I recently decided to start learning French. Like lots of us, I am relatively busy and don’t have hours to dedicate to learning a new skill. Scratching my head for a solution to fit in learning French, I thought of my running. Could I combine learning a new language with my running routine? I decided to give it a go to find out. After a couple of weeks, I was amazed at the progress I had made. In this article, I’ll share the practical ways I’ve found to learn a new language whilst running.
Why did I want to learn a new language?
Over the past 3 and a half years, I have travelled to 6 different European cities for short breaks. Dublin (Ireland), Lisbon (Portugal), Berlin (Germany), Budapest (Hungary), Amsterdam (Netherlands) and Prague (Czech Republic).
One thing that never ceases to amaze me when travelling, is how many people can speak and understand English in foreign countries. Despite English not being the native language in 5 of the 6 countries previously mentioned, lots of people speak and understand fluent English.
An inability to speak another language makes me feel ignorant. Yes, the majority of us in England have language lessons in school from year 7 (aged 11) to Year 11 (15 to 16) and even take a GCSE in the language. However, the majority of people I know who took language lessons in secondary school (including myself) were confused by the lessons and unable to speak the language at the end of the qualification. Not good.
I discussed this problem with a friend of mine recently, and he agreed that the way we were taught a language in school did not develop fluency. He then shrugged his shoulders and said ‘everyone else in other countries just learns English because it’s so common in the world so I guess we’ll be fine.’
This attitude of allowing everyone else to learn English to meet our speaking needs may be acceptable for some people, but I’ve always had an issue with it and have always wanted to learn a language.
A few weeks ago, I went to Kraków in Poland with some mates for another holiday. Once again, the majority of people we encountered could speak fluent English. This being my 7th outing to a European city where most people can speak some English, and the native language is not English, I decided it was time to start learning another language properly.
Why did I choose French?
Having taken French from years 7-9 at school and then consciously choosing it over other languages for GCSE level like Spanish and Latin, I had a slight head start in the language. Why start a new language from scratch, after all?
French is also a major language in the world. It is one of the most taught and spoken languages on the globe, with an estimated 235 million daily fluent speakers and an additional 77-110 million secondary speakers who speak it as a second language. These are huge numbers!
Limited learning time and running as a solution
With little free time for learning, I looked to running for help. Like many people, I have a busy life and the prospect of fitting in the recommended 30-60 minutes a day seemed to be too challenging. At the time of starting to learn French, I realised I had a busy schedule which included:
- Working full time
- Studying for a procurement qualification
- Learning to play the piano, with an upcoming grade 6 practical exam
- Being in a busy band with gigs on most weekends
- Running every day
With all of these commitments, it seemed the additional load of learning a foreign language was too great. I simply thought I’d burn out before I made any progress.
Then I had a thought. What if I could learn the language in conjunction with another activity I already do? Rather than learning the language in isolation (sitting down and solely studying the language), could I combine it with something else I already do?
It didn’t take long for me to think about running as it’s the only activity on the list which doesn’t require 100% mental focus and commitment whilst completing the activity itself. For instance, trying to perfect French sentence structures whilst learning a new piece of music would be far too confusing to manage.
Instead, running does not require significant amounts of brain power and the mind can focus on other tasks during the activity. I’d already listened to over 10 audiobooks, hundreds of hours of music and many different podcasts whilst running at this point and I knew it was possible to focus on audio whilst running. Why not try and combine learning a language with my running habits?
I thought running would be a particularly effective way to commit to learning a language. Not only does running every day mean I’m guaranteed to get some French learning in, it’s also a good way to maximise the time spent running.
My experience of running and learning a language
Though I’m only a few weeks into my language learning / running routine, I’ve had an overall positive experience. I’ve used a range of learning materials which have helped to build up some understanding.
There have been days when I’ve made loads of progress and other days when I’ve struggled big-time. My main advice to anybody who fancies giving another language a go (whilst running or not) is to stick with it and not throw in the towel.
It will be tough, especially to start with, but you will eventually get to grip with the basics and have a desire to learn more. I’m still relatively junior in my French learning journey but I hope to make much more progress in the next few months.
Another bit of advice I’d give to any runners learning a new language is to prioritise your safety. Learning a language whilst running is a productive use of time but it can be easy to get so absorbed in the phrases and vocabulary you are learning that you forget about your surroundings. Please remember to be aware what’s going on around you.
The last thing you want is to trip over and injure yourself or, worse, get hit by a car. If you need to check both sides of a road, negotiate some tricky terrain or pass some fellow runners, divert your attention from the language learning in your ears and onto the running in front of you. If you have missed something crucial you can stop in a safe place and rewind the recording.
I’d recommend running through a park or along a river, where there’s less cars and other hazards, when learning a language as this will limit the number of interruptions whilst you are learning.
What ways can you learn a new language whilst running?
1. Educational audio programmes
Whatever language it is that you want to learn, there will most probably be a range of educational audio programmes you can download and listen to. These are essentially courses delivered solely through an audio format.
Personally, I have been using programmes for my French like ‘Paul Noble: First French Steps’ which are providing a useful foundation in the basics of the language. Some might argue that it’s not ideal to learn primarily through audio means because the written part of the language is crucial for overall understanding.
However, some of the programmes you can download (like Paul Noble’s) come with a handy downloadable document to provide support for the written element. When I do get some spare moments, I am dedicating some time to studying the content in these booklets as they’re reinforcing the audio learning whilst running.
If you’re going to learn a language whilst running, I’d recommend searching and downloading some courses through an online audio store like Audible or iTunes, and listening to them during activity.
Podcasts can be a great way to get some listening practice in when learning a new language. I’d recommend downloading some podcasts which specifically focus on learning.
Slow the podcast down so you can clearly hear everything that is said, focus on what you’re listening to, look for transcripts of the conversation (for after the run) and just listen.
You will probably not understand everything that is being said but it’s a great way to get practice listening to the language being spoken in a real time scenario.
Again, be sure to be aware of your surroundings whilst listening to stay safe during the run.
Listening to music in the language you are learning can be great for solidifying understanding. Scientists have shown that listening to music helps with vocabulary memorisation; singing words can make them easier to remember.
For vocabulary learning, go onto YouTube and simply type in whatever language you want to learn followed by ‘vocabulary songs’. You’re bound to find some useful tune to help memorise key vocabulary.
Of course, you may have a basic to decent level of understanding and want to listen to some actual hits. In that case, the world is your oyster and you can listen to whichever hit song in the chosen language that you please. As long as you can understand what is being said for your education.
There you have it. 3 ways I have been learning French whilst running. As running means the body is physically engaged, the mind can focus on learning language through auditory means.
I’m still right at the start of my language learning journey and I have many, many miles to go. I’ll be sure to pair up these language learning miles with running miles to make the most productive use of my time.
Best of luck to anyone else who wants to pair up some of their running time with language learning time.