Things start out great. You’re going through your textbooks one chapter a day and you spend every waking moment revising your Anki decks. You start your day with Duolingo and end it with Memrise. On some days, it feels like fluency is almost within reach.
You feel great. Until you don’t.
Out of nowhere, you hit a plateau in both progress and passion. Suddenly you find yourself dreading the daily 30 minutes you’ve allocated for studying. You feel a profound sense of fatigue at the mere idea of having anything to do with the language.
You begin to question that there is something wrong with yourself. Perhaps language learning just isn’t for me, you think. A look at all the motivational posts from your fellow polyglots and studygrammers confirms this. You feel defeated.
So how exactly did you get here?
Examining the Causes of Your Burnout
First of all, it is important to understand that fatigue is not a sign of failure. It does not mean you’re bad at language learning – it happens to everyone. As with all obstacles, you can (and must) learn to overcome it. To do that, you need to first identify the issue that is causing the burnout. And for me, it usually boils down to these three things:
If a boring textbook and flashcards are all you have to work with, it’s easy to see why you’re burned out. Using materials that actually interest you can do wonders for your language learning progress. The thing is, very few of us are learning languages for the grammar and vocabulary alone, even if we find the technical aspects of the language fascinating. Most of our motives are grounded in practical use of the language in everyday life, such as being able to communicate with people from other cultures, or enjoy books and movies in a foreign language. If you’re running on a routine that is disconnected from your true motivation, isn’t it natural for you to get bored, and eventually, burnt out?
A lot of people approach language learning with a sort of urgency as if they are racing to meet a deadline. For some, the deadline is real – relocating for work and having to master the language quickly, having to sit for an important test, etc. But in most cases, the urgency is self-imposed. With so many language courses selling bold claims such as ‘Fluent in 100 days’ and ‘Hacking Fluency’, it’s not hard to see why.
And then there’s the lack of means to gauge our progress accurately and effectively. When you can’t see tangible, measurable results for the hard work you’ve put in, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that you’ve failed to make any progress. And with social media in the mix, well, it’s a recipe for disaster. I could tell you to ‘stop comparing’, but we all know how that goes, right?
Mismanagement of Expectations
If you’re learning a language as a cool party trick or just so you can impress someone you like, you’re probably not going to last very long. But here’s the thing: it’s okay. You don’t have to have some noble or interesting reason for learning a language. Maybe it’s just for fun. The key is to manage your expectations so that they match your goal. If you’re approaching language learning as a fun activity to do in your free time, then it makes no sense for you to hold yourself to the standards of someone who do it full-time. It sounds like common sense, but you’d be surprised at how often people torture themselves over this.
Recovering from a Burnout
Now that you know why you’re feeling the way you do about language learning, how can you recover from it?
If the issue is boredom, then perhaps you could use some play time in your target language. Watch some movies, listen to music and play games in your target language – whatever you feel like doing at the moment. Don’t get all stressed out over the words you don’t know. The point is to relax and get re-acquainted with the language, kinda like couples going on a romantic getaway when they feel the relationship has become a bit stagnant. You can reincorporate your grammar drills and flashcard sessions when you feel a bit better. For now, just soak in all the input and have a good time. Remind yourself why you fell in love with the language in the first place. It’s perfectly fine to take a break, and losing your Duolingo streak isn’t the end of the world. It’s okay to ‘lose progress’ – you’re not really making any if you’re so stressed out, anyway.
Language learning is not a race. There isn’t some finish line that’ll grant you instant fluency and lifetime bragging rights. Shut out those ‘quick fluency’ messages if they’re stressing you out. Don’t rush through your materials for the sake of ‘progress’. Aim for quality over quantity and consistency over velocity. Remember that every language learning journey is unique, and learning styles differ from person to person. What works for other language learners may not work for you and it’s not because you’re inferior in terms of abilities. And at any rate, someone else’s success does not take away from yours. If you find gaining that sense of self-assurance a bit difficult, then perhaps it’s best to turn off social media for a while.
Get What You Came For
Kerstin, the founder of Fluent, made a very good point regarding this in her blog post about language learning burnout. Ask yourself why you started learning this language. Maybe you were only interested in the Korean alphabet system. Perhaps you just wanted to learn some useful phrases for that trip you went on a few months ago. The point is, it is possible that you have already gotten what you came for, and in that case, it is completely okay to quit. It’s not a crime.
It is often a case of FOMO (fear of missing out – everyone’s studying this, and therefore I should, too) or a reluctance to let go of something we feel we have invested a lot of our time in – even though deep down inside, we no longer want it. The knee-jerk reaction to the idea of quitting is ‘oh no, then all my hard work would have been for nothing’. But was it really all for nothing?
If you’ve already gotten what you set out to achieve, then I’d say it was a successful investment. Clinging to something out of the fear of ‘making losses’, even when it’s hurting you, is natural and very human, but ultimately pointless. If you don’t want to do something, then you don’t have to do it, no matter what those motivational blogs (including this one) are telling you.
Preventing Future Burnouts
Once you’ve bounced back from your burnout (I firmly believe you will), here are a couple of things to keep in mind if you want to keep the occasional fatigue to a minimum:
Don’t rush. Some people do sprints, others prefer a marathon. Both are okay. Find out what works for you and stick to it – even if it’s a little unconventional. Remember, no two journeys are the same. Forget deadlines – you don’t have to commit to anyone’s timeline but your own.
Balance Work and Play
Find a balance between work and play in your target language. If you’re an intermediate learner, make sure to diversify your materials. Work on things that are interesting to you, whether it’s studying your favourite K-Drama, or watching your favourite movie with French subtitles.
It is true, however, that beginners don’t have the same luxury, as understanding native materials require a certain level of proficiency. In that case, make sure you have a healthy mix of studying and playing. Now, I’m not asking you to just watch K-Drama with English subtitles all the time, but lessons and workbooks 24/7 is going to burn you out pretty quickly. You don’t have to turn everything you do in your target language into a study session. Just keep your playtime fun, and your study sessions productive.
Set Better Goals
And by ‘better’, I mean measurable, meaningful goals that yield tangible results. Instead of “improve writing in three months”, make it “learn 3 new words and apply them in my daily journal entries this week”. This is so that you can judge your progress more accurately and effectively. If you can see yourself improving slowly but surely, you’re less likely to freak out over a perceived ‘lack of progress’.
Be Kind to Yourself
We are our own worst critics. And the thing is, the issue is rarely as bad as we make it out to be. Are you really that bad? Have you really been slacking, or are you just busy and weighed down by other responsibilities in life? Did you really lose a month’s worth of progress because you skipped three days? Take care of yourself, and remember that language learning is supposed to be an enriching experience. It is supposed to add value to your life and stimulate growth, not stifle your creativity.
Burnout may still hit you from time to time, but if you know it’s coming, you don’t have to let it control you as much. I personally view the language learning experience as something cyclical in nature, made up of phases driven by passion, which ebbs and flows over time. For a new phase to start, the current one has to end. Fatigue merely indicates that the end is nearing.
So nowadays, I just close my eyes and let it wash over me. Then I take a step back, do what I need to recover, and go back in when I’m recharged again.
There’s no rush.
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