few of the foreigners and say “Hey, let’s all go on the pubcrawl!!” for the sole purpose of making some extra money, and going somewhere familiar to practice Italian. I don’t even drink, but I went on the same pubcrawl through Rome dozens of times, each time earning way more than what the hostel was paying me. And each time I would do all my talking with the locals or the local pubcrawl hosts. Practising a language in a noisy bar is really hard when your level isn’t good, but it’s great to force you to be more flexible than sound-proof studios of audio courses can make you.
Luckily soon after this, I starting making local friends and could go to places with no drunk foreigners and hear not just real Italian, but real romano.
One annoying rule of the hostel was that the owner preferred not to have Italians stay there, which meant I couldn’t practice with anyone so easily while at work. The phone would ring with people wanting to book a bed, and the explicit instructions were to turn them down with “Mi dispiace, ma siamo al completo!” (Sorry, we’re full) if the question was in Italian. This was all the Italian the other worker knew, but I stretched out the phonecall every time by pretending to look through the book, ask how many people they were and which city they were from etc. They’d ultimately get a disappointing turn down, but I’d always make sure I got my 2 minutes or so of spoken practice first.
Lying in a foreign language is an essential skill to learn… especially if that language is Italian!
Making sure not to forget my Spanish
It was absolutely essential that I not simply replace Spanish with Italian in my head. Luckily I had some ideas about how to not mix up different languages, and one of them was to consistently practice the other language while learning the new one. As an international youth hostel, we’d have guests from all around the world, many of whom came from Spain and Latin America.
I’d make sure to go out with them in the evenings whenever I could too, and show them around Rome (all the best parts of the city were within walking distance!!)
In some afternoons off, I’d join in on free walking tours of the city in English, Spanish or Italian and see what I could remember or understand, and this made me a great host for those I’d take out!
It was a little ironic, but one day I actually ended up showing an Italian around Rome. This was the sister of the girl I was inviting out for coffee, who was from the south and had never been sightseeing in the capital before, so I got to show her the historic sites, and tell her the history and dates behind each monument in Italian. She’d correct me if I made mistakes, as would many others, which I really appreciated (Italians were generally the perfect balance of encouraging me, and still giving me essential feedback to make sure I improved).
Since I would use both Spanish and Italian so frequently, I started to learn how to segment them in my head and could switch from one to the other without necessarily mixing them up.
By the end of my 3 months, my Italian had reached the same level as my Spanish, and I could add it as my official second language.
I get very nostalgic about that time in Rome as you can imagine! The job was so much fun that the poor pay and hard hours didn’t really feel so bad, and I still managed to get loads of practice to improve on my Italian really quickly! Despite not having much free time, I brought my level of the language up to something I was proud of.
Job 2: 55 hours a week working+commuting
I went on from there to France, which I didn’t enjoy much, and learned French slower because of that.
But a few years later, I came back to Italy to bring my level up again! This time I had my eye on the C2 exam; il CELI. At the time, my big plan and use for all these language certificates was that I wanted to become a conference interpreter, but when I was a few months into working my next Italian job that plan fell through and I had to come up with a new idea, so even though I had done a lot of preparation for the C2 exam, I decided not to sit it.
And in following with the same theme as my first Italian job, this one was poorly paid and extremely demanding on my time. It was a normal full time job of just 40 hours a week, but I could only find a job in a different city to the one I was living in. I was living in the incredibly scenic city of Perugia, where the university was based that held the C2 exam I was planning to sit. But the job I had found that would train me as a translator was in Foligno, which required a total of an hour and a half each way of commute time between trains and cycling.
It was the most exhausting work I’ve ever had, as I had to get up really early to make the commute, and some days they had me work late and I’d be home by midnight.
But my accommodation this time was with an international group of 11 people (in the same apartment). None of us were Italian, but it was the common language in the house, and it was the language I spoke at work this time!
Once again I worked on my social circle despite being so tired most of the time, and was speaking Italian in every single spare second I had, and was studying it on the entire commute (apart from cycling) and was confident that I could have passed that exam until I had to change my plans.
If you’re working hard, you can still find a way to learn a language
Up until this point, all my time in Italy apart from the 2 weeks looking for work initially in Rome, had been while working a 63 hour job or a full time job with 15 hours of commute time per week. And yet I was ready to demonstrate my level for one of the highest levels and hardest examinations you can take in Italian.
My story is different for Chinese right now, and indeed it would be great if you didn’t have to work so much so you could focus on your language. But while you do all that complaining, some of us have found ways to learn a language despite having to work so much.
Yes, I had it easy because I was in Italy, and learning a language similar to one I already spoke (but didn’t actually speak at a fantastic level yet). But at the same time as that, I was working more hours a week than most people who write to me saying they “don’t have the time” are, and I did it anyway.
Of course being in the country helped a lot, but you can find a language exchange or a teacher online (more on this soon) and you can find some time to study or use the language in as many ways as possible.
No matter what excuse you have, there is someone out there who has overcome it. Instead of using your energy to complain about that excuse being a brick wall, why not try using that energy to get around the wall instead? I could have complained that learning Italian is impossible because I was working too many hours, and how it was so much easier for all those students who have more time than me, but instead I focused simply on learning the language in the best way that I could.
Having to work hard is no excuse – you will find stories of many many people (actually, realistically, most people) who have learned a language while working full time. Work is a normal part of life (the main reason I have more free time now is because I worked double time in December and over Christmas to set up the Speak from Day 1 videos and page to give me this boost of extra time), so if many other people are working full time and can learn a language, I think it’s time to put your excuses aside and find a way to make it work!
Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments below!
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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