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 language 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 each other and commit to being a slightly better version of ourselves every single day.