Month: August 2014

Dark days, or more about self-care for language learners

Remember what I said the other day about taking care of yourself and your mental state during language learning? I used the example of me mostly avoiding explicit/detailed things about the treatment of animals, and instead mostly focusing on vegan recipe blogs, reviews of vegan shops, etc.

In that same post I mentioned receiving daily news emails in my target languages. It can feel relentless: how many stories, in two different languages, can I bear to read about Ferguson, Gaza, Ebola?

I have a slight background in activist work, and much of my social circle consists of people who are similarly social justice-minded. We have a tendency to feel that pulling back — because we’re tired, or burned out, or our hearts are breaking from the things we see around us — is a failure. If we were only dedicated to the cause, we’d push on! Wrong, wrong, wrong. Movements can only be stronger when we take time for self-care.

Brave words, but I do struggle with this activist guilt (I should stay informed, I should bear witness), as well as feeling like I should make myself go through these news stories for language practice. I say this here to myself as much as to you: it’s okay not to push through the news. Even if it’s useful practice. Even if you want to keep up with current events (as I do, and if I can accomplish that while learning languages, even better). It’s all right to take a break, to skim, to just glance at the headlines, to choose something else instead. Needing time to rest and recenter and recharge is natural!

I’m still going through the news emails, but consciously telling myself I can skip anything I want or just read lighter fluffier stories when they appear. For example, I enjoyed reading about herb gardening when it popped up in Süddeutsche Zeitung this week. I also get emails from Brigitte, a German women’s magazine. A lot of their stories don’t interest me, but I like their travel series (48 hours in different cities) and occasionally I flick through their recipes.

If you’re stressed out by what you’re reading — whether it’s the news or something else — be gentle with yourself and find other things to dive into. Fashion, celebrity gossip, sports, gardening — whatever your chosen substitute is, don’t feel bad for abandoning something because it’s distressing you! This is doubly true for those of us with mental illness. Our brains do a good job making us feel bad on their own. Let’s not make it easier for them if possible.

On the subject of things that are easy in terms of reading level as well as a pleasure in terms of content, this post is very persuasive! I really like the book bin idea — if I had a front porch or a balcony, I’m sure it would be super for my mental health to read out there; it sounds idyllic! (Saying that, I suppose I could go to my local park with a book bin & a travel mug of tea…)

I wish you all joyful reading, as well as the strength to read the more difficult things, when you want to, and the strength to step back when you need to.

Little and often: automating my study strategy

In a previous post, I talked about how I keep learning languages through the power of habit, often even when severely depressed or anxious. “Little and often,” I said, and today I want to talk about how I get those bits and pieces of language study into my day.

I admire people who can do study routines like the one in this post (I certainly don’t get that long of a lunch break!). However, as noted in there, most people won’t be able to do that and certainly not every day.

I can’t, probably not even on a really good day. On a really bad day, I need the power of habits and automation (and my smartphone) to really get anything done at all.

This doesn’t make me a bad person or a weak person or a person not committed to languages. It makes me someone struggling under various conditions and constraints and responding to them as I’m able. I refuse to feel guilty.

So what does my routine look like? Starting off my day, I use Duolingo while eating breakfast. I don’t often have time to do very much, just a few minutes, but it’s there: part of my morning is learning French and German.

When I walk to the tube, I listen to podcasts: usually Coffee Break German, Slow German, or Coffee Break French (I can recommend all of these, and I’d love if you told me what you’re listening to yourself). It’s only about 15 minutes, but it serves me well. Listening to the same episodes repeatedly helps me absorb vocabulary and grammar too — I may not process it well the first time (if I’m crossing a street or smiling at someone’s dog at a particular moment, my focus may waver!), and reinforcement is a good thing anyway.

During my train ride, I take out my ereader — I’m currently reading Harry Potter in French (I’m on book 3!). Sometimes I just read a few pages, especially if I don’t get a seat. I might then review my Anki flashcards, or if I’m having a bad morning, I might just close my eyes and work on collecting myself instead.

I get several news emails daily, both morning and afternoon, in French and German (currently, from Süddeutsche Zeitung, Deutsche Welle, Le Nouvel Observateur, Libération, Le Monde, and Le Libre).

This means I don’t have to think about whether or not to go to, say, Ouest-France’s website to read an article (something I’d often intended to do, but couldn’t do consistently): the news just shows up in my inbox. If I don’t have a lot of time or energy (usually when I’m at work!), I can at least skim the headlines & read the two or three summary sentences under each one. When I can, I click on the ones that interest me to take a look at the whole article. Some days, some articles, I try to read the whole thing. Sometimes I only look at the first few paragraphs. Some days, I skim fleetingly only. I prefer to read on the bigger screen of a monitor, but I can also read on my phone, which helps (as does wifi on the tube!).

Why don’t I save the emails for later? Because I’m making French and German part of my life: if I don’t read these now, something else will come along later that I might have time or focus to read. I don’t want to pile up a huge archive of outdated news that, chances are, I’ll never read and will only feel increasingly bad about. As someone dealing with mental illness, I’m already prone to guilt and feeling overwhelmed: why sap my language-learning energy further?

When I do have time, I don’t read every article anyway. Why? Because not all of them interest me. And I do more languages when I can have fun with them.

I also keep up with a lot of blogs, including ones in my target languages, via RSS feeds — I use Feedly. Again, I don’t read every word of every blog post. I read what I can: what I have time and energy for, what catches my eye, what feels interesting or useful or relevant.

I’d definitely recommend finding blogs on your topics of interest in the languages you’re studying, if you haven’t already. Though a caveat to those struggling with mental illness: you might want to stick to blogs with subjects that aren’t likely to pull your mood down. For example, I read lots of vegan blogs in German, mainly cooking blogs or ones that review restaurants, cookbooks, etc. The shorter, more condensed text of a recipe is easier to parse — especially if I’m reading clandestinely at work — and beautiful food photography lifts my spirits! I know there are more theoretical vegan blogs out there that talk about animal exploitation, sometimes in graphic terms. But I also know that, in addition to this probably being too challenging for my German at this point, sometimes my state of mind is too fragile for that. I do read those kinds of things occasionally, but I’m less likely to put them automatically in front of me via subscribing to those blogs.

I’ve also finally dipped my toe into Instagram. Several friends have recommended casual photography, and the moments of mindfulness that requires, as a tool in my mental health arsenal. That’s proving true for me so far! But I’ve also followed lots of German vegan food bloggers. Not only do they post delicious-looking photos, they often leave short comments underneath in German: more small moments for me to practice my reading comprehension! (If anyone reading this knows of any German yoga Instagrammers that would be similarly useful, please do let me know!)

There are lots of other things I do — conversation exchange, classes, tutoring sessions, watching a TV series or listening to the radio — but the items above form the bones of my daily language study habits. I recognize that, for some, this may seem a pathetic effort, but it works for me.

When I’m feeling really ill (either physically or mentally), this all has to be scaled down. In a future post, I’ll talk about what my daily language learning routine looks like when I’m in a downswing, and how I can keep studying sometimes even when I can’t do anything but hide on the couch under a blanket for the whole weekend.

In the meantime, tell me about your study routines! How do you build opportunities for languages into your day?

I am more than my illness: language-learning and identity

First, some great news. I want to say that I was incredibly honored to be featured on the Fluent blog as a top new language blogger! I already read one of the other two blogs mentioned — How to Languages — and am checking out The Foreign Language Learning Challenge. Many thanks to Kerstin, and welcome to new readers coming this way!

I have so many posts I want to write — many of them half-drafted already — about my language habits (and how I scale them down when I’m really ill), what conversation exchange feels like as a person with mental illness (and an introvert!), and a thousand other things.

Today I’m thinking about identity and mental health. I stumbled upon Identity-Based Habits: How to Actually Stick to Your Goals This Year a few months ago. In this post, James Clear argues that changing one’s identity is a crucial strategy to build new habits, and thus move towards your goals: losing weight or becoming a better writer or getting ahead at work.

For a language-related example, instead of saying, “I want to be fluent in German,” we should say something like, “I’m the kind of person who never misses a study session,” or, “I’m the kind of person who studies an hour every day.” If you adopt this identity, Clear says, then you’ll be more likely to keep this new habit, resulting eventually in German fluency.

I’m not completely sold on this (and I find it interesting that there isn’t any research cited in the post, as Clear often backs up his ideas by linking to some), but on a broad level, something about it speaks to me.

When you’re mentally ill, it’s really easy to not feel like you have a mental illness. It feels like you are the illness. Numerous times, I’ve told people that I feel like there is nothing left of me except depression — it taints and warps and destroys anything else; it feels as if my identity is entirely rooted in being depressed and dysfunctional.

By taking Clear’s tactic and consciously trying to adopt another identity, I have something else to latch onto. Naming myself as “someone who studies languages daily,” for example, means there’s something inside me besides depression.

Even if my study habits falter at times, or if I wish I could study more (who doesn’t wish that?!), it feels a little bit comforting to be not just the person struggling under the boulder of depression or the person who sometimes feels like they can’t breathe from anxiety. I’m also someone who studies languages!

And if I’m someone who studies languages, then maybe I should go ahead and study some, right? If I can manage that, well, result! Temporary distraction, some minimal feeling of accomplishment, and — with time — noticeable progress. I think my brainweasels are not always so easily derailed, but in theory this virtuous circle is a good one.

Do you identify as a language learner, someone who studies languages, someone who speaks multiple languages, something else? Do you feel like this impacts how much you study or learn? Does it matter to you, or is your identity less tied to what you do?