When Life Prevents Language Learning

Sometimes we're just too tired to study a language. Then what?

Sometimes we’re just too tired to study a language. Then what?

As most readers probably already know, I love learning languages. I’m fascinated by the process of starting out in a new language, the thrill of reading native material for the first time and the excitement of taking my language skills to the next level. And yet, I can’t say that I have always, consistently been moving my language skills forward.

The truth is, life gets in the way – as it does with any hobby. That’s one reason why you’re more likely to continually improve your language skills if you use the language as part of your professional life or as part of your personally life – such as speaking the language with a spouse – that isn’t going to go away when you get busy.

No matter how motivated you are to learn a language, it is extremely difficult to prioritize your language when you have a major professional deadline looming, when you or a loved one gets sick or when you have to move.

In the past couple two months, I’ve personally had a combination of all of those factors. First of all, I found out that I’m pregnant about a month and a half ago, and I’ve been utterly exhausted for about the past two months. So whereas I used to read a book in Chinese for an hour or so in the evening, lately just crash as soon as I finish my work and professional responsibilities. I don’t even have the energy to read a book in English, let alone to look up new characters and struggle through a book in Chinese.

Also, my landlord decided to sell the duplex we live in, so we have to move. So whatever time I have that I’m not working, I’m packing boxes, taking trips to Goodwill and generally thinking about the move.

Yes, I know that you don’t really need more than an hour per day (or even just a half an hour) to advance your language skills. But there are plenty of circumstances under which you just don’t feel like you have the energy to devote to even half an hour of study. And that is exactly how I’ve felt for the past two months.

So if I’m feeling like life is getting in the way but I still want to continue advancing, what can I do?

1. If you speak several languages, focus on maintaining / using the ones that you know well and take a break from ‘stretch’ languages. For example, reading in Spanish or French is relatively easy for me, whereas reading in Chinese is not. So at a time like now, it’s better for me to focus on reading in those languages I already feel comfortable in instead of pushing myself to improve in Chinese.

2. Focus on passive, relatively simple tasks, like watching a movie in your target language. Don’t try to push yourself – focus more on stuff that is fun and relaxing but still gives you some exposure to the language.

3. Lastly, the most realistic but most heretical suggestion: Give yourself a fucking break. I know that consistency is the key to learning any new skill, but life is not consistent. Knowing when to drop your study routine and having the confidence that you’ll pick it up again in the future is a sign of strength, not failure. I have never studied a language absolutely consistently. The closest I got was when I was in college, but even then I didn’t study at all in the summers or other school breaks, so basically I was studying 8 months a year, tops.

So I haven’t been making much progress on Chinese – not nearly as much as I had wanted to. It happens, and I’m ok with putting things on hold for the moment. Being flexible and compassionate with yourself is ultimately more important that passing a specific language test on time or putting in the hours you expected yourself to do.

So if you’re also having trouble studying as much as you’d like to – especially if you have a solid reason that is likely to be temporary. You’ll get back to it. Hopefully sooner than later.

Photo by Jenny Downing