Month: September 2014

Treat yourself like one of your conversation exchange partners

There’s that old chestnut about treating yourself with the same understanding and kindness that you extend to your friends, instead of being hyper-critical and impatient.

I said the other day that I try to be who my conversation exchange partners think I am. It occurs to me that I should treat myself like I treat them as well. Maybe you should too, if you don’t already! I bet you’ve never said to the other person, “Dummy! I’ve told you that word three times already, why don’t you ever remember it?” or “How do you ever expect to learn this language if you don’t go any faster???” or “You’ve studied this tense over and over, why can’t you use it right yet?” or “Do you really think you can do this?”

I bet, like me, you’re more likely to celebrate their small frequent successes — like when you see them struggle with a grammar point and then manage to get the words out correctly — and help them figure out how to keep improving in a way that works for them. It feels wonderful to be on the receiving end of this sort of thing, too: I’ve had people make a point to tell me how much I’d improved after we’d been speaking for a few weeks, for example.

What if I spent less time castigating myself (for not studying “enough,” for not learning as fast as I wish I was) and was able to redirect that energy to patience and compassion and gentle encouragement? What if you did?


I’m in illustrious company! And also now on Twitter!

I was really pleased and honored (that makes it sound calmer than in reality!) to be included in Stephanie’s roundup of Language Blogs That Tell a Story over at To Be Fluent. Thank you, Stephanie! It makes me really happy that people are finding this blog useful and interesting. Her post has tons of fantastic language bloggers in it, not just the usual suspects — do check it out!

I’ve also finally set up a Twitter account for this blog. I’ll be sure to tweet new posts and hopefully other interesting bits and pieces — I’m still finding my way around having more than one Twitter identity (any suggestions for free Android apps to manage multiple accounts would be appreciated). You can follow me or read my tweets in the sidebar of this blog or directly on Twitter at compassionlang (darn username length limits).

Being the person they think I am

Language exchange can be a funny thing. Sometimes you end up with a person that you have lots in common with and lots to talk about; other times it seems the only overlap is that you’re both learning a language. (I don’t think the latter necessarily means the partnership won’t work, incidentally.)

One thing that seems inevitable, at least in my experience so far, is that you won’t talk about very personal or delicate things. Certainly not at first.

You’ll talk about why you want to learn a language, what you hope to do with it, but you probably won’t talk about your fears so much. A few of my conversation exchange partners are trying to improve their English for financial reasons — they’ve hinted at unemployment or underemployment, but without a lot of detail or emotion. For my part, I’ve hinted at a difficult summer and also unhappiness with my job situation/burnout/midlife crisis-type stuff.

But I don’t say how terrified I am that all this language stuff won’t work out, that I’ll never get to fluency, that my brainweasels (which they definitely don’t know about!) will prevent me from doing it, that it will just be another project in my life that I started with great enthusiasm and crapped out on. And maybe they’re afraid and they don’t tell me: of being unable to get another job, of not being able to support themselves or their family, if they don’t learn English well enough.

I’ve told them that I admire them for diving in and working so diligently — through Skype exchanges, intensive courses, etc. — in order to try to reinvent their lives, to some degree, through language. I find it inspirational, especially for those who are in their 40s and upwards; I’m sliding towards 40 myself and definitely need stories about people my age changing their lives, when things feel impossible and I feel too old and stuck.

To them, I casually mention jobs I’m applying to in Brussels, how once my languages get better I’ll be eligible for even more jobs in the EU, etc.

I know I sound more confident than I feel. They certainly seem to act as if I have a chance of succeeding at this, and they act as if they have a chance too. Otherwise why are we taking the time to speak, if not to move forward together and encourage each other, right?

I’m trying to be the person they think I am: hard-working, consistent, at least somewhat cheerful and optimistic. I’m trying to act the way I want to feel. Sometimes it’s a facade that lasts just long enough to disconnect Skype, and then my mood crashes. But, you know, I’m trying. And maybe they’re trying to be the people that I see as well.

And if we all keep trying to be that person, well, we might just get somewhere.

In which the Embarrassed Language Learner asks for help

Yay, I posted about study habits when I’m severely depressed, after having that half-drafted for weeks and then… being too depressed to finish it!

But here’s something else I want to say. It makes me feel embarrassed and arrogant, but I’m going to take a deep breath and try to push away the shame and say it anyway. I’ve been lucky so far, for the tender age of this blog, to already have a lovely group of readers, some of whom have left really supportive comments. I’d like to ask you all, if you know of anyone who’d be interested in my blog, especially if they could relate to it, to please send them the link!

Yes, I realize this just looks like naked groveling for attention/blog hits, and maybe someone will castigate me for that. But there are two reasons I’m asking. Firstly: one of the most terrible things for me, when depressed, is to feel alone. Physically, yes, but also emotionally, and also in terms of feeling like I am broken or limited or just wrong in ways that nobody else is. So knowing that there are other language-learners out there who maybe struggle with the same things I do would be helpful.

And something else that I find agonizing (to the point that this alone can plunge me into a fit of suicidal ideation) is the idea that I’m, well… useless. That I have nothing to contribute, that there is nothing meaningful in my life or that I can add to the world. When I am in a really bad depressive state (as I have been lately), I feel guilty for all the effort my friends put in to support me and try to help me through. It makes me feel like a net drain, because mostly I can’t do anything except try to hold myself together. So — and believe me, all this is excruciating to say out loud — to know that this blog is useful to someone would be a tiny tiny bulwark against feeling that way.

Thanks, everyone. For reading, and maybe commenting, and maybe pointing other people here. I’m going to post this and run for the hills, red-faced, now.

Study habits when I’m too depressed to get up

I wrote earlier about some of the things I do to make language-learning part of my day, a habit that clicks into place ideally several times a day.

When I’m not feeling well, when I’m in a bad place with regards to my depression or anxiety, I have to scale back my routines. Sometimes a lot. Unfortunately, while depression often robs me of my ability to do things, then not having done anything makes me feel worse.

I’ve developed a few tricks to keep the learning going, even a tiny bit, when I’m so low that I can barely get off the couch over a weekend. Apart from how awful that is in its own right, it is terrible to feel like being ill chips away any progress I’m making (on languages or on life things in general…). So. Here’s how I manage to do something, even if just a little bit, rather than nothing.

(Oh, stigma. I started this blog to speak openly about being someone with mental illness learning a language. And yet I still cringe talking about it. You perhaps can see why I have very little identifying information on this blog…)

My most important tool at these times is my smartphone. I resisted getting one for a long time, but a few years ago I caved and I wouldn’t go back. For a lot of reasons, many of which relate to self-care when depressed (at least I can tweet at my friends from under a blanket while stuck on the couch), but also because it makes language-learning more portable and accessible. Yeah, a tablet would probably be even better for this, and I’d love to have one, but it’s not in the budget right now. So my phone it is!

Duolingo and Memrise on my phone are a blessing. I often find Duolingo a nice way to distract my anxiety anyway, and the fact that I can do this on the couch is even better. I like match-3 games on my phone for anxiety a lot too, but most of them limit how long you can play at a time. If I can redirect this gaming urge to languages, all the better! (Duolingo isn’t a miracle tool, but I have found it useful for vocabulary, and in getting myself to engage with languages when I don’t have enough focus for anything else.)

I can review my Anki cards while prone on the couch too, of course, but something about Duolingo or Memrise seems to work better for me at those times, maybe because silence is often frightening to me then, and the sounds/gamification works to fill it.

Also on the audio tip, I like talk radio (usually the news) in my target languages. I try to choose a station from TuneIn on my desktop computer before I sink down onto the couch, if I can. But if not, well, then I’ve got a TuneIn app on my phone! The news may not sound very relaxing or soothing, and it wouldn’t be in English. But even when it’s about something heavy, the act of having to focus in order to figure out the least bit of what’s going on distracts my mind a little. It’s soothing in its own way. Plus, news presenters tend to have comfortingly monotonous voices.

If that doesn’t work, another thing I like to do is put on the same song, in my target language, over and over. One of my current comfort songs is Boskomat‘s Idée Folle. Putting songs on repeat means both that it soothes me but also occasionally a lyric I hadn’t been able to parse before suddenly becomes clear and comprehensible. Repetition helps with this, of course!

So yes, silence is poisonous for super-depressed-me. I also crave color, pretty things, things that push back against the way the world feels (cliche alert!) gray gray gray. This is where I start refreshing my Instagram feed on my phone. As mentioned, I follow a lot of people posting food photos with commentary in German underneath, and clicking through tags to find more people to follow, and seeing more food, is a great thing to do when I’m too agitated or worn-out or sad to do anything more active. (I’ve also started looking up tags for other subjects, like dogs!)

I do also sometimes watch YouTube videos in my target languages on my phone — sound and color, hooray! — but they can require a sustained level of focus that I can’t always muster.

I really need to figure out even more things I can do along these lines. Any ideas? My phone is getting a bit worn-out and clunky (I’m hoping to make it until my contract runs out in the spring and I can get a new one), but there must be other things I can do.

What do you do when you’re limited by your energy due to mental or physical illness? What are your core study tools and resources? Are there things that are easier or more sustainable through the fog of depression/anxiety/etc.? Things you find impossible? Does it work better simply to let yourself rest and recover before you dive back in?

(I should note that this is all an ideal version of coping with severe brainweasels. All this doesn’t always happen, and sometimes almost none of it does. I had a really bad patch recently — actually, let’s be honest, self, I’m still struggling through it — and sometimes this stuff was just beyond me. There’s a balance — that I can’t always find — between pushing myself, in a good way, and being kind to myself and letting myself rest. And sometimes that doesn’t even feel like a choice.)