How to Learn a Foreign Language in 30 Minutes a Day

I recently wrote an email to a family member. She’s Lithuanian and the last time I saw her (3 months ago) I did a pretty decent job at saying ‘hello, how are you?’ and then looking blankly as she answered. In contrast, my email was an actual conversation that translated meaning. It was the beginning of a eureka moment for me and a confirmation that my new approach is paying off.

Frankly, just try and shut me up.

Man labai labai patinka kalbėti lietuviškai. 


Did you know that 43% of the world’s population speaks 2 or more languages and 13% of the world’s population speaks 3 or more? That means that almost half of the world speaks a foreign language. That also means that the mono-linguists out there are almost in the minority.

I expect 43% is the lowest that figure will ever be again. For next week, next month, next year, more and more of us will have foreign language communication skills and, moreover, more of us will want those skills too*.

I’ve not reached fluency in any other language than my native tongue. I’m basically a mono-linguist with a predisposition to saying ‘hello’ and ‘thankyou’ in as many different languages as I can. Bonjour!

Interestingly, aside from Ireland, the UK (in joint second position with Portugal) is where folks are least likely to be able to speak any foreign language. Uh-oh UK! Not cool.

I have a compulsion of playing around with language no matter where I travel and love to really utilise some very basic skills. But my attention is currently focussed on Lithuanian: I’m taking classes, and taking self-study seriously.

But learning languages is not easy. It takes a lot of time and a lot of focus and a lot of dedication. A language such as Lithuanian has 7 cases, 6 declensions, several diacritics and a sentence structure that, for a native English speaker at least, can be tough to get one’s head around.

Here’s some stats:

The Foreign Service Institute is responsible for training US diplomats and ambassadors to speak foreign languages. Since 1947 they’ve built a very strong bank of data regarding language learning for English speakers. According to them, a native English speaker looking to reach fluency in Lithuanian could expect to do so in 44 weeks (308 days) with a total of 1,100 hours (an average of 3.5 hours a day).

Basic maths puts 44 weeks at just short of 7,400 hours. Let’s break that down:

  • Average sleeping hours: 7.5 hours per night.
    • In 44 weeks that’s 2310 hours
  • Average working hours: 37 (37.4 according to the ONS) per week.
    • In 44 weeks that’s 1628 hours
  • Average time in the bathroom (washing and doing your business): let’s call it 1 hour a day, although it’s a very loose estimate.
    • In 44 weeks that’s another 308 hours
  • Average time cooking and eating: we’ll generalise another 1 hour daily.
    • In 44 weeks that’s another 308 hours
  • Average commute time: the ONS report from 2011 shows a varied commuting experience across the UK but, using my own experience from a life in London, the time spent getting to and from work every day is around 90-120 mins. As we’re optimists, we’ll use the lower end.
    • So, in 44 weeks that’s 330 hours

Therefore between sleeping, working, commuting, eating and washing oneself, we’re already at 4,884 hours. Which leaves 2,516 hours of our 44 weeks remaining. That is, 34% of our time. Therefore, once we factor in those 1,100 hours of dedicated language-learning time, we have 1,416 hours left to ourselves. That’s time we might spend grocery shopping, working out, seeing friends and family, watching movies etc.

Look at it another way. 1,416 hours is 19.14% of our 44 weeks. We’re left with 20% of our lives to do with as we wish once we’ve done all of the essential stuff (not counting any number of other responsibilities like, being a parent, having a dog, running a side-hustle, going to the doctor/dentist/hairdressers, travelling, date nights etc) and the language learning.

Yes, that’s not much time left to do all those cool, sexy things but here’s the point: if we’re learning a language, we’re likely doing so by choice so 1,100 hours of language learning isn’t really to be subtracted from time that we can call ‘Me time’. It does, however, highlight a real sense of priority.

I learn for myself and I learn for another reason too. And I love learning. Period. But, like most of us, I’m pretty busy and, even though I’d very much like to, I don’t really have 3.5 hours a day, every day, to assign to language learning. So I’ve tried to simplify the approach to learning by finding a more efficient way of engaging with the language.

N.B. I’m not a language coach, a polygot or even a bi-linguist. The following has simply proven hugely helpful for me.

My approach to learning a language:

  1. Nailing the basics
    1. Learn how to read through understanding pronunciation. Where do you roll an ‘r’, and what sound does ž or ė make? Once you have this down, and with a good bit of focus you could have it down in less than an hour, you’re setting off with your best foot forward.
  2. Frequency dictionaries
    1. These are, without a doubt, a game changer. Frequency dictionaries list words in order of their usage within a language. Typically they’ll be split into Verbs, Nouns, Adjectives etc. and what they offer is a wide open door to fairly decent conversations from the get-go. Logically, if you can use the first 1,000 or so words of those dictionaries you’ll be having basic conversations with comfort. Get to just 4-5,000 words and you’ll have a vocab strong enough to see you through the C2 test of the Common European Framework of References for Languages. That’s considered Mastery. The CEF doesn’t go higher.
  3. Weekly one-on-one/two lessons
    1. This does help and it’s helpful for 2 main reasons: specific guidance from a native speaker trained to provide specific guidance to non-native speakers, and a degree of accountability: I’ve paid for a block of lessons so I’d better do my best to ensure I get my money’s worth…
  4. Using the language in everyday settings
    1. I’ve found that forcing myself to using Lithuanian whenever I can is incredibly useful in rewiring my brain. The more I replace my English with Lithuanian the more comfortable I feel using it and the smoother I am at doing so.
  5. Exposure and Immersion
    1. Being in an environment where I can really only use the language: in Lithuania/ in the company of Lithuanians, is incredibly useful. It offers little opportunity to escape and the pressure of successful communication being almost solely dependent on one language is a great motivator. Sure, English is spoken relatively prolifically in the Lithuania, and certainly among my peer group, but the real heart of the matter is respect. There’s not a valid excuse not to try as hard as one can to speak the respective language of the country one finds themselves in.
  6. Daily targets of new vocab acquisition
    1. My target, at set out at the beginning of the year for Project20nine, is 10 words a day. Not many, but in a year that equates to 3,640 new words. Hello CEF B2. It’s also incredibly easy to routinely learn this many words. In a day I might learn these whilst making a coffee, on the lunch break, whilst waiting for the rice to cook. Add a few more words in a day and bingo, you’ve taken an impossible job, and made lightwork of it.

I would also argue that finding any excuse to listen to the new language as often as possible is helpful (audiobooks, podcasts, music, radio, movies), just as reading books in that language is, even if it’s just a case of becoming familiar with words rather than necessarily understanding 100% of them. I also really enjoy Lithuanian puzzle books for the same reason and find attempting to tackle grammar workbooks aimed at kids a lot of fun.

Kitą kartą senų senovėje buvo senelis ir senutė (from Eglė, žalčių karalienė). 

…žinau. Kaip grazu.

That’s really it. In addition to points 3 – 6 I spend around 30 minutes a day, on average, working through various self-study Lithuanian learning tasks but do often have episodes of Lithuanian Out Loud on in the background or any number of YouTube videos filling the silence whilst working. Like staying in shape, it’s a bit of a lifestyle choice but not inconveniently so. It’s a conscious effort to ease as much learning into the day as possible, as conveniently as possible: looking at my desk and mentally listing everything on it in Lithuanian, replying to a text message in Lithuanian etc.

Learning a new language isn’t just for those of us we think a particularly good at doing so. If you think about it, a baby can learn a new language pretty well (that is, we are born into the world without any language…) so why can’t we do it now? We can all learn a new language, it’s just a case of choosing to.


This post is part of an ongoing account of the final 364 days of being a 20-something. Today the author doesn’t feel a day older than he should. In fact, if you asked him how he does feel, he’d probably tell you he feels no different to the way he felt at the beginning of being a 20-something. He would also tell you how much he enjoys being however old he is at any given moment and that he feels hungry. But then again, he’s always hungry

How to Make the Most of a Year: What to Do in the Last Year of One’s 20’s. Part 1: The Rationale

Part 1: The Rationale

On October 28th, I turn 29 years old and begin my final year on this side of 30. Some might tell us it’s the right side and that it’ll all be downhill from there. Others, the cool, optimistic ones, will tell us things only get better from there on out. Either way, it’s a big one. So big in fact, that I’ve decided that it’s high time for a reappraisal; an analysis exactly of who I am, what I’ve done with my life and how exactly, I believe, the final year of my 20’s should be spent. It’s a kind of pre-emptive therapy, a preventative measure against the possibility of waking up one morning with the realisation (or, rather, the misguided belief) that I have been wasting my life [i]. Over the next year I want to share the journey and my approach to leaving the 20’s behind with a bang and starting the 30’s with an even bigger one. After all, they also say life begins at 30. Right?

Before I begin, I think that it’s important to state, categorically, that #project20nine is not indicative of any sense of unhappiness. I am happy, I have a beautiful family and have few genuine worries in life. For this I am absolutely grateful. This project is about embracing opportunity, pushing myself in as many different ways as I desire, learning, growing and, most essentially, continuing to make the most of life in the fullest way I can. It’s also about asking myself exactly who I want to be, what I want to do, how I’m going to do it, where I want to be and, perhaps most importantly, why I want these things. These aren’t questions that I necessarily have the answers to right now, but one year from now I’ll either have new answers or reaffirmed old ones.


In 2017 there is a firmly established mindset, certainly among millennials, that places an emphasis on self-dependency, finding one’s passion and making a living from it, travel, real-world experience, not settling for second best and entrepreneurialism. Is it idealism? Is it a pragmatic belief that we can have all these things? Or is it the paradox of social media?

We live in an age with more opportunity to do what we find fulfilling than ever before and with a 24/7 window that overlooks everyone else doing just that it’s perhaps not entirely unreasonable to realise that a certain amount of envy, no matter how artificial those things our envy is based on are, is inevitable. What’s more, to assume oneself to be immune to such influence is naïve. I don’t feel affected but I have no doubts at all that the things I see, read, engage with and have even a fleeting interest in have a degree of impact on my desires and decisions. That said, as a starting block, #project20nine is as honest and as sincere to my own needs as I can make it. The variety of items are not there superficially: I am not concerned if one, some or all of them are impressive. What matters to me and should matter, I believe, to anyone looking to do something similar for any year of their life, is that the list reflects me, and not how I wish to be perceived.

Over the last several years I’ve routinely sought to achieve the things that I felt bettered me, stimulated me and/or offered an opportunity to open more doors and, generally speaking, and to my own standards, I have. Of course, those choices have never been infinite and any one of the them could quite easily have been replaced by another, but I own these choices and some of the highlights from the last decade include:

  • Age 21– I graduated for the first time with a scholarship-funded First Class honours BA degree with Distinction in Media Production.
  • Age 22 – I took my first solo overseas trip to a non-English-speaking country (Hallo, Deutschland!).
  • Age 23 – I became a teacher.
  • Age 24 – I graduated for the second time, this time in teaching.
  • Age 25 – I went back to university on another full scholarship, got a motorcycle license and fell in love with riding one.
  • Age 26 – I graduated for the third time (MA in Film and Television) and ran my first half marathon.
  • Age 27 – I moved to London from a small town in the UK and then travelled 3,500km around Japan.
  • Age 28 – I qualified as a PT, started learning Lithuanian, got a promotion, moved in with my partner, Vita, travelled around India and Sri Lanka, became a lecturer at Imperial College London, did my first muscle up and launched TwoFit.

During this time I also became an uncle 5-times over, saw one sister get married, saw the other come out and realise that I’ve got a lot of work to do to catch up my old man who just asked my mother to marry him again. Next year he’d like me to give her away and then stand beside him as his best man. What a romantic.

The above doesn’t make me any more or any less special than anyone else; any better nor any worse. Would I have done anything differently? Absolutely, but do I regret the decisions I made? Absolutely not, because there’s nothing to regret and it wouldn’t get me anywhere even if I did. I can’t change the past but I can affect the future by continuing to make choices and continuing to learn from them too. One of the ways that I plan on doing this is with this blog. It’s my evidence portfolio, my record of achievement and the chief means with which I’ll be able to look back on this year and see exactly where it’s gone. I keep plenty of notebooks but I’ve never kept any sort of diary. #project20nine is the most extensive diary I’ll have ever kept.

This is a year about living consciously. Achieving tangible, measurable things is fun and satisfying and practical but developing a mindset, that’s less immediately observable. I can’t take a photo of it, win a medal for it or take a video of its first steps. But I can develop it nonetheless. Like most of us I can sometimes be a big negligent of truly conscious mindfulness and so, alongside my intention to achieve the tangible, I also want to place the following questions at the forefront of this year:

  1. How can my approach to the next 364 days be more considered?
  2. What is the short and long-term value, and consequence(s), of my actions and decisions? Who will benefit from such choices?
  3. Am I living fully and with gratitude? Do I show appreciation to others; feel appreciation for the small things often enough; do things for others just because and without anticipation and expectation of reciprocation?
  4. Do I live each day confidently, with self-belief strong enough to really push myself
  5. Would my actions and/or decisions make my parents proud? Could I comfortably discuss them with them?
  6. Would my actions inspire my 19-year-old self?
  7. Would my actions make my 39-year-old self proud?

“What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”

Tim Ferriss, The Four Hour Work Week

#project20nine begins with looking backwards but continues with looking forwards. Over the next 364 days I have a number of personal endeavours that I intend to embark on, to accomplish and to enjoy and the most straightforward way setting up the year ahead is to itemise them.

However, it’s a year that isn’t just about ticking stuff off a list. That’s a bit superficial and a somewhat misguided use of time. There’s no real value in that, no emotional investment or sense of appreciation. The title of the project is a celebration of each year of my life to date and so with respect to that number I felt it fitting to fill the year with twenty-nine exciting things. #project20nine is about doing things that excite me because the question one should ask oneself on a regular basis is not ‘what are my goals’ but rather, ‘what excites me and what can I do about it?’.

In order to get there, #project20nine has a couple of criteria that automatically rules certain entries out. First, travel is not eligible. I travel a lot and fully intend to keep doing it. There are plenty of dream trips (one of them, a trip to Iceland to see the Aurora Borealis, starts on my birthday) but travelling is not a specific aim for the year. Second, anything to do with commercialism or item acquisition is also out. Material goods come and go and I believe that life aspirations should be free of anything so temporary. An expensive pair of shoes are nice, but they’ll wear out much quicker than memories.

That aside, one of the big considerations regarding the list is plausibility and so entries need to be considered in such a way that doesn’t render the list unrealistic and/or highly unlikely. All of the best intentions, positive energy and belief that the if youre going to dream, dream big/ if youre going to fail, fail big etc. mentality will make dreams come true isn’t a logical approach. It’s inspiring and optimistic, but the list entries should be evaluated in such a way that whilst yes, they might be lofty ambitions given the constraints (whether financial, time or otherwise), setting oneself up for failure is, frankly, a waste of time and opportunity. What’s more is that the success of each list item should be quantifiable. After the fact, to what degree was it achieved and how can that achievement be measured?

Simply put, any item on the list is eligible should it meet the following criteria:

  1. Does it excite me?
  2. Are they within the realm of possibility? [putting ‘get a PhD’ on the list has a very high degree of implausibility within a year, just as ‘become an A-list movie star’ has]
  3. Does the entry have a measurable result?
  4. Will I look back on the memory of the entry and be glad of the time, energy and/or financial resources that I spent on it?
  5. Does the entry have a low-to-zero chance of negatively impacting on anyone else’s life?

If the answer to all criteria is a resounding ‘Yes’, it’s game on. If not, how can the entry be amended to still fit the bill and if it can’t then great, there’s a new space for a new entry.

Either way, game on.


[i] For the record, we’ve all been living our lives the best that we can. Our motivations, our ambitions and our contentment of those years leading to the Now are intimately ours and no one else will ever have the right and liberty of judging them. If we get to the point where we think we could have done better that’s precisely the point at which we step back, reflect and step up our games. The most important person to strive to be is yourself in 5 or 10 years. That’s the hero to look up to and hope to be because the 5/10 year Future Self is the Self with the gift of time and all that that time has to offer us.