In this blog I share the ins and outs of being a highly committed language learner. For the time being I’m learning Hungarian in Budapest, but I hope to learn many more languages in the future.
These posts might be a bit more rambly in nature and they’ll probably also be shorter than my average article. Though, glancing at the word count this might not be the case for this week’s update.
Today’s post is part of my vision to massively “keep it real” with you, the reader, but also myself. Today I need to take some time to discuss depression.
As many of you have probably read from my book, Polyglot Beginnings, or other places I have been suffering from clinical depression for a number of years. It took me a long time to get out of denial and realise this was the case.
I do a lot of self-reflection and looking back I’m actually beginning to think that I might have fallen into the proverbial clinical depression hole at a much younger age.
Possibly as young as 14-16 years old. Doing the math this means that I’ve struggled with this on and off for the better part of 12 years. That’s a LONG time!
When I discovered the polyglot community back in 2013 I didn’t just see a fantastic way to meet people, travel, learn languages and all the other benefits the community provides. No, I saw a distinct path out of my miserable state at the time.
I talk about it in the book, but I was basically spending all day playing video games, eating junk food and not leaving the house. I had no hopes, no ambitions, no desires, no dreams.
Speaking about it now is pretty crushing, but I know a lot of people out there are in a similar situation.
That’s why I wanted to write about depression for a significant amount of time, but for the longest time I was being held back by a lot of doubt whether it was a good idea to make this public. I knew I could definitely help and empower some people in a similar situation, but at what expense would it be? While I don’t think too many of my friends outside the language learning community reads my blog, I would still be exposing a huge taboo part of my life that I haven’t talked to many people about.
Eventually though, I realised that the fact I was suffering from depression was not a weakness. In fact it’s one of my greatest strengths at this point.
I can’t tell you how to learn 2000 words of vocabulary in a week or how to become fluent in 3 months.
What I can tell you though is, if I can learn a language, somehow, no matter how long it takes, then you can as well.
So I started to embrace the depression and turned it into a force of good. Suddenly I would get emails from people saying how my struggles resembled theirs and how inspired they felt from my language learning missions.
They never cared that I’ve been spending ages to learn Russian and still don’t speak it well. That doesn’t matter.
What matters is I turned my life around and now I battle every day to improve it. Come hell or high water as they say.
Admitting I had a problem
Admitting I was clinically depressed was a major turning point in my life back in 2004. I had been deluded by my high fuctioning life style and lots of pseduo relationships online (via games, voice chat, that kind of thing) that I was not depressed, but just not satisfied. Once you admit you have a problem, whether it’s alcohol, gambling or depression you will start to take action against it.
If you don’t even acknowledge it, then you have a much bigger problem.
For years I couldn’t understand why people around me were so much more productive. I had come across entrepreneurs, bloggers and inspirational people who literally built their own dream life. After consuming a lot of self-help materials I understood what I wanted, but because of my depression I just could not create the output that I needed to succeed.
So I failed miserably. Which led to me questioning my own abilities, eating more junk food and isolating myself even more.
When I expressed my ambitions, many people were quick to shoot them down.
You want to do THAT? Why don’t you just finish your degree and get a safe job?
Or they’d say something like: “You’re way too hard on yourself! Take it easy!”
I don’t know about you, but this really hurt me, because I wasn’t doing very much in the first place. So these people encouraged me to be less ambitious? To ‘take’ it easy?
To this day I still don’t like this and I would never recommend anyone take it easy. If you want extraordinary results, you need to put in extraordinary amounts of work.
There is one lesson here though, that I think makes sense.
Being overly self-critical during a depression doesn’t really help anything. sometimes you just have bad days where you don’t get anything done. This happens.
You can’t beat yourself up over that kind of missed productivity.
Instead the key I think is to work around one’s limitations and not worry about speed. Like in the polyglot community there’s a lot of discussion about how fast you can learn a language. That’s jolly fine and I love to look at ways one can learn more efficiently and thus save time getting to fluency.
However in practice we’re all different. I might be suffering from depression, so I can’t muster up the concentration required to study 5-8 hours a day and become fluent in 3 months.
Some people might have families to attend to, or more than full time jobs.
It doesn’t really matter the reason, the point is you need to keep it real.
If you have a full time job with wife a kids you can’t beat yourself up over not studying 8 hours a day. That’s pretty obvious. I would say, do encourage yourself to get in a little something every day, but don’t worry about it.
In general: Don’t worry.
I was thinking about writing a book on depression and language learning, if that’s something you think would be a good idea – let me know in the comments!
What’s happened in the last week
The reason I finally write this piece today is that I’ve been going through a bit of a rough period. Lots of uncertainties led to increased levels of stress and that leads to poor health and dieting decisions, causing not only weight gain but also lower energy levels. This means that I haven’t really done any solid learning in the past week. I’ve also been too scared to speak in public, something I mentioned in the last blog update.
However today I feel pretty good. I installed some new lights in my otherwise pitch black office and it’s incredibly how fast the new lights had an effect on me. Turns out it’s not a great idea to sit all day in a dark office, who would’ve thought?
The problem is, it’s a vicious circle. If you feel bad, then you eat poorly to make you feel better, which actually makes you feel worse, which means you get out less, which means you feel even worse. I’m sure everyone can relate to a vicious circle like that.
So what happened to me would be I would work my day job and then when I was done procrastinate. Since I procrastinated all day I couldn’t go to bed at a reasonable time because I had to produce something for my own hobbies (like AF) but that just never happened. I just didn’t feel like doing anything.
My vicious circle
So I sit up half the night, getting only a few hours of sleep. Then I’m tired and need a nap after work, which can sometimes be several hours. By the time I awake from my nap it’s already night and I haven’t done any shopping, cleaning or other chores that would be easier done in daylight. Also because I was sleeping my blackout curtains were down, meaning my body literally has no idea if it’s 4 am or pm.
Then I grab a large coffee and that will fuel a minimum of effort in most of my projects. Initially. I order a huge meal of grease and carbohydrates and feel so bloated it’s not even funny afterwards.
Then some friends write and ask if I’d like to play a video game, I say, sure why not and play a couple of games.
By the time I’m ready to work, meaning Actual Fluency, language learning, books and new projects, it’s midnight and I need to be up by 7.30 again. The thought annoys me, but I soldier on, insisting an all-nighter will help reset my rhythm.
Sadly it rarely works because by the time the clock is 4-6 am I’m so tired I say, just a little nap. So I sleep an hour or two and roll out of bed in time to sign in to work at 8 am.
This is the true vicious circle and also the reason I’m overweight, by the way. The comfort eating is a big part of managing a depression, and it’s something until recently I wasn’t particularly aware of.
I just thought I had bad habits, including over-sized portions. Turns out I’m comfort eating. Again knowing what you’re up against is half the battle.
There’s no doubt winter has also played a part. Summer in Budapest was fantastic, I had lots of friends visiting and lots of friends to hang out with. People were happy and smiling. Then the Hungarian winter comes and everyone is depressed. Some of my friends also left town.
I’d happily take all the complaining about the 40+ degrees back, because this cold, grey, dark winter is pretty serious.
Anyway, I hope you found the above story interesting. If you’re struggling with similar problems feel free to email me here. It’ll make me feel better to hear other people’s stories.
Language learning lessons this week
Even though I didn’t do much, if any, practical language learning I still recorded 3 new episodes of the podcast. Last week’s episode with Wouter was a great one, because he is totally my opposite. Where I’m scared to use foreign languages even in the most basic scenarios, he just runs out and practices all 18 languages he knows a bit in. He dives in head first, where I just tap out immediately. So I loved listening to his enthusiasm and today I was happy to use some Hungarian to order at Subway again.
Talking to Amir Ordabayev I realised once more the value of writing things down. He talked about how he used Assimil and would write down sentences he could see himself using. To me that made perfect sense and when I think about ways to improve my learning, actually writing stuff down would be a big step up. Simply reading and listening is fine, but to get the most of the material writing down, copying or shadowing is a great tool.
I also had a chat with André Liss, who is completely obsessed with music, especially what would be considered “bad” by most people. He reminded me that listening is a huge way to improve your foreign language skills, both in terms of pronunciation and listening but also in production, speaking and vocabulary. I don’t listen to a ton of music, but after having heard the same from pronunciation expert Idahosa Ness in a previous episode, I realised that it is a valuable and important way to improve.
Next week I’ll be going back to Denmark for a week, where I hope I can take a breath and relax a little.