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.



  1. I am excited about this!

    All the language pissing contests — I’ve noticed that I totally get ignored when I say something like, “I’ve had a lot of audio exposure, but I still find TV really hard to understand,” or “I’m good at reading, but I really don’t know that many kanji.” And I was not saying this in the context of complaining or asking for advice, but just trying to make the point that the hyperbolic success stories are sometimes Results Not Typical. When it becomes unacceptable to talk about anything except how badass you are, it becomes impossible to admit weakness, ask for help, or even just be honest about your own experiences.


    1. Ugh, yes, it’s so frustrating when potentially helpful discussions like that just… wither on the vine! Especially when people are focusing instead on how many words they know/how many chapters of Assimil they did this week*/how many languages they consider themselves fluent in/how exactly their prowess in one language challenge or another should be recorded. For all the ‘discussion’ this seems to generate (at least in terms of people posting words online and other people nominally replying to them), it seems incredibly self-centered sometimes.

      * Can we talk about how expensive Assimil is, to start?! I did see a blog post recently about budgeting for polyglottery but mostly, other than general grumbles about one course or another being expensive, people seem to not want to talk so much about the class/money aspect OR just shove down your throat all the free resources you can use on the internet so how dare anyone try to use money as an excuse ever ever!


    2. I agree about being able to be open about our own weaknesses. For me, the most productive & interesting conversations between language learners are when they involve talking about both struggles and successes, and sharing tips and ideas to collaborate on the process, rather than competing, as if there weren’t plenty of room for all of us.

      So, love the idea for this blog!


      1. Hi Danya — thank you so much for this! There’s still an incredible amount of stigma in talking about mental illness in general, and within language-learning circles I’ve seen very little about how this might impact whatever one’s goals might be (this is also true in general in productivity blogging circles, alas), which compounds the feeling of shame or failure sometimes. If this blog helps make more conversations happen, I’ll be really pleased!


  2. Thank you for this. I have lived in Germany for five years and i am beginning to feel like i am losing my identity and personality because of my poor German. Your site is just what i needed to read so i will follow you. Thank you.


  3. Hello – I love this – I LOVE that I found this blog. I am about to start writing a blog about learning Spanish, which I don’t know anything about and I am super nervous about it. I work for one of those polyglots (that you may or may not find the lingo muscle flexing type – your links don’t seem to work for me!?) and I am to write the blog as I learn Spanish using his method of learning. It’s exciting and terrifying all at once. What if I fail?

    I am already bad at taking criticism and there will probably be trolls doing their thing, telling me I suck. How do you deal with that if you are already depressed?

    Anyway, thank you so much for this 🙂


    1. Hi Lykke — ooh, that sounds like a really cool project (but also I understand why you might find it intimidating — oooooh super curious as to who you work for now. 😀 ). & thanks for flagging that the links weren’t working — I think there might’ve been something weird w/the https bit (I have a browser plugin that requests every link is connected to securely, but I think when I transferred them into the post maybe something weird happened w/Firefox? I… don’t really know). I’ve tried to fix them now, anyway!

      I admit I’ve been really nervous about trolls with this blog (especially once the Guardian article went up) — I’ve been really lucky so far (knock on wood) though. I was going to line up friends to read the comments on the Guardian article in case they got hairy, but didn’t need to. I’m hopeful that people might not troll your language-learning blog… I mean, there are some folks in the language-learning online communities who get really fierce in defense of their chosen learning method, but hopefully they wouldn’t get too argumentative in someone else’s blog. Maybe do a post setting out some ground rules for discussion? (Even just saying that you reserve the right not to answer comments if you don’t want to, etc.?)

      Best of luck to you, w/the blog & w/Spanish!!


  4. I’m so glad I found this blog. I was already starting to doubt my own commitment to learn a language. My progress isn’t quite as fast as I hoped it would be.
    Keep up writing! I’m looking forward to your next post.


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