Language learning burn-out: 3 ways of turning things around

It’s a thing, language learning burn-out. I was suffering … very hard … My own fault, I admit, because I always dive in 200%. When I crushed in the spring of 2019, the reason was that I had planned my months ahead, on a daily basis, mapped out exactly what chapters in what books I had to study per day. Monday-Friday 1 language per day, in the weekend 2 per day.

And just like that, something broke. I stopped. I literally didn’t have the energy to pick up a book, let alone have a look at the vocabulary lists or the dialogues. I just couldn’t. The weirdest feeling I had ever had, because I had always loved learning languages.

The problem was that gradually I had started focussing more on the end result than on the journey itself. I stressed out whenever I didn’t manage to do everything I had planned for myself. I started to hate the weekends, because that meant more and more studying to keep up with my self-imposed schedule. So I quit.

This time things are a bit different. I have had some health problems the past months and had no energy to do anything else besides focussing on getting better.

But I kept going, I booked italki classes in all my languages but I felt my energy leak. Until November, when I gave up completely. If you follow my journey to Icelandic or Luxembourgish fluency, you will have noticed that my update has been rather, well, hm, empty for the last few weeks.

It has been more or less 5 weeks now and I slowly feel that the itch is coming back. I started watching Netflix again. I am reading books. And just the other week I opened an Italian grammar and a Yiddish textbook again. So there is hope! But I will take care of myself and not impose any goals on myself. Since my crash in 2019 I don’t do that anyway. I have a few weeks with less work coming up and I hope to review some stuff in some languages and to study some stuff in some languages – no obligation for any language or level I have to reach.

Before I give you my tips, I want to point out that this is a rather fun approach. I know there are many of you struggling with your mental health and I know that that is far more serious than me just struggling a bit with low energy. The 3 tips below are what usually sparks my language learning after I hit a low. They are very personal and might not be of use to you, but they might inspire you to try something else!

And remember, every step you take, however small, is a step forward!

  1.  Bake pancakes

Just kidding – or … not really actually. This is one of the things I do sometimes when I am feeling really low. Win-win for everyone. My children are happy and I use the time in between flipping pancakes to have a look at one of my textbooks.

It’s a sort of a Pavlov’s reaction. When I was feeling very motivated to study and I was baking (pancakes or cookies or something else) I used to have my textbook with me and keep an eye on my oven while studying. So now, when I bake pancakes I sort of expect myself to take my textbook and study.

When writing this text, I just finished a double batch of pancakes (20, yes sir!) and I have reviewed a chapter in my Yiddish book (which I hadn’t done in – dare I say it – 3 weeks at least). This is an easy way in for me, because I know that when I open a book, the language bug will come and bite me again – it’s mainly just a matter of getting started. But … I know, when you are feeling burned out, picking up your book is the hardest part.

  1. Indulge

Now you finally have time to do something else and not focus on languages all the time … Read the book you have lying around, gathering dust. Pick up that knitting project again, winter’s coming so that shawl MUST be finished this weekend! I mean it (sort of), enjoy the fact that you have time to do other things. For me that’s the moment I realise that I truly love language learning and it could be the little push I need to get started again.

Or you could also just cuddle up under a blanket and binge your favourite series (with subtitles in your TL – just in case you might want to have a look at them).

I want to add here that it is okay to feel burned out and not focus that much on your languages for a while. You will NOT – I repeat, you will NOT forget everything you have learned in just 2 or 3 weeks off. I know what I am talking about. In 2019 I didn’t do anything language related for 4 months (that’s not a typo, it was really 4 months). The longer it lasted, the less inclined I was to start studying again, thinking I would have forgotten everything anyway and getting started from zero was just too big a task at that point. But then I did pick up my Korean book again (that was the first of my many languages I started studying again) and noticed that I had forgotten things, but not nearly as much I had expected.

  1. Go for a walk or a bike ride

And put on that podcast in one of your TL’s that you like to listen to. Low efforts required, good for your health, and it might get you back into language learning. For a while, that was the only thing I did, make long walks or bike rides with Italian or Korean as company. And still today, whenever I make one of those walks (without podcasts), my mind says ‘Italian’ or ‘Korean’ and then when I get home, I feel like studying one of those.

These are some of the things I generally do when I don’t have any energy (or don’t feel like it) to do any studying. Because we all have those days sometimes, don’t we.

I don’t worry anymore (I used to though, when I didn’t study for 2 or 3 days). I know it will be okay, all will still be there when I come back to it and there is no ‘have to-level’ – for me at least – to reach. So anything I do is OK. Knowing this brought me peace of mind.

Let that be my wish to you for 2021, peace of mind, feeling good about your language learning, faith in your ability to reach the level you want to reach. And a lot of energy to keep going – or a lot of pancakes to bake!

Stay safe!

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