Day in the Life of a Language Learner

Here’s how I’m studying right now. So far it’s been extremely effective for my specific goals.

I’m studying for a reading proficiency test and ultimately a translation test, so I’m tailoring my efforts toward passing my exams. I’m trying to improve my listening, as well, because I think that good listening skills lend well to good global language skills. But I’m not paying much if any attention to my speaking and writing abilities.

Ojiya Balloon Festival Image Source

Ojiya Balloon Festival
By Kropsoq [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, 2.5, 2.1 jp], Image Source

Typical Day

I’ll wake up and do the following before going to work:

  • Drill 8 to 20 flashcards using the Readlang app on my phone (more on Readlang to follow).
  • Complete two grammar drills in the book “Practice Makes Perfect: Intermediate German Grammar.”
  • Read a couple articles in Huffington Post Deutschland or Bild. I’ve subscribed to those pages (and other German media) on Facebook so I pick anything that looks interesting to me.

Total time: 30 minutes

On my drive to work, I:

  • Listen to German music or podcasts. My commute lasts about a half hour. I’m listening to the same stuff over and over, so I’m going to have to get new material.
  • Do some language shadowing, singing along, spot translation, or repeating after the speaker. This constitutes my “active listening” activity.

Total time: 15 to 30 minutes

During my morning break, I:

  • Do an intensive reading exercise with Readlang and Deutsche Welle. (Explained below.)

Total time: 15 minutes

During my lunch break, I:

  • Watch a fun show on my phone, like a sitcom or cartoon.

Total time: 30 minutes

After dinner and/or after my son goes to bed, I:

  • Do another intensive reading exercise.
  • Review vocabulary words.
  • Read more news or clickbait articles.
  • Watch a German-language documentary, news program, or show on YouTube.

Total time: One hour

So for the day, I devote approximately two and a half hours to language learning. Some days, it’s a little more. Some days, a little less.

Intensive Reading

I always warn people to be careful with intensive reading. I think the risk is that you’ll obsess over every word, develop slow reading habits, and not learn the skill of using intuition and contextual clues to determine meaning.

But I can’t deny that it’s a great way to build vocab. I’m learning about 20 to 30 words a day right now from using this technique. I’m just careful not to make intensive reading my only exposure to the language.

Basically, for this I’m using the Readlang tool I mentioned above. The process I use goes:

  • Find an article on the Deutsche Welle website. Right now I’m using the “Top Thema” articles.
  • Copy and paste the article into Readlang.
  • Double-click the words or phrases I don’t know. For each double-clicked word, Readlang offers a definition (which is usually correct, but sometimes wrong or out of context) and also adds the words to a list.
  • Drill the new words.
  • Listen to the audio reading of the text. (This is a big reason I’m using Deutsche Welle’s materials–they provide audio readings for their texts.) If I’m by myself, I’ll read aloud with the speaker.

So here’s the article I worked on this morning for my intensive reading exercise:


The name of this article is “Ex-Soldiers in the Paralympics.”

After I’ve gone through and double-clicked the words I don’t know (or have forgotten), the article now looks like this:


Some of those words and phrases are translated improperly, but most are fine. It’s pretty easy to spot the incorrect ones because I can’t make sense of the sentence, and then I fix them during flashcard review.

There are ten to fifteen words I didn’t know in this article, out of 241 total words. So I know about 95% of the words in this text. I can figure out most of the article’s meaning from context. But by the time I’m finished with this activity, I try to make sure that I can understand every sentence pretty precisely.

I’ll drill these words using flashcards, listening to them on Forvo, employing spaced repetition (which is built into Readlang), and whatever else I can think of to make them stick. I’ll also read and listen to these articles again and again to make sure I’m reviewing the new words in context.

With two articles a day, I’m getting about 20 new words. I’ve been doing this for a couple weeks and have noticed that I’m starting to see some newly learned words over and over again.

I’m also able to understand newspaper articles much better than I was before. This is after two weeks or so. Hopefully, by the end of 90 days, I’ll have made some significant improvements.

Wrapping Up

So that’s it. I know it’s boring and tedious, but that’s the reality of serious language learning. If you’re trying to make improvements in a short period of time, you have to sit down and put in the effort.

Good luck with your own studying! Let me know in the comments what your own schedules look like.

  • Cori

    You must be improving a lot. I agree with your method, several pieces during the day are better than an extensive exercise at once.
    I´m focusing on my Portuguêse lately, which consist in reading brazilian news & magazines (about 30 min), listening brazilian music (another 30 min), and on saturdays I have a 2 hours class with a private native teacher. I try to do my homework during the week too (mostly grammar) but sometimes I´m too busy and can´t get enough time.
    With English is easier, as I use it at work, I watch American movies, and also enjoy reading.
    I never heard about Readlang before, I´ll check it!

    • Ron G.

      I like your schedule too! So 30 minutes of reading, 30 minutes of listening, some “learning” thrown in, and some speaking practice/more learning on the weekend. This looks like it would be a very effective long-term schedule.

      Whatever you did to learn your English worked, because your English writing is fantastic. (I think I mentioned that to you before, but it’s worth repeating.) I agree with you–I really think that watching TV, watching movies, reading, and listening to music is some of the best stuff you can do to learn a language.

      • Cori

        Thank you Ron.
        Yes, as much exposure as posible to get good results. The best way: just living in that foreign place. And willingness to learn of course.
        Good luck in the tests!

  • Jordan Johnson

    Hey ron I have a question does Readlang work with Kanji I am studying Japanese and I signed up to take the JLPT N2 in December and this would help me out a lot.

    • Ron G.

      Hi Jordan. I just went to the site to see. There’s an option to select “I’m learning Japanese” and start with texts, but it’s listed as “beta.” Here’s the message I got too: “Note: Readlang has only limited support for 日本語. Words are not prioritised based on frequency, and texts are not graded by difficulty.”

      Basically, I think you can use the tool and the basic functionality, but a few of the behind-the-scenes bells and whistles to really optimize your studying aren’t there. From what I can tell, the site runs off of Google Translate’s engine.

      Good luck with the JLPT N2! If you’ve had a few years of university or private study in the language (which I’m assuming you do, since you’re taking the test) I think you’ll do fine. Always good to ramp up, though.

  • Ruth Elisabeth

    I don’t know how you manage to do so much intensive reading! I too find it really useful for picking up vocabulary but I usually feel tired after reading an article.

    That said, Readlang looks better than Learning with Texts (what I usually use) as LwT by default highlights all new words and it’s annoying to have to go through and mark them as known (doubly annoying for collocations). I like that this way round, you only highlight the words you have trouble with.

    • Ron G.

      I get tired too. A little goes a long way, for sure. Two a day (@500 words) is about my limit.

      Haven’t tried Learning with Texts, but I know what you mean. I’ve tried other tools that add every word to your vocab bank by default. Your problem/unknown words get lost in the crowd.

      Also, I think you can use Readlang with higher volume approaches, but I haven’t quite found the right groove on that yet.

      How’s everything going with you?

      • Ruth Elisabeth

        From what I’ve seen so far, Readlang is more flexible because you choose what vocab you need. Maybe you want to read very intensively and understand every word, maybe you want a middle ground and only look up ‘blocking’ vocabulary. You can easily do either.

        Things are ticking along with me, but I know I need to work on getting more exposure. Hopefully Readlang will help!

        • Ron G.

          I’ve been experimenting with different methods. You’re right–it really is flexible. I need to write a post about all the different approaches and give you credit for the inspiration. (Unless you want to write a post like that…?)

          • Ruth Elisabeth

            Go ahead! :)

  • Michael

    Great post Ron. Language learning really is about the “day in, day out” activities we choose to do.

    I hadn’t heard of Readlang before you mentioned it here, and now I’m very impressed by it – great tool for intensive reading, with all the features I could ask for. I’ll use it quite a bit from from now on.

    • Ron G.

      Awesome, let me know how it goes for you!