Chapter 15: Walking, learning, and chewing gum at the same time

Multitasking

I have a confession to make: I don’t think that I could entirely give up television. Sure, I know that a lot of the programming is pure trash, but some of it is also pretty good. I have a particular weakness for CNN, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel. In addition, I will grudgingly admit that I have consumed my share of more low-brow entertainment. (Seinfeld reruns are my particular weakness.)  And as for movies—I have my own express lane at the local Blockbuster.

But my leisure activities don’t stop there. I go to the gym everyday. I surf the Internet. I drive to parties and meetings with friends. I even go running, when the fickle weather in Ohio permits.

My time is also consumed by many activities that aren’t necessarily fun. I spend an hour in the car each day commuting to and from my office. I have to clean the house, fold laundry, and prepare my meals. Once per week, I drive to the local supermarket and stock up on groceries.

Yesterday I got a haircut. I spent twenty minutes waiting in the barbershop. Two months ago I refinanced my house, and I spent about the same amount of time waiting in an office for the loan officer. Last month I went out of town on business, and I spent a total of two hours waiting in the airport.

I turn all of these situations—from watching a movie to waiting for a flight—into study sessions. This is the principle of multitasking—or doing more than one thing at a time.

If you are like most people, you confront an endless series of demands on your time. As a result, it may not be practical for you to set aside one or two hours everyday and say, “This will be my language study time.” The solution, therefore, is to blend language study into your other activities.

Consider, for example, a leisurely two hours spent watching a DVD. Why not divert a bit of your attention from the movie to study German vocabulary? When you were a kid, your parents probably scolded you for doing your homework in front of the television. However, you are not a kid anymore—and you can quite effectively mix certain language study activities into your TV time.

I religiously study foreign language vocabulary while I watch TV. Sometimes I simply flip through my vocabulary cards. On other occasions I write out new vocabulary cards, referring to my unfamiliar words list and a dictionary. But I never just watch the DVD without injecting some productive study time.

If you adopt this technique, you will find that you actually enjoy movies, documentaries, and sitcoms even more, knowing that your ninety minutes in front of the television has moved you a bit farther down the road to language competency. Moreover, you will reach the point where you feel guilty when you try to watch TV without studying. Your vocabulary cards will become as indispensable to an evening of television as the TV Guide or a bowl of popcorn.

You can start each day with a productive dose of language study. Before you go to sleep, place a tape player beside your bed with a language-learning tape cued up and ready. When the alarm goes off, turn on the lights, put your feet on the floor, and turn on the tape player. Let the tape player continue to run as you brush your teeth, shower, and shave (or put on your makeup).

How long does it take you to clean, groom, and dress yourself in the morning? I spend about a half an hour on these activities. However, I use this time productively by listening to language tapes as I complete my morning preparations—and this only occasionally results in additional shaving cuts.

Place cassette players at strategic points in your house or apartment. In addition to the cassette player in your bedroom, you can also place a cassette player in the kitchen, living room, etc. This way, you don’t have to lug your equipment from room to room. You can simply walk to another location in your home and hit another button.

If you ever eat alone in your home, then there is no reason why you can’t turn on your language tapes while you eat your sandwich or Chinese carryout. Most meals take at least twenty minutes. That time could be used for mental as well as physical nourishment. Leave the tapes on while you eat dessert, clean the dishes, and feed the leftovers to your cat.

Tapes can also be employed in numerous situations outside the home. One of the most onerous tasks in my week is the trip to the grocery. I always seem to arrive at the store at the same time as everyone else, which means extra time maneuvering around the aisles and waiting in line. (In the checkout lane, I always seem to get behind the person who is buying enough food to see his entire family through a moderate ice age.) If the crowds are bad, the grocery store can consume up to an hour.

I address this problem by wearing my Sony Walkman into the store. Even with the headset, I am able to hear enough of my surroundings to avoid other carts and shoppers. I usually don’t have to remove my headset until it is my turn in the checkout lane.

I often blend language studies into my daily trip to the gym. Before leaving the house, I simply throw my Walkman and a few cassettes into my gym bag, and I can then listen to language tapes as I lift weights or work out on the exercise bike. Since I usually spend about an hour at the gym, multitasking my workouts means that I get an extra hour’s worth of language study.

There is nothing more frustrating than waiting for someone else. Nonetheless, such delays are a fact of life. You must wait for the dentist, the loan officer, and the accountant. When taking an out-of-town trip, you are dependent on the schedule of the airline. If you sign up for a class at evening college, you must wait during the fifteen or twenty minutes between your arrival on campus and the beginning of the class.

Why waste these ten- to thirty-minute chunks of time? With a little planning, you can turn the twenty minutes spent in the dentist’s waiting room into a grammar review session, or the half hour at the auto repair shop into thirty minutes of vocabulary review.

The key is to make sure that you always have study materials on hand. Keep a grammar book in your briefcase. Leave a Walkman and several language tapes in the backseat of your car. (Several people have jokingly referred to my car as “the rolling language lab” because of the number of language study materials that I keep inside it. However, I am never left in a waiting room without something to study.)

Speaking of the car—most of us spend about an hour per day behind the wheel. If you spend all these hours listening to music or talk radio, then you are missing out on valuable language study time. You can advance your studies considerably in the time it takes to drive to and from work—especially if you use the VocabuLearn or the Pimsleur tapes (see the “Language Student’s Buying Guide” near the end of this book).

I wouldn’t suggest trying to study a language while you’re on the job, but what about during your lunch hour? If you eat at your desk, you can listen to your Walkman without disturbing others. This is also a good time to tackle reading passages, grammar study, and of course—a great time to pull out your vocabulary flashcards.

  The above techniques must of course be modified to fit your circumstances and lifestyle. If you carpool to work with three colleagues everyday, then it probably won’t be feasible for you to listen to your tapes on the way to work. (However, you can certainly flip through your vocabulary cards when it is someone else’s turn to drive.) Likewise, some of my suggestions about listening to tapes constantly around the house may not work if you are married and have three children. (But you should still be able to listen when you are shaving or putting on your makeup.)

The key is to look at the activities in your own life and ask yourself where there is room for multitasking. As a general rule, you can multitask any activity that doesn’t require your full concentration.

Advanced Multitasking

I began studying Japanese around fifteen years ago, and I know the language very well. The same is true of Spanish. I have reached the point in both of these languages where I can no longer receive significant benefits from textbooks and other purely instructional materials. However, my abilities in these languages would deteriorate if I were to cease all contact with them.

My solution has been to use these languages as the medium for learning about other subjects. I recently read the popular business book, Getting to Yes, by Fischer, Ury and Patton. However, I read the Spanish-language version, Obtenga El Sí. When I finally got around to reading Steven Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, I bought the Japanese-language version. When I get my daily dose of online news each morning, I make it a habit to select one of the foreign-language sites of CNN.com (You can take your pick of Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, and Arabic.). I subscribe to Newsweek en Español, and to the Spanish-language version of National Geographic.

It is increasingly easy to purchase entertainment in other languages. I recently read the James Clavell novel, Gaijin, in Spanish. When the latest Star Wars epic, Attack of the Clones, was released as a DVD, I was pleased to find that a Spanish-language track had been included. I am a bit too old for the Harry Potter books—but I noticed that all of them are available in multiple languages. Whatever your tastes in movies and fiction, you will probably be able to buy what you like in the language of your choice. 

There are many benefits to advanced multitasking. To begin with, a particular language, like any subject, grows old over time. You will not enjoy running through mechanistic vocabulary and grammar drills in languages that you have been studying for many years. Advanced multitasking allows you to study the language without enduring the normal rituals of study. The language becomes secondary, and the content of what you are reading or viewing becomes the primary focus of your attention. Additionally, using your second or third language as a medium for reading novels, catching up on the news, or learning economics is a very value-added form of multitasking. This approach will leave you with more time for other things—perhaps even the study of yet another language. 

Table of contents