Eff Your Misogyny and Learn a Language

A couple things I’m tired of seeing in language communities: people snarking about how they don’t like Instagram because they don’t want to see pictures of people’s breakfasts. Or they don’t watch vlogs because all they find are teenage girls giggling about who they have a crush on.

There’s a lot to unpack here (one of my first thoughts was to wonder how adept these people are at searching on the internet: I’ve found it very easy to find relevant vlog content, just by doing YouTube searches for keywords relating to my interests in German. I realize the availability of vlogs in different languages will vary, but the principle stands: it shouldn’t be hard to find vlogs that aren’t Follow Me Arounds or whatever).

Are these comments accurate? Are these things Serious People (including Serious Language Learners) can dismiss out of hand? How might photos of people’s food, or vlogs where they talk about what they’re eating, be useful to a wider swath of language learners? (I’m not even going to say “teenage girls’ food,” because I know a lot of people posting these things aren’t young women, but of course teen girls are the easy target.)

Well, everyone has to eat. If you’re going to a country where your target language is spoken, it might behoove you to be very conversant with food vocabulary and customs (especially if you have any dietary requirements). I can’t even count how many words relating to food preparation (cutting, chopping, peeling, slicing, etc.) and ingredients themselves (not only vegetables, but spices, packaging, etc.) I’ve picked up from Instagram and YouTube. For probably 99% of these words I haven’t had to make any flashcards or do anything particular to retain them: I hear and read them so often that I don’t need to.

And please note what good listening practice vlogs — yes, even those by teenage girls! — are. Everyone’s always banging on about how you need to listen to content intended for native speakers, right? I definitely have some of the strongest listening comprehension skills in my German class, and I am pretty sure that’s because I watch a ton of German stuff, including, yes, a ton of vlogs. And no, not every teen girl talks in whatever stereotyped idea some people have of how “kids these days” talk, either…

My second point: how easy it is for people to roll their eyes at popular expressions of teen girl culture. If teenage girls like it, then it must be trivial, stupid, or irrelevant, right? Not only misogynist but wrong!

And now I’m going to talk about how this intersects with my depression, because these things are inseparable.

In addition to people sneering about teen girls’ vapidity in posting photos of their breakfast, I’ve read numerous blog posts (in English, German, and French) arguing that photos on Instagram and Facebook make us unhappier, because we see others’ perfectly arranged meals, bedrooms, or outfits, and feel inferior.

For me, it doesn’t work that way. I don’t feel guilty looking at someone else’s elegantly presented breakfast. I see a photo and think, oh, gosh, blueberries, I haven’t had any in a while, which is silly because I love them; I should buy some for my breakfast tomorrow. Or I think, hm, I’ve never tried figs with oatmeal, but German vegan Instagram loves them; I’ll give them a shot.

It’s kind of like taking my own awareness of little good things in my life, but a hundredfold, because I can take pleasure in others’ small joys, too. Sometimes when you’re depressed, these moments are a lifeline: sometimes the only one you have.

Let’s also note that many girls use posting pics of their meals as a way to recover from eating disorders and learn to take pleasure in eating (I just read an article in French about this the other day, in fact); similarly, many people who’ve historically been excluded from society’s ideals of attractiveness use selfies to reclaim their bodies & resist toxic standards.

Does that mean you need to find these things interesting? No, of course not (and frankly, most of the people posting these things probably wouldn’t care if you didn’t: they’re not posting them for you, which some people might also find offensive). But to insist that they are meaningless or just another sign of how superficial the world has become? Ill-informed. Wrong.

Are there things on Instagram or YouTube that I find dull or problematic? You betcha! But that’s true with anything (including the language learning blogosphere: I’ve seen many posts just seeping with sexism/classism/xenophobia/fatphobia/racism/etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum).

I really also want to point out that young women, like anyone else, can be multifaceted. There are a few vloggers whose lighter, fluffier (to me fluffy isn’t an insult, by the way) videos on hair dye or snacks I enjoy, but that also post videos exploring issues of animal rights or vegan philosophy, or in support of refugees. Shocker! It’s possible to be stylish and have Deep Thoughts (and even, hello, be a feminist) too.

I find it super-interesting (by which I mean not interesting at all, because it’s drearily predictable) that, while I’ve seen some people make fun of Let’s Plays (which, like many gaming-related spaces, can be pretty male-dominated), I haven’t seen any widespread hate-on for them from language learners. Indeed, I’ve seen some big name polyglots recommend them. But I’ve easily seen three times as many words spent decrying the ways that teen girls use media like Instagram or YouTube.

Gosh, I wonder why.

So: if your first impulse is to dismiss all this as useless crap, check yourself. And consider that maybe, just maybe, these teenage girls you sneer at might have something to teach you as you work towards your target language.

In which I’m on a podcast and fail to make resolutions

Hello, dear readers! It’s been a while.

I keep discovering things about recovering from surgery, and one of them is: everything just takes more time and more energy. Even when it doesn’t feel onerous at the time. Even though I’m at the point where I’m basically back at work as normal, and I now have energy to go out and see friends, go to concerts, etc.

Some things have to go, it turns out, and for quite a while it’s been things like this blog — and often, doing more intense study, for which I am trying to forgive myself! Though I am proud that I’ve managed to keep up some language study every day, from the day of surgery (Duolingo in the morning before heading to the hospital, flicking through news emails while lying on the hospital bed waiting to be discharged!) onwards. That’s not nothing!

I do have a bit of exciting news: I was recently a guest on the Creative Language Learning podcast! Not to talk about language learning per se, but to discuss the title Mx., which is the title I’ve chosen as a genderqueer person. Many thanks to Kerstin for interviewing me, and to Kerstin and Lindsay both for giving me time on their show and having such thoughtful conversation about this topic! It’s a good episode in general; do check it out: Podcast Episode 28: What You Are is What You Say (Language and Identity).

It’s the time of year where I want to make all kinds of plans and start all kinds of projects, but… this year it feels a little bit vague: I want to do something, but can’t quite settle on what. I should probably make some SMART language-learning goals, like pass the B2 exam in German or read the first two Harry Potter books in German (I own them and would like to read them and declutter them!), but… I’m afraid to commit! Anyone else having this problem? Have you set any new year’s resolutions about languages? I love reading posts about this, so point me at yours!

Last but not least: if you are celebrating holidays at this time of year, I hope they are good ones, full of cheer and love and generally nice things. And if you’re not celebrating, I hope you have cheer and love and nice things too!

See you in 2016!

Dispatches from my sick bed #2: the Grumpy Language Learner exists

I wrote this almost a month ago, but then didn’t have the focus or brain presence to post it. Surgery seems to be like that: I’m recovering well physically, but my energy levels are still pretty erratic and I don’t always manage to focus on tasks as much as I wish I did, sigh… Anyway: have some vintage thoughts from my head!

You know how now and then language bloggers will ask readers what they struggle with in their own learning? What their biggest problems are on the road to fluency? I’ve replied several times to different bloggers with some variant of: mental illness (depression and anxiety) and physical limitations/illness. I have seen, in return, precious little about these issues on any of these blogs. I’m sure they receive hundreds of replies, and it makes sense to focus their response posts on the ones that they think will speak to the most people. And yet it’s kind of infuriating that this stuff rarely gets a mention.

Hello, we’re here. People who are sick in all kinds of ways exist and we learn languages and we deserve attention and advice too. You can’t just apply all your “get up 15 minutes earlier! Just think positive! If you’re not doing it, it’s because you don’t want it enough!” advice to our situations. No, being ill isn’t sexy, it’s not something you can write a super-positive post about, it’s not something your one-size-fits-all advice is going to work for. We’re not cool. We don’t fit into your narrative of winners who just need the right productivity tip to turn everything around; we exist in other ways than just as your inspiration pr0n.

People who are ill or who are disabled exist. Some of them have even achieved the vaunted polyglot status! Others of us might yet! But you know, it’d be nice if some of that language learning community cameraderie recognized us as we are too. Sure, you can sometimes adapt more general advice about making time for study when life is hectic or stressful, but there are also specific things that relate to illness/ability that could be addressed — and recovering from surgery made me very keenly aware of this lack.

It’d just be nice to feel seen, you know?

Dispatches from My Sick Bed #1: Polyglot vs. Multilingual

Hello everyone! Thanks for all your good wishes. I’m now a couple of weeks out from my surgery, and (knock on wood) so far seem to be recovering well. In fact, boredom is becoming a bigger problem than almost anything else — conveniently, italki is having another Language Challenge in the second half of October, and as I’ll still be on sick leave then, I’ve signed up! Last time felt good to me, and naturally so did earning some italki credits…

Anyway — last week, while my mobility was much more limited, I was listening to a lot of podcasts, especially because I had a ton of upper back pain when standing up and even when sitting upright in bed or on the couch. But podcasts, obviously I can put them on and just lie down and listen. One of the ones I’ve been catching up on is the Creative Language Learning Podcast, from two of my favorite language bloggers, Kerstin Hammes Cable and Lindsay Dow.

A recent episode recaps the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin this past May. In one talk there, it was suggested that the word “polyglot” should mean someone who learns languages just for the fun of it. This is meant to be a more inclusive and friendly definition; many people question whether they know enough languages (or know them well enough) to belong at an event with the word “polyglot” in the title. That’s great. I’m down with that, because I do feel like a lot of polyglot stuff is super-elitist. I’m totally in favor of expanding the term so that you don’t feel like you need to speak seven languages at C2 level or whatever to be legit and included.

But this definition of a polyglot, as someone who learns languages because they just want to, is contrasted with a “multilingual,” that is, someone who learns languages because they have to: because of the realities of their family or community or country or economic situation.

This strikes me as an absurd, muddy, and useless distinction to make. (I did see a blog post a while ago that mentioned this, and went on a brief tweet rant — now is the time for the Extended Rant Remix, I guess!) Way to talk like you’re making things less elite and more welcoming on the one hand, and then pull something like this on the other. Polyglots: we learn languages for the love of it! Our motives aren’t tainted like multilinguals’: you’re learning them for commerce, because that’s just how people in your country grow up, for some other reason other than our pure thirst for knowledge! Many polyglots do learn languages for some of these same reasons, and ‘multilinguals’ might equally enjoy learning languages also for their own sake, which makes this distinction even more hilarious to me. It’s so ivory tower: we, the intellectuals! With our holy love for languages! Everyone else: with their crass low cultural reasons! It reminds me of people sneering at students studying something to improve their employment prospects — accounting or nursing or education or whatever — while the genuine, untainted intellectuals swan off, noses in the air, to study philosophy.

Seriously, what the hell? To me this just smacks of people still wanting to give themselves a glow of superiority. Which is, again, hilarious because in vast parts of the world, speaking more than one language is utterly unremarkable; it’s just how you get on; it’s just what you have to do. Both my parents are polyglots — or maybe you’d downgrade them to multlinguals, since multiple languages were something they needed to learn for cultural and economic reasons — but anyway, I don’t even know if they’d consider themselves as having an aptitude or special interest in languages; it’s just what they did.

This polyglot/multilingual dichotomy strikes me as even less useful because… it’s not like multilinguals don’t have experiences and techniques of learning languages that wouldn’t be relevant or helpful to polyglots! What is served by separating out these two groups? (Except, perhaps, the lofty ego of some polyglots.) For example, I’ve seen so many polyglot blogs talk about how motivation can be a problem, just getting down to studying and finding the time to study, etc. Well, who might have solid advice on productivity and buckling down to really get some face time with a language? People who have no choice but to learn one: those multilinguals again. (Yes, many multilinguals grow up speaking multiple languages without necessarily a lot of deliberate study, although I think even in those cases they might have something useful to say about how to keep languages separate and not mix them up, etc.)

There are probably some functional differences between those who learn languages for fun (and perhaps without an opportunity to live in a setting where they need to use the language as a main method of communication) and those who are impelled by other reasons do things — there must be some academic research on it somewhere. Call the latter ‘involuntary polyglots’ or ‘situational polyglots’ or some other term to distinguish things, sure. But they’re all still polyglots. Or multilinguals. They’re all both terms! On an equal basis!

I do think it’s really good to demystify what being a polyglot means and to broaden the definition and make it less of an elite club (as it stands I still wouldn’t feel particularly comfortable going to any polyglot-branded event). But it’s rubbish to say you’re doing that while setting up another divide that is also false and elitist in itself.

Small steps and self-compassion: a pre-surgery linkdrop

Remember in my last post I mentioned I’d be having surgery sometime this fall? It wasn’t scheduled to take place for a couple of months, but now it’s happening very suddenly, due to me getting a cancellation slot. It’s a good job I already started thinking about how to occupy myself while recovering. I won’t have time to organize my bookmarks and all that kind of stuff that I wanted to do beforehand, but I do have a shiny new tablet, and I guess I’ll make do!

Let this serve as official notice that posting here will probably be even more sporadic than usual while I’m recovering. In the meantime, have some links that feel timely (even though in actual fact, I’ve been meaning to post some of these for months…):

  • Follow Through, Don’t Give Up! over at the Language Pond has a lot of smart things to say that feel particularly relevant at the moment. The struggle to figure out if I really need to take time to rest, or if that’s depression talking me out of things because that’s what depression does (it’s a lying jerk), is a constant in my life. It’s also difficult to be kind to myself when I do need to chill out, to have the honesty and compassion to even acknowledge a need to rest.
  • 24 Unusual Ways To Learn a Language Every Hour from BRAVE Learning. I like the idea of sticking these into Evernote and then pasting in links relevant to what I’m studying: another project I probably won’t end up doing, to be honest, but I’m sure it would be really handy! In the meantime I can at least use these as prompts.
  • 5 Ways to Fit in 5 Minutes of Language Practice from Language in Bloom. I especially like the suggestions to conjugate verbs and to write down words you recognize from a short podcast.
  • Language Learning Goals Derailed? 8 Simple Steps to Getting Back on Track from Language Hero. Setting yourself a target time for language study every day and then halving it is a really good idea; it reminds me of what blogs like Zen Habits always say about starting so small you can’t fail.
  • Set D.U.M.B. Goals – Motivation March – Part 3 from Language Surfer (I almost typoed “Language Surgery” — guess we know what’s on my mind! What would a Language Surgery blog be like, anyway?!). This is so important! I appreciate the reminder that SMART goals aren’t always appropriate — say, when one is recovering from surgery and isn’t on top form, cough cough — and that moving forward with “DUMB” goals is still moving forward.

And a few more general links:

Well! There’s a bunch of good reading for you all, if you haven’t already seen those posts, or at least a reminder of the content if you have (I certainly need reminders of these things!). And I think that’s all for me for a bit — we shall see! Maybe in a week or two I can post an update on language study while on painkillers, exhausted, generally out of it. And if not, well, maybe something when I’m past that fuzzy stage.

Having this surgery sooner rather than later is better healthwise, of course, but I admit I’m also relieved because it might mean (depending on how recovery goes) that I won’t have to miss any German classes this fall! And also, one of my longest-running Skype conversation exchange partners is coming to London in a few months. His visit was timed exactly with my old surgery date, so I was bummed that I probably wouldn’t get to hang out, but now it should be fine. Hooray!

Anyway! Be well, everyone. Take care of yourselves, be kind to yourself, and drop me any links you think might be interesting or useful to read from my convalescent bed!

The language learner’s guide to recovery from surgery (or my guide, at least!)

How are the language buddies going? I sent out the matches a week or so ago (and tweeted but neglected to post here — sorry!). I hope they’re going all right, but if you’ve had no response or something else has happened, let me know here (or via email: compassionatelanguageblog at gmail) and I’ll see if there’s something I can do. For myself, it’s been really helpful to have someone to write to in German regularly; writing is my weak point and I know the only way to get over it is to do it more. And yet I so rarely do…

In other news: I’m finally starting to feel a tiny bit more relaxed and grounded in my new flat. Good. Summer is slipping away and I need to have a good stable base for myself before winter. I don’t think I have Seasonal Affective Disorder per se, but I definitely find darkness and cold and winter really challenging.

I especially need to set myself up well in terms of making self-care and coziness and good stuff easy or automatic, because I am likely to be having fairly major surgery in a couple of months (maybe sooner, if there’s a cancellation and I can go in with little notice). I’ll probably have four to six weeks off work, maybe longer, and several months where I need to be careful with myself and ease back into things (I suspect I may not be able to do yoga for about six months, which is pretty upsetting to me, but so be it).

Because I’ll be easily fatigued and very limited, certainly at first, in what I can do and how much I can make it to the outside world, I’ll need to set myself up with a lot of distractions. Fortunately, there are many lovely language-learning distractions out there! A whole internet full!

I bookmark tons of things (I use Pinboard, by the way, which I really like), but my tags aren’t as clear as they could be. I’ve got tons of things tagged “German,” but haven’t been as good at subdividing them, or doing so consistently.

So! Pre-surgery prep work #1: going through my bookmarks and making a tag specifically for things I think will be good to watch or listen to or look at while recovering from surgery. It needs to be easy, so I can just click without too much thinking or trying to remember where I put a link, and without too much decision paralysis.

This list of stuff could include:

  • TV shows.
  • Vlogs. I need to subscribe to more of them on YouTube! Especially vegans posting fluffy food hauls or makeup reviews. But I also like stuff like Die Klugscheisserin, and I also currently have little experience with vlogs in French, so if you have any recs, let me know! I’m not a gamer, but sometimes I think Let’s Plays are amusing — there seem to be lots in German that I can follow, but the French ones I’ve seen generally have unclear vocals that are hard to parse.
  • Things I’ve been meaning to look up on German Wikipedia. Unlike lots of the internet, I rarely fall down Wikipedia rabbit holes — I look up things and mostly stick to what I actually came to the site to read about somehow!
  • Podcasts/radio shows on specific topics of interest. I found a German podcast about productivity techniques the other day — I wonder if I bookmarked it…
  • Sites like Gute Frage with lots of random short texts from people. I wish Ask MetaFilter was available in German.
  • Tags on Instagram or Flickr, etc. that lead to happy-making photos likely to have good captions to read as well.
  • More German Twitter accounts to follow, maybe — I follow a ton of politicians and bloggers, but there’s always room for more good ones.
  • Any other suggestions?

I’ll be sure to put my backlog of German magazines neatly near my bed, as well as some manga translated into German.

I should also leave myself a note that it’s okay to just poke at these resources and let the language wash over me, and if my focus isn’t laser-sharp and I can’t understand as much as I might normally, that’s okay! Because my job will be to rest and recover. As tempting as it is to consider all that time off work as time I could really power ahead with German, it’s probably not going to work that way.

I should also update my Anki decks with important words from the last few months of conversation exchange, oops. That would entail me actually going back to Anki seriously; I’ve had a real block about it for months.

I’m also going to look into finally getting a tablet; I suspect that will be a lot easier to manage, especially in the first few days post-surgery, than my laptop. I know there are a lot of buyer’s guides online, but if anyone has any particular recs (or un-recommendations!), especially regarding language stuff, I’d appreciate hearing them. I’m not tied to any one operating system (I have a Mac but an Android phone), I don’t need it to be the fanciest thing ever but probably want something more than the most basic model, I am not a gamer so don’t need that kind of capability but do want something that will look good and run well when playing videos or Skyping or whatever.

I do intend to keep up with my conversation exchanges via Skype, once I can focus enough to carry on a conversation! That should also help me feel less isolated. (And honestly I’m hoping after a couple of weeks I might feel okay enough to travel very carefully and gingerly to German class…)

Anyway! I’m really itching to get this surgery over and done with: the uncertainty about dates and the waiting is bothering me more than the actual operation or recovery. I mean, I’m nervous about being in pain and being limited in what I can do for months particularly when winter is rolling in. But I know this surgery is the right thing to do and I’ve been trying to get the NHS to agree for over a year. I just want to be sorted already! I guess coming up with a list of fluffy vlogs and other stuff to watch while I’m recovering is my version of pre-surgery broodiness (apparently some people clean the house, etc. instead! Ha! Not me!).

No doubt I’ll post again before I go into surgery, but it helps me to get this sort of thinking out there. And if people are around in London in late autumn and maybe want to go for a cup of tea or something similarly restrained, depending on how my recovery goes, that might be a nice idea!

What else should I do to keep going with some easy, joyful, engaging language learning while I’m recovering? Have any of you had to prepare for intensive time resting/hanging out in bed or mostly at home while you deal with health work? Any tips, relating to languages or not?

Regrounding myself with languages, and: in which I ask for a little bit more of your patience

I’ve been traveling the past few weeks, and it was both more draining than I hoped and with less internet access than I wanted — which is why posts here have been even scarcer than usual, and why I’m a bit later than intended with the language buddy match-ups. Apologies for that; your patience is appreciated! I’m just worn out right now and trying to remedy that.

I didn’t study much while on the road, and in fact, I was using a language I haven’t studied for a long time. It was really pleasing how so much of it came back to me, but it did make my German fade. And it started to feel strange, and more than a bit perfunctory, to do things like pay serious attention to the daily news emails from German (and French) newspapers or watch vlogs.

Since I got back into town a few days ago, I’ve been scrambling to find something to remind me who I am (odd, and disappointing: oftentimes when I travel, I feel that it reminds me even more of who I am), to find something that feels comforting, reassuring.

This weekend I went for a run; I’m not really a runner but have been trying to do more of that this summer, which was interrupted while I was out of town. It felt good to get back to that, and aerobic activity seems to be somewhat effective for me in distracting anxiety. Then I painted my nails, because that’s something small and relatively easy to do that’s nice for myself.

I also tried to linger more over my news emails, to remind myself what it is to try seriously to parse news articles. I’ve been reading a few pages of a book or a magazine in German before I go to bed — nothing super-challenging, just something light to ease myself back into things.

I have to try to remember, to reawaken, the satisfaction of doing these things on a daily basis, in a mindful fashion. It goes without saying that this will help my German, but I’m also hoping it will help bring me back to myself and give me more of a sense of stability. Because I’ve been studying German for a while now (just under two years), and studying languages for much longer than that.

I’m rattled from coming back into town (and having to go back to work, boo), but also because I only moved house a week beforehand. I don’t quite remember the tentative new routines I started in this flat, not to mention I keep saying, “But where did I put my nice tea? And where on earth is that notebook I wanted to scribble lists in?”

So yes. Recentering myself, somehow. I’m going to try to be really nice to myself, really patient, really kind and forgiving. There are a couple of life things that are provoking extreme anxiety at the moment (apart from the general post-trip/return-to-work anxiety!) and I just… need to take care of myself.

I’m going to try to do more of the fun things with languages at the moment, too: I think my news emails are important, and I like reading them (except sometimes when the news is super-grim and I end up seeing five articles about the same mass shooting or whatever). But other things can be more fun, more engaging: I need to catch up on my vlogs — fluffy food haul or clothing haul or makeup videos seem right up my alley at the moment — and I could spend more time poking around German Instagram (I really like getting the bite-sized bits of German in people’s captions when I take a moment to check my feed on a tube platform or while I’m waiting on line somewhere).

The realization that snapping more fully back into language study mode would feel grounding to me is a bit astonishing. It makes me feel like I’m really a serious language person, somehow. Which is hilarious (that I’d need that kind of validation, and would get it from this), but hey, I’ll take it.

Anyway — all that to say, I have to remember that I need to be patient with myself and my various health issues (physical and mental, both of which have needed some attention in the wake of my return). And I ask for your patience, too — I’m going to try hard to get to the language buddy stuff this weekend. And I’m going to try hard not to get an anxious block around doing anything at all with it!

So, stay tuned, everyone!