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How To Learn Foreign Language When Doing Nothing

I don’t study language holed up in rooms all by myself. No, I study language when out in the streets, in train stations, while standing in line, when sitting in restaurants.

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A funny thing about travel is that you’re going to spend a huge amount of time doing just about nothing. When you think about a journey you probably see yourself checking out new things, eating interesting food, meeting new people, but I’m willing to bet that you generally don’t see yourself sitting around doing nothing for hours each day. But this is the reality of travel. All too often, this profession is an exercise in waiting. I’ve never been anal enough to record how long I spend waiting for meals in restaurants, waiting for a bus to leave, waiting for trains to arrive, sitting on the sides of highways waiting for buses to be fixed, standing in line, waiting for my travel companions to get ready to go, but, on an average day of travel, I know that this time can often be measured in hours. It is in this “in between” time that I study foreign language.

I used to carry around a little notebook with me at all times that I reserved just for language learning. I would write down a short list of new vocab words each morning and then break it out and study whenever I had a free moment throughout the day. When I would discover a word or phrase that I did not know how to say I would make a note of it, translate it later, then add it to my list the following day.


These days I’ve been using Google Translate on a mobile phone in place of a notebook. This technological upgrade has made my previous paper and pencil method seem overtly archaic. Now I just type in the word/ phrase/ sentence that I want to know and it produces a good translation in the language that I’m working on. I still compile lists of vocabulary, but I now do so with Google Translate’s “star” function. Next to everything it translates there is a little star icon. If you press it it will add whatever you just translated to a list that you can later go back and refer to. Now, instead of writing down my vocab lists I compile them digitally on my phone, a device that I carry with me pretty much all the time, and break it out dozens of times a day for short jaunts of language study.

So when I’m waiting for a train, riding in a taxi, bored on a long bus ride, sitting idle as a restaurant prepares my food, I take this passive, do-nothing time and make it active, learn-something time. I take out my mobile phone and study. I review my vocab list and look around at my surroundings for anything that I don’t know how to say in the language I’m studying, then translate and learn it. Sometimes these language study sessions last 15 minutes, sometimes 15 seconds, sometimes over an hour — it all depends on what’s going on around me.

With comprehensible input language learning, these passive moments can add up to a great deal of learning over time. Additionally, learning a foreign language while doing nothing also allows for immersion in the culture and environment.

To be honest, I spend so much time already tucked away alone in rooms writing that if I added language study to this mix I’d probably turn hermetic. I need to learn language on the move, in the streets, in the situations that I use it, and utilize my time as effectively as I can.

The true currency of travel is time, and I want to spend my travels traveling, not holed up in a little room bent over books studying. In point, few great acts have been achieved while waiting for a cook to grill up your hamburger. This is free time, take it.

The takeaways

  • Make use of the “in between” time in travel where you would otherwise be doing just about nothing to study language.
  • Use a notebook or an app like Google Translate to compile a list of words and phrases to study each day.
  • When you’re waiting for something, otherwise doing nothing, look around at your surroundings for anything that you don’t know how to say in the language you’re studying.


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Filed under: Language, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3719 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

5 comments… add one

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  • WanderfulTogether June 20, 2013, 4:30 am

    thanks for this post Wade, i remembered i have google translate in my ipad! …will definitely follow your tips. funny how you cant think of these simple steps when you’re busy. haha now i know 5 Mandarin phrases from google translate. is that chinese (simplified)? how come my “how are you?” doesn’t translate to ni hao ma?

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    • VagabondJourney June 20, 2013, 5:08 am

      Excellent. Yes, Chinese simplified in Mandarin. The only difference between simplified and traditional are the characters. How does it translate how are you?

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      • WanderfulTogether June 20, 2013, 9:29 am

        it says Ni zenme yang…

      • VagabondJourney June 22, 2013, 6:08 am

        That works too. That’s just a more literal translation.

  • Francis Cassidy June 20, 2013, 5:14 am

    Great tips. I never knew about the star funtion. On the android app it’s really small. I gotta start making use of it!

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