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?

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2 comments

  1. Kerstin’s blog led me here, and I read through all of your earlier posts a few days ago. I find your writing style compelling and your personal story fascinating. I appreciate you sharing your experiences with us, and I look forward to following along with you.

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    1. Hi Stephanie — thank you so much for this comment, and for reading; it means a lot!

      Your blog is great; I’m popping it into my RSS feed reader. 🙂 Also, years ago (before I realized you could learn a language by doing anything other than just taking a class…) I was studying Tagalog (I’m half-Filipino). I didn’t get very far and hardly remember anything at all today, alas. But it seems like there are much better materials available than when I was taking classes — I just remember using some very outdated-looking plastic-bound textbook, in which the first dialogue was someone speaking to a maid. Good luck, anyway — sounds like you’re doing really well!

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