Ramblings From An Imperfect Language Learner

In today's post I talk about the imperfect language learner and how I'll use my biggest weaknesses as strengths here on the blog to inspire language learners in a similar situation.

Today's blog post has been coming for a long time. I usually write blog posts 1 maybe 2 weeks before the publication date depending on moments of inspiration and what else is going on at that time. This post has been incubating in Scrivener, my writing program for over a month now.

Admittedly it's not as neatly organised as some of my other posts, and it's also a fair bit longer. However I had a lot of “thoughts” that I had to get out, so I hope you enjoy the rough format.

I've previously talked about on the blog how I've been suffering from depression. How a hopelessness of not knowing what to do or where to go, lead me to dark periods of inactivity, fast food and video games.

What haven't really been addressed so much is learning languages whilst suffering from this restrictive state of mind. This ability to do nothing mindset isn't only restricted to depression, you might be suffering from chronic fatigue, bipolar disorder or any other condition that restricts you from doing the things that you, deep down, know you want to be doing. It's some parts motivation but also energy levels.

The reason I feel like this topic is lacking is because many bloggers are very talented language learners. This means that most of their posts can be focused on success stories, methods and actual how-tos that have proven track records. With me it’s a little different. I haven't achieved anything, yet, but I'm hoping that my documenting the process I can help many others in a similar situation gain hope and work their way out of that dark hole they might find themselves in.

The original idea

I originally started the blog with the ambition of being the next Benny or Luca – I won’t lie. The dream of speaking so many languages so well attracted me to this vision and I figured I would simply learn as I went along, to pass on the vital information to you guys out there.

But today I realise that I have a more important and more personal agenda to carry out. Through my experience of learning Russian (12 months and counting) I’ve realised that the strength of my blogging or other communication is not how to learn languages, it’s how to learn languages when external factors are limiting your learning abilities.

The interesting aspects of language learning for me is how not to give up when getting out of bed in the morning is hard. If you haven’t been hit by a seriously depressive state, then it might be hard to imagine that something like language learning could be hard to do – but trust me, when it’s really bad you can’t even get out of your chair to go to the bathroom until you hit absolutely critical mass.

But this whole angle offers new challenges. Firstly, I’m not a medical professional, so I’m not a position to give out health advice. If you are suffering from any kind of mental illness including depression, PLEASE go see your local doctor immediately for next course of action. I know it sucks, but trust me, dealing with it alone and unsupervised is stupid and dangerous.

Would anyone care about a mediocre langauge learner?

So then I figured, well. I might not be able to give specific advice, but how about telling my story in order to prove that it can be done. Again the balance comes in, because why would you read about a mediocre learner? Surely we want to learn and be inspired by the best of the best, no?

I think the answer is that you might have similar problems and by learning that you are not alone, you gain momentum and possibly a deeper sense of motivation. Half of winning any battle is believing that you can win in the first place.

I might also be able to share tips and tricks on how I fought back. Personally it would also motivate me to work that little bit harder, because I would be the guinea pig that could help an entire generation of language learners not let their health problems stop them from being successful learners.

Because at the end of the day we are all capable of doing amazing things. Granted we might not all be able to pilot a spaceship, but learning a language (or anything that involves memory) is possible for almost all of us. When we talk about a normal healthy balanced approach vs a lazy, depressed approach then we are essentially only comparing speed and effectiveness in a vacuum.

And speed means nothing. Learning a language is an ability that you will keep until your last day on this planet, so it shouldn’t be rushed. Now, some people are capable of getting to incredible levels in a brand new language in just 3 months, but that doesn’t mean we should use that as a benchmark. I really like the yearlyglot approach, as I think 12 months is a nice time period to learn most languages, based on my experience with Russian.

How to learn when feeling like crap

I can only speak for myself, naturally. But to me, when I had bad periods of depression (and I probably still do – it’s hard to evaluate) I didn’t feel like doing anything, at all. We’re talking getting out of bed is hard, turning on the tv seems like a challenge and leaving the house is something that only happens out of necessity.

So in a sense it doesn’t really matter how motivated you are to learn languages when you suffer from depressed states like this. If you can’t motivate yourself to get out of bed, or go to the supermarket to get sustenance, then logging onto Memrise is equivalent of climbing a mountain. For me this lead to several weeks, maybe even months, where my combined total hours spent learning was minimal. I’d almost say non-existent.

This timeout period is not really the biggest problem, as breaks are totally okay, but the problem is how hard it is to get back to learning once you have been away for a while. Your target language might not really attract you anymore, or you have been tempted by other languages during the off-period. Getting back on track is hard, so it’s best to try and stay on it to begin with.

However, that’s way easier said than done. Particularly if you have no accountability at all. I’m fortunate to have this blog, where I know people come by to read how my missions are going. I’m also grateful for all the friends I’ve made in the language learning community, who inspire me on a daily basis to keep going. Without these support pillars I’m not even sure where I would be today.

If you are unsure about starting a blog, which I can totally understand – it’s a huge commitment, then I can recommend just getting into the habit of scheduling regular tutoring sessions. This was one of the biggest changes to my learning I did last year, and the impact has been huge!

I use iTalki to book very reasonably-priced tutoring sessions twice a week. You can go less, or more, but for me twice a week is pretty optimum. The effects of tutoring are not limited to the sessions themselves, because you feel an urge in between lessons to “smarten up” in time for the next one, so you can show your tutor what you can do. It’s a great system and I can’t recommend it enough.

Be ambitious but don't strive for perfection

I know this section is going to cause a bit of controversy, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Basically, in general, I’m a proponent of aiming high because even if you miss your target you’ve still come a long way. It’s usually better than setting the goal too low, and getting there too easily – thus hindering progression.

However, something has to be said about comparing yourself to other language learners. For instance, when I started Actual Fluency my Russian mission was 3 months, inspired by Benny Lewis, a person who speaks 12+ languages and has spent over 10 years traveling around perfecting his technique to learn a language to fluency in 3 months.

So how does it make any sense that I try to imitate such an accomplished polyglot on my first language mission, when I’m recovering from depression and hopelessness and possibly one of the laziest people I know? You’re right, it doesn’t!

There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but the balance is SUPER fine. If you set your goals too ambitiously, then the risk of feeling like crap for not getting close to achieving them can have a devastating effect on your further studies. I think this might apply to everyone, but it definitely hits harder if you are suffering from conditions that make you tired or lack motivation.

How to attack learning (and everything else) instead

This approach to language learning is something that I have been advising for a long time and it was recently confirmed by none other than Benny Lewis himself. Basically the idea is to take baby steps in all of your language learning projects. Don’t feel like doing 50 memrise words? Make it a goal to just open Memrise and do one word. Often times when you are there you’ll be tempted to do more anyway.

Then next time you aim for two words and so on and so forth. Every time you don’t manage your goal you stick to it, and every time you do complete it you up the bar ever so slightly.

It resonates a lot with the “do something every day” mentality, but even that can be a struggle for many.

With that being said I think what helped me the most was just scheduling regular tutoring lessons on Italki. By having these regular commitments, I would have external accountability and it caused me to work harder. Not to mention I also learned a lot during the lessons – of course.

Going forward here on AF

I hope to be able to continue to bring you posts, podcasts and videos with the perspective of the imperfect language learner in the future. Let’s support eachother and commit to being a slightly better version of ourselves every single day.

  • neofight78

    Respect for touching on such a personal and difficult subject. I think there absolutely is value in hearing the experiences of an “average” learner, and even greater value in hearing from those who have to deal with depression. I’m sure that the greatest reward of language learning is not the ability to speak in another language, but rather the connections we make with others and the things we learn about ourselves along the way.

    • Chris Broholm

      Thanks! Greatly appreciated 🙂

      You are so right in that its not really about speaking the language, but what doors that this ability opens for us. This is meeting new people and cultures and expanding your horizon beyond your home country and culture.

      Thanks for stopping by

  • Ritchie Smith

    Thanks for sharing. Having fatigue from chronic illness, I certainly relate. I have learned not to push myself beyond what I can physically handle or I will not have much mental energy either. I usually want to do more than I do, but often my interest/ambition is greater than my available energy and focus. Depression and other illnesses certainly should be on the table in language learning. It’s part of life and therefore affects all we do including daily doing something in our target language. Thanks again for speaking up. Just reading the blog post brings encouragement that “yes, I can continue and I can succeed”.

    • Chris Broholm

      Hey Ritchie! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, you really made my day when you said that reading the blog post brought you some encouragement – I hope that we can become hyperpolyglots together, one step at a time 🙂

      • Ritchie Smith

        I hope so too! One step at a time for sure!

  • dandiprat

    You’re not the only one going through these types of things. I’ve experienced the same thing as a learner and seen my students go through it, too. I wish I had some easy answers, but I don’t. After studying one particular language since 1995, and even though I have used it professionally since 2006, I still run into problems, so don’t expect things to get better. There will always be words you don’t know and always be people who seem to have it down better than you, but if you’re persistent you can eventually get better. Think of language learning in terms of decades, not years, is my advice. It’s a fun activity so just relax and enjoy it. Do it for the joy of the process not for the end result. Few people play video games with goals or deadlines, so they enjoy them more. A lot of the bloggers who seem to claim knowledge of numerous languages are such goal-oriented people but that’s not always best for everybody. I don’t usually do well when I set a goal for myself, even a short term one. It makes the process less enjoyable. I had serious issues after failing a standardized language testing exam 11 years ago in the language I mentioned above after attempting it three times. It was not a good situation for me. I’m terrible at listening tests. My progress in that area has been very slow although I’m clearly better now than I was then. I agree that it takes lots of courage to talk about these issues with other people and where I live many people do not have very enlightened attitudes about the subject (I suspect most of the world is like that).

    • Chris Broholm

      Thank you for your great comment! It’s really awesome to hear from people who share similar situations as I do 🙂 and I agree, ultimately it’s about just staying consistent and just getting a little bit better every day.

      I’m hoping that by sharing some of these stories, that we can bring more attention to it as well in general.

    • dandiprat

      By the way, I consider myself to be an average learner, although I suspect some of the super polyglots I see online are not really super-advanced in all the languages they list as knowing, although I will give Benny credit for being extremely transparent about his abilities and it seems he goes to great lengths to use objective standards such as standardized tests and professional evaluations as much as possible; I wish some of the others would do that rather than just posting videos of themselves speaking various languages (not actually as great proof as it might seem to people who have less experience in the area).

  • ElfinW

    What a great post !

    Thanks for sharing, I know how hard it is to talk about these things which are very much a part of our lives. There is so much stigma attached to the word depression, as if you are worth less as a human being.
    I have a brain injury and I started studying Spanish to retrain my brain. Many people with my condition do get depression and I feel really blessed not to have to contend with that, on top of everything else. I wake up early in the morning to “study” ( read,watch films or listening to recording of my italki sessions) before breakfast because it’s the only time of the day in which my brain works before the cloud sets in. And it has helped me so much.
    I know it is not the same thing at all, but your post resonated with me. Some days when things are really bad, to calm down, I go and do some Spanish, for me it has become this escape from really bad symptoms. And it’s not something you can actually get support for online, it’s embarassing, you know what I mean ? For instance, what can I say, oh I can’t do exercises on verbs because I am temporarily less intelligent ?

    Is what you are doing any less of a challenge ? Of course not, it’s worth so much more.

    • Chris Broholm

      Hi Elfin,

      Thank you so much for sharing your own private story, it really means a lot to me. I totally understand how you feel, and I hope that we can help more people by bringing attention to it. Like you said, there’s not much out there for imperfect language learners and it might work against you to observe some of these incredible polyglots (as inspiring as they might be) all the time.

      I’m also very happy you are enjoying it so much, that you can use it to escape the bad places, to me that’s super important as well and while i don’t personally use the desk learning as an escape, the social connections I have forged in the community definitely help me move forward and not backwards.

      Together we’ll succeed 🙂

      Thanks for your comment

  • Chris Broholm

    Oh, Julia your comment certainly made my weekend! 🙂

    I’ve also seen you around in the add1challenges, so I know you are serious about your language learning!

    I’m really interested in studying Korean because it sounds so cool, but I have to be realistic and make way for other more relevant/timely languages first – best of luck with the challenge!

    Thanks for stopping by

  • Kevin Richardson

    Fantastic post 🙂

    People often tell me that I’m inspire them with their own language learning projects. Beneath the surface, I know that I’ve had my fair share of battles with the depression demons over the years. It’s been over three years since I last had a major attack, but I’m always aware that the the next one could be hiding in the wings readying itself to pounce on me at any time. As much as I am currently riding the crest of the happiness wave, when I go under, it’s all I can do to keep breathing, let alone figure out how to kick my way back up to the surface.

    With language learning, I take a lot of heart from the fact that the only thing that will stop me from becoming fluent in Japanese would be an untimely misadventure or another deep dive into the darkness of depression. The latter of which is unquestionably the only one I seriously give thought to. The Add1Challenge has been awesome to be part of … it keeps me going through the tough times.

    To be absolutely honest, I get tired of doing challenges, but it helped me get over some major obstacles – namely not believing in myself. Now, I’m absolutely convinced that I will become fluent in Japanese … I’ll just keep going and going and going … never surrender … keep going forward … just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

    I know I must grow … and growing can be terribly painful … especially when your winding the wheel of a self assembled lingo rack. That sounds like I don’t enjoy language learning doesn’t it? I love learning a language … so much so, that it becomes painful when I don’t feel I’m learning …. and that is paradoxically the biggest dumbo heffalump in the room.

    You see, I now think of it like this …. I need to keep going … thats all … the distance doesn’t change … its a facade to think otherwise … I still have to learn stuff … and I am what I am …. what works for other people may not work for me and vice-versa … this is a personal quest and the only way I can fail is to quit or die. I’ll have good days and bad, days where I feel I’m walking on air, days when I feel I’m walking in toffee … but that’s OK … and you know what, whilst I know that the world appears very differently when I’m in the depths of depression … I sometimes wonder whether I’ve better equipped myself to fight against the forces that drag me down? Maybe? It’s either that, or the blissful exuberant joy the Japanese language has on me … even when I don’t understand a lot of it … it fills my head with happy bubbles 🙂

    • Chris Broholm

      What a wonderful reply, Kevin. Excuse me for taking so long to reply, for some reason it had slipped through the cracks!

      And I totally agree about just keep going, that’s my favourite and only “secret” to learning languages. As long as you keep going you will get there eventually.

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  • Pavel Saman

    Well, personally I don’t know what to think about your approch towards language learning. For me it’s simple, the more I do what I like (I also need to see a real value like getting a better job or being able to move abroad to work there, just positive feeling is not a strong motivation at all), the happier I’m and more time I spend doing that activity.

    Also, I don’t see any value doing just a little everyday (one word a day on Memrise). Of course, you mean you start with this amount and you will gradually increase it, but I think you should have much bigger goals and stick with them. It’s probably question of self-awarness, discipline and motivation. What I see many people do is they are not persistent, they give up when they come across the first obslacle; no surprise they don’t achieve their goals, especialy in language learning, which is something reguires a lot of time. So, after all, it’s not about language learning, but rather about your personal character and other qualities.

    Tha last but not least I’d like to write is I’d say it doesn’t matter if there is a person speaks 12 languages. It’s really admirable, but on the other hand it might be useless as well. Just imagine how many time that person spent learning 12 languages and how many opportunities he/she must have declined because of it. You always need to compare both sides of one coin.

    So, I really support you on your way to accomplish languages (as many as you want). And I really like your podcasts which I listen pretty regularly 🙂