Here’s How I Harnessed My Commute to Learn a Second Language

Source: Boston Globe

I’ve always wanted to speak another language.

In elementary school, the cool girls switched to Spanish in the bathroom when they wanted to talk smack. The ladies at church were always fast-talking and belly-laughing about something in an African or Carribbean tongue that sounded like flute music. Jokes in Haitian Creole bubbled like a brook. Stories in Spanish sounded like a party in the streets.

It was a contradiction; part of my life yet somehow inaccessible.

I was not born with any other language but English and this made me feel like the generic white girl in my community. I felt like vanilla ice cream at an ice cream social.

In my class of 25, I was one of six kids who wasn’t either black or Hispanic, or mixed race. Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize this.

Many conversations I’ve had with both POC and white friends over the years have illuminated that this is a unusual experience. I was surprised when my white friends were out of sync or downright uncomfortable with the diverse influences I grew up with, and my POC friends were surprised at the influences and experiences we shared. Either way, eyebrows always raised at the mix of influences in my personality.  

There is a reason for this:

I grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist family and community. If you’ve never heard of this religion, they make up one half of 1% of the US population. However, what makes them special is that they are the most ethnically diverse religions in America. 63% of those who identify as ‘SDA’ are mixed race or non-white. My family falls into the other 37%.

To participate in my community I would have to master another tongue.     


In my teens I had an experience all too common for mono-lingual English-speakers in public school – I learned to read and write Spanish at a rudimentary level and promptly forgot it in college when my schedule was too packed to take any electives.

After graduating from college, I found myself living in Tijuana, Mexico (a story for another time). I arrived there in the winter months, too cold to swim at the beach so I spent my unemployed free time at beachside cafes, conjugating verbs and studying vocabulary. After six months, I could go to a store and eavesdrop on women talking about food or clothing, but I still couldn’t speak to them.

At 27, I realized I was almost 30 and still couldn’t switch into another language! I decided to take it seriously once and for all.

One problem – I wasn’t unemployed at the beach. I was back home in Massachusetts working 10-hour shifts in a call center and commuting two hours round-trip. Studying Spanish after a 12-hour workday feeling basically brain-dead wasn’t exactly moving the needle.

At first I just kicked myself for not having learned more when I had the chance back in Mexico. But everything would change one day in January.

After scraping the ice off my car and steeling myself for the battle that is Boston-bound morning rush-hour, I tuned to NPR like I did every morning. By the 3rd time I heard one of the day’s minor stories, I slammed the OFF button and let out an audible grunt of frustration. Enough! I thought. I was so annoyed by the repetition of this routine. Just another day and the same inconsequential bullshit. Nobody was going to pay me for the countless hours lost in traffic. I was giving away my time forever just for enough money to get by, and I wasn’t learning anything of value to me with that time!

I felt like my job had stolen precious time from me that I’d never get back, and I wasn’t going to let it take any more, god dammit.

Then it occurred to me – if all I could do was listen to the same stories repeatedly, wouldn’t it be better if those stories were in Spanish?  

Somehow years of book-learning had convinced me that taking notes and studying books was the only way to learn. I’m a visual learner, I told myself. How had I missed it? The car was the perfect environment to learn! Where else could I listen, talk out loud and repeat myself as much as I wanted? This was the key to speaking a new language!

Make Dead-Time Your Learning Time

The first thing I did was identify the window of dead-time I could devote to language lessons. Dead-time is defined as time spent doing automatic tasks that don’t require much mental focus like household chores, driving and working out.

For me, that time was my morning and evening commutes. I converted my two hours of daily grind into 10-hours a week of attentive auditory study. That’s approximately 520 hours per year of language lessons in the car alone.

The Foreign Service Institute suggests that to achieve basic fluency in a Level 1 language such as Spanish, it takes approximately 480-600 hours.

Granted, some days I was upset about something at work and just wanted to listen to some angsty pop punk as I cut people off in traffic. In recent years I added virtual tutoring weekly to augment my car learning, but I kept a steady yet casual educational schedule.

If that sounds like a lot more time than you have, try to calculate how many hours you spend commuting to work per year and then think about how many hours of NPR you listen to during those periods. (Then, make a donation to your local public radio station since you use their services that much!)

It will surprise you how much dead-time you actually have that could be harnessed to learn something meaningful and valuable to you.

Hijack an Existing Habit

Years after I started down this path, I read a book called ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg. In Chapter 1 he describes a neurological loop at the core of every habit. Essentially, for every habit there is a cue, a routine, and a reward.

We’ll use my original commute to describe this loop:

From 9:00am-10:00am, I’d commute to work.

At about 9:15am I’d be on the highway knowing I had 45 minutes to go before I had to start work. I started to feel depressed or restless.

That’s the cue.

Thinking about the monotony of my work, I’d switch on the radio to listen to the news instead of my feelings.

That’s the routine.

As I listened to the stories and watched the road, I was entertained just enough that I didn’t have to listen to my bored or anxious thoughts. I had something to occupy my brain and I felt smart and informed by listening to the news.

That’s the reward.

Since that habit was already established, it was easy to swap out the radio for a podcast or ‘book on tape’ because it was the same behavior, just different content.

If you have a similar routine, you’re already ahead of the curve. All that’s left is switching out the radio or your music for audio lessons.

After about three weeks of swapping out NPR for audio Spanish lessons, the new habit had already taken form in my mind. I looked forward to my shitty commute because when I played my lessons instead of the radio, it was empowering knowing I had accomplished something important for me before I gave over my most focused hours to my job. Bonus: it made me happier and more focused at work.

The big picture here is that you can improve your life dramatically by using your dead-time for something productive, and not just consuming “entertainment.” For instance, my boyfriend composed half of his master’s thesis in music composition by turning off the radio and singing new ideas into his phone. The point is that anyone can do this. Most especially busy people who on the surface, don’t have any wiggle room in their schedule.

Now I’ll show you how I used dead-time and audio learning tools to finally become fluent in Spanish.

Your Car as Your Classroom

To successfully replace your routine with language lessons, experiment with different mediums until you find one that keeps you coming back. That will be the one that speaks to you, pun intended.

Since you’re a safe driver, you can’t watch videos with subtitles or engage with interactive e-modules. You are limited to:

  • Podcasts
  • Audiobooks
  • Mp3 files (downloaded or streamed via service like Spotify or Youtube)
  • CDs/Tapes (if you’re still driving a car made before CD players were standard, no judgements, I support budget vehicles, swear!)

My number 1 recommendation is the Radio Lingua Network.

Polyglot Mark Pentleton from Scotland collaborates with a native speaker in each episode to teach language principles through conversation with a learner of that language. As you make your way through a season, you gage your comprehension by the progress the learner makes on the show. It’s like having a built-in study buddy. From the very first episode you will be speaking out loud to keep up with the learner and engage in a conversation with Mark and the native speaker.

I listened to an episode of Coffee Break Spanish a minimum of 2x daily to make sure I had absorbed the concepts. After listening on my morning commute, I’d let the lesson marinate in my mind and try to speak under my breath throughout the workday when I thought no one was listening. The brilliance in this instructional method is that it inspires a desire to apply the language principles by speaking it out loud so you can compare how you sound to the learner.  On the way home, I’d listen once again, speaking out loud in the car along with the learner as she was quizzed and corrected by the instructor.

If you want to make fast progress and can be diligent with your learning time, there are free and premium versions of language courses available. They’ll change your life, trust me.

Additional Listening Resources  

The car lessons were instrumental in giving me the confidence to begin speaking Spanish. However, I still felt shaky on my understanding of verb tenses and conjugations. Since I still had little time to sit down with pen and paper, I decided that I needed to reinforce some of what I was learning with the Coffee Break Spanish podcast.

I pay for a Spotify subscription, so I decided to make a playlist of all the Spanish lessons I could find. I used my playlist to search for titles related to what I had learned that day in Coffee Break Spanish. For example, if I had learned the Imperfect Tense for ER/IR verbs and was having trouble applying the conjugation, I would listen to a track that went through the conjugation for a series of different verbs and repeat along with them until the repetition of it clicked.

You can access that playlist I made on Spotify here.  

I also suggest the following podcasts once you’ve reached an intermediate level:

Maintaining Your Understanding  

One of the things I did early on was to identify Spanish-speakers in my community to chat with on a regular basis. For me, these people happened to be the nighttime cleaning crew at my office.

I already stayed late at work on Thursdays to catch a dance social every week. With three unpaid hours to kill, I decided to harness that time to apply my listening lessons in person.

Over 3 years, I got to know people from Guatemala, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru, all with different stories, accents and slang. I started with polite greetings and names. Then I explained that I was learning Spanish and asked if they wouldn’t mind helping me practice for a few minutes. They spoke very little English but were delighted to share their language with an English-speaker willing to learn it. They were perfect to practice with since they couldn’t help me if I got stuck or wanted to cheat in English.

As the years went on, they became my friends. We knew each other on a first name basis, knew what the other did for fun, and tidbits about their families, all information we shared completely in Spanish. These conversations confirmed that I was retaining my listening lessons and actually learning to speak in another language.

While you may not be able to replicate this exact strategy, try to find someone you might be able to engage with on a regular basis.

If you go for margaritas every Friday with your friends at a Mexican restaurant, try asking for what you want in Spanish and ordering for your friend. I have never encountered a Spanish-speaking person who wasn’t happy to speak Spanish to an English-speaker. They understand what you’re going through especially if they were immigrants.

If that still isn’t realistic, you can pay for video conversations through a service like Verbling.

I used Verbling when I wanted to take the conversations I was having with my friends on the cleaning crew to the next level where I could talk about complex emotions, thoughts, business and politics.

I was on a budget, but the service was affordable and worked with my crazy hours. I found a native-speaker who was available when it worked for me and booked hour-long lessons with them weeks in advance to hold myself accountable. I’d put these chats on my calendar and rushed home after my commute every Wednesday to get online to speak with my tutor.

It’s totally worth it once you can comfortably converse, even slowly.

The Final Exam

Just like in school, the Final Exam will measure your success in teaching yourself a something in the car.

The best way to do this if you’re learning a language is to go to a Spanish-speaking country!

I chose Costa Rica.

…and I went twice.

The first time was a celebration on many levels: I’d just turned 30, became debt-free, and finally learned to speak some Spanish!  

In Costa Rica I navigated taxis, cabs, long bus rides and restaurants all in Spanish, to my delight but struggled to communicate in the imperfect tense with people I socialized with: “I wanted to come earlier but I had to work.” When I got home, I studied this more using the methods previously detailed. When I returned to Costa Rica, I made it a point to use that tense as often as I do in English and nailed it.

The second trip proved to me that though I was finally fluent after 20 years of wishing to be, there would always be more to learn throughout my life and I looked forward to that as a healthy challenge.  

The more you practice, the stronger the boost of self-accomplishment. That feeling will elevate your mood, your self-esteem. You can make new friends along the way and open your life to opportunities you haven’t yet imagined. Even with a busy schedule and no extra time, you can convert commuting time into learning time and change your life for the better.

Take Your Time Back:

  • Identify dead-time in your life, what time of day does it occur?
  • Use the sources provided here to begin learning a language
  • If you’re not interested in learning a language but wish to harness your dead-time to learn new skills, download the Libby app from your local library to start listening to free audiobooks during your dead-time
  • Set a goal for yourself to stay on track: “I will be able to order a meal for my family in Spanish by this date”
  • Identify people in your community who might be willing to speak with you in their language and try speaking with them

Buena suerte!


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