Month: July 2014

The dual uses of distraction

I’m writing this somewhat hastily while I have the inspiration/spoons — as I said in my last post, I had a big interpersonal bomb go off recently, and I’m trying to focus really hard on keeping my head above water (I’m so grateful to my friends for their wisdom and tenacity and support).

You know what’s helping me a bit? Distraction. Things, like fluffy TV shows, that pull me in and engage my brain long enough to make me forget what’s upsetting me so much. Even better if I can absorb myself in something “productive” — I struggle with feeling productive “enough,” but I think that for me, feeling useless or like a net drain of energy, like I don’t contribute anything, is even worse.

So. Languages. You know how bloggers love to go on about how you have to study things that interest you? That if you find the rote “Hello, Mr. Brown, are you here on holiday? Where do you come from? What is your job?” dialogues in textbooks deadly dull, it’s okay? This is true! This is wisdom. Read about things that interest you in your native language and it will help you keep churning through the challenge of doing so in your target language.

And, as a not-inconsequential benefit, it will hopefully engage your mind and help you through anxiety loops, depressive spirals, or other unfun brainweasel manifestations.

I’m not saying anything new here, but I wanted to write this right now because I’ve just been reading an interview with a vegan cookbook author in German, and for a few moments my brain gave me a little peace.

It felt like a miracle.

So. Try it. Keep doing it. What are your other hobbies or interests? Yoga or motorcycles or local politics or heavy metal or gardening or knitting or martial arts? Find blog posts or magazines or newspapers or books (or videos, podcasts, etc.: this isn’t limited to print!) about these things in your target language.Stick them in your RSS feed reader; add them to Twitter; bookmark them; subscribe for email updates; download them on your phone: whatever it takes so they’re there in front of you to look at.

It just might help both your language-learning and your mental health, even if just for a moment.


(Brief?) interruption of service

I know this is a terrible thing to admit to, especially on a new blog, but it may be some time before my next post. I’m on vacation — that was supposed to be the reason! — but I’ve had some seriously bad personal news; that combined with my usual brainweasels means I can’t keep posting right now. (Though who knows, maybe I’ll start a flurry of posts to distract myself…)

I hope my few readers will be patient and understanding. Take care.

Why language-learning habits (mostly) work when I’m depressed

For a lot of people, language study feels like this: going into a classroom for a few hours once a week, fumbling around to remember what you learned last week, & then going home and leaving that language alone until you realize class is tomorrow and you still haven’t done your homework. This attitude can be reinforced by peer pressure in school: after all, why would you want to do extra work for class that you didn’t have to do? That would make you a nerd, a loser, an asskisser, right?

It’s a shift to move from that clunky, slow, and not very effective method to integrating your new language into your life every day. It takes effort. But it can be very rewarding! And importantly, for me, making “little and often” a study strategy is more adaptable to fluctuating levels of energy, willpower, and focus brought on by long-term mental illness.

Habits can be really helpful for me — when anxiety clouds my thinking so much that decision-making seems impossible, auto-pilot gets me through the day. I know that eating poorly and irregularly makes me feel worse — and I know that it’s also something I’m very prone to letting slide when I don’t feel well. Fortunately, at this point I could probably put together a bowl of overnight oats in my sleep, which sorts out breakfast, at least (however, I do keep a box of muesli around for the days when even that seems unattainable).

Making language study as automatic as possible also means that I’m more likely to get at least a little done no matter how lousy I feel. Studying distracts me from the noise in my brain, and the feeling of accomplishment afterwards sometimes helps break the low mood cycle. Or at least gives it a kick.

How do you build a new habit? Productivity bloggers seem even more numerous than language-learning bloggers. Advice on starting new habits is anything but scarce. Sometimes it’s just a matter of trawling around until you find something that clicks with your brain. I want to be very clear that what works for me may not work for other people — nothing I talk about here is a panacea!

My number one tool for this right now is Lift, where you can set yourself habits (some of mine: daily gratitude list; doing yoga; learning French or German, of course!), check them off on the website or the iPhone/Android apps, and receive — and give! — support from other users via props or comments. It’s been pretty motivating for me to build up long streaks — nearly 300 days and counting for a few habits! — and the fact that I can get reminders sent to my inbox helps, as does the encouragement from others. (I do find some people there have super-strict attitudes towards productivity and a relentless “mind over matter” philosophy, but for the most part I’m lucky to have encountered more realistic, kind, and compassionate people.)

Here are a few other links I’ve found useful:

36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits, from Leo Babauta at Zen Habits. I appreciate Leo talking about starting small, to make habits more sustainable, and that lots of bits of time will add up to big results. Learning a language isn’t like cleaning out your garage, where you can leave it for a week and pick up pretty much where you left off. You need repeated use in order to make things stick. Cramming for four hours before an exam didn’t work in high school, and it won’t work for language acquisition now.

And crucially, I also like what Leo says about dealing with disruptions to routine (see also Live Like a Hydra by Buster Benson). No matter how strong-minded you are & how disciplined, there will be days when the train is delayed and you get home too late to study or you have to suddenly stay very late at work or someone in your family might be ill, or you yourself. Life happens, you know?

For me, getting habits in place is comparatively easy — it’s when I break them that I stumble. I had nearly a 2-year streak on 750 Words, and then one weekend my cat had just died and I had a bad cold and I fell asleep on the couch and didn’t do my words before midnight. And though I made a few attempts, I was never able to get back into using the site from there. I definitely need to work on my resilience! If others have tips for getting back on the wagon especially, I’d love to hear them.

In my next post, I’ll give some specifics on how I use habits and a “little and often” philosophy to keep language-learning as part of my daily life, even through bad patches of mental health.

What study habits do you have? How have you incorporated them into your life? Are there habit strategies you find useful — or useless?

We’re not looking for excuses

When I envisioned this blog, I intended it to be for people like me, who both study languages and have mental illness. These are the people I want to be talking with, the ones who feel subtly left out or denigrated in other language-learning spaces online because maybe we don’t have the energy, or focus, to study two hours a day after work. Or maybe we can’t do Skype conversation exchanges on days when our anxiety is super-high or we’ve been too depressed to get dressed and can’t bear the thought of other people seeing us. You get the drift.

Somewhat belatedly, it occurred to me that other people, people without mental illness, might find their way here too. Given previous experience with this online, I think it’s worth setting down some guidelines: I don’t want to deal with comments like, “Oh, you’re just babying yourself and having a pity party so you have an excuse to be lazy and not to become fluent!” I don’t want to be deluged with stories of someone who has depression and learned six languages in a year — spare me your inspiration porn (and yes, in the UK at least, mental illness can be considered a disability).

I’m not here for that. I’m not here to be judged, to have the validity of my lived experience dismissed or downplayed, to be cooed at to just think positive. I’m not here to hold anyone’s hand and give them a free Intro to Mental Illness course either. This is the internet. Welcome to Google.

That said, for future reference, Libba Bray’s Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land is a description of living with depression that really resonates with me, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in Depression Is Not Sadness (Again): those are not bad starting points!

What it boils down to is this: if you don’t have mental illness (or even if you do, but especially if you don’t), you are welcome to read and comment (respectfully! Like everyone else), but you don’t get to judge how hard someone is trying, the individual burden they’re carrying, or whether or not they really want to learn.

If you don’t have mental illness, please respect that these posts, and any conversations that may arise from them, are not aimed at you, and I do not want to center your experiences. I want to try to shape a space where the rest of us can talk through things.

I can’t speak for everyone with mental illness, of course; I can only speak from my own experience and my (potentially flawed) understanding of my friends’ experiences. Given that, though, I think it’s fairly reasonable to say this: we’re not looking for excuses to fail. We’re trying to construct our lives around what can be some really complicated constraints. We’re trying to save our lives. And sometimes learning another language can be intimately tied into that process (I definitely want to write about that in more detail in future posts!).

Haters, as they say, to the left.

Why the Compassionate Language Learner?

There are a lot of really passionate language learners out there. Online, you can see polyglots metaphorically flexing their muscles: sharing their grueling daily study schedules, rattling off the numbers of languages they speak, aiming sky-high with their goals.

And that’s great! I admire their dedication. But that doesn’t work for everyone (here’s a brilliant post about the kind of polyglot pissing contests I find so off-putting). And for every person that says they became fluent in their target language(s) while working full-time, going to university (for something else), and taking care of a child, I promise you, there’s someone else feeling guilty because they aren’t able to do the same.

What’s my excuse? Health problems, both physical and mental, though the latter are the most difficult for me to deal with. I have depression; I have anxiety; I have been to some very dark places in my own mind.

This makes an extremely strenuous study schedule impossible for me. If you listen to some folks, the implication is that then I’m not serious enough about wanting to learn a language. I call bullshit. And I’m trying my best to shrug off the guilt and inferiority that preys on me when I see how much some other people can study in a day, in a week.

Because I’m not them. And language-learning isn’t a race. And feeling bad about my own speed and own ability does me no favors. It’s too easy to compare yourself to others and conclude that you’re a failure because you maybe can’t do what they do. Maybe shame-based study works for some people — beating yourself up, cutting out sleep or meals or time with loved ones when you feel like you haven’t done enough — but it doesn’t for me. For lots of people — with mental illness or not — this is super-detrimental.

Most of us are shamed enough daily anyway, ads everywhere telling us we’re not skinny enough or sexy enough or a good enough parent or whatever. I don’t need to feel bad because I don’t study as much as someone else, who may or may not have the constraints on time/health/money/etc. that I do, and who isn’t me. And as I’ve seen said a lot elsewhere, you can’t hate yourself into loving yourself.

So: the Compassionate Language Learner. Less self-castigation, more self-compassion. The name is, of course, also a wish and a hope and a dare to myself, to do the same.

Right. Now that I’ve explained the name, what am I going to write about here?

I want to talk about how my depression and anxiety affects language-learning: how sometimes languages help pull me up and sometimes they feel like an enormous soul-destroying unattainable quest.

I’ve found a few strategies for moving forwards even when the brainweasels make it so that I can’t leave my flat or, sometimes, even get up off the couch. I’d like to share how I’ve adapted common study techniques and productivity tips based on how many spoons I have. It’s very rare that I see this sort of thing discussed in language-learning spaces online — it leaves me feeling a little isolated, sometimes even maybe like I’m not a “real” language learner. So I’d love to talk about this with more people!

I’m grateful to Kerstin Hammes, of Fluent Language, for her post encouraging language-learners to start a blog. Instead of agonizing over whether to do this for weeks (as I have already), and then agonizing over how to make every word I write exactly the right one (as I also have done already!), I think it’d be better to write something, even if imperfect, than to not write at all.

I’m looking forward to seeing where this all takes me.