Month: January 2015

Postcrossing, conversation exchange, and the joy of human connection

Do you all know about Postcrossing? It’s a website where you sign up to send postcards to random people around the world (and then receive some in return, of course!). Over the year or so that I’ve been a member, it’s become a valued tool in my self-care arsenal.

There’s something really life-affirming about sending mail to a stranger. I may not have anything at all in common with them; if we met in person, perhaps we’d even get into an argument over politics or something. But we send each other cards anyway. We wish each other well. Maybe we try to find the perfect postcard based on their profile or we buy pretty stamps or stickers. That little human connection, based on nothing more than signing up for the same website, somehow feels quite profound.

Of course, if I get someone who speaks a language I’m studying or have studied, it can be fun to write to them in that language. But the overwhelming pleasure for me is in the connection to people (that, and some of the truly amazing postcards I’ve received).

Sometimes doing conversation exchange feels like that too. A couple of the people I speak with seem to have things in common with me; with others, we mostly stick to safe, sanitized topics (still perfectly useful for language-learning, of course). But the bottom line is, we’re both trying to learn a language, we’re both putting in the time to speak to each other of our own volition, and we’re both wishing each other success and good luck. And we’re both helping each other to do that.

Okay, sure, each side of a conversation exchange has a vested interest in the other person feeling that it’s gone well, so that the exchange can continue. But still, it’s got a bit of that Postcrossing feel for me, that simple goodwill towards another person, just because.

Like I’ve said before, with mental illness, connections to other people may feel impossible or absent. Or they may feel like a burden or a danger (I’m a drain, I harm everyone that gets close to me, etc.). A postcard from a stranger, or a few minutes speaking to someone who maybe is or isn’t a stranger (to one degree or another), can provide some uncomplicated connection. And a reminder that, despite depression, I can still feel interested in things, I can still have small bright moments in my life, I still deserve other people’s good thoughts. The power of that can’t be overestimated!

What’s your study space like?

Thank you to everyone who’s read my Guardian piece, commented (here or there), shared the link, and followed my Twitter or this blog directly. It’s been astonishing and somewhat overwhelming — one of the worst feelings of depression, for me, is that of feeling useless and also isolated, so knowing that I wrote something that clearly resonates and is of interest to so many people is a very… strange… sort of feeling. I’m humbled by the kind words people have shared with me.

For me, also, being depressed means spending a lot of time dreading an onslaught of negative feelings. This results in my brain even trying to scurry away from positive experiences or feelings sometimes: both because I don’t trust them (things will go back to being awful soon and won’t I feel bitterly naive for having dared to think things might be different?) and because… feelings! Stop! We can’t have this! They’re scary!

I really want to be having conversations with other people who are depressed and trying to learn languages. The difficult thing, of course, is that often depression makes communication and connection tricky or even impossible. (This might be a veiled apology for being slow to respond to comments… if I can respond to them at all, I mean.) But of course, with impeccable timing, my depression decided to dig its heels in a bit pretty much right as the Guardian article went up.

Focusing on reading the news has been proving a good distraction: unpicking grammar, looking up key new words (hat tip to the lovely German is easy! blog for today’s), trying to parse sarcasm or metaphors or slang. And it’s a good example of little-and-often study having discernible results: when every newspaper is writing about Pegida or Charlie Hebdo, it’s very easy to absorb new vocabulary.

Anyway — I’ve also been thinking about study spaces. It’s winter here in London, and I’m craving coziness and physical comfort, which I think translates into me thinking about arrangements of domestic space in general.

I have a small table in the corner of my living room that, in theory, is mostly kept clear for studying. And when it is, it can be a good place to go sit and go through textbooks and handwritten notes. However, when I have my laundry hanging up, I can’t sit there, because the drying rack has to go right next to the radiator (or window: depending if I’m relying on the boiler or the sun/wind at any given time), and when that happens, there’s no room to pull out the chair.

My table, which became somewhat of a dumping ground during the busy holiday period, and the laundry rack!

My table, which became somewhat of a dumping ground during the busy holiday period, and the laundry rack!

My desk, where my computer is, is a bit too small to do a lot of textbook-wrangling while I look up stuff online (especially if I haven’t cleared it off in a while…), never mind actually pulling out a notebook to write.

So I end up curling up in the armchair (cozy, at least — it’s next to the radiator) or on the couch, notebook balanced on my knees, papers or textbooks or magazines spilling out around me. It’s not the easiest way to work, and let’s face it, armchairs and couches are not exactly conducive to staying awake.

I’d like a table that I kept clear, with decent storage/organization so that books and papers don’t just spread over the whole thing in a random order. Really, what I want is a study station that looks like it came off of Pinterest, but I’d settle for not having to choose whether to hang laundry or study!

It’s not impossible to do work in a subpar space, of course, but it’s more difficult. And when you’re depressed, sometimes the slightest “more difficult” setting means that something doesn’t get done. (And of course again, rearranging one’s workspace to work better for you can be difficult or impossible in the throes of depression! What a conundrum…)

So, yes, you can muddle along in inconvenient spaces with minimal resources, but the nice-to-haves can also make a real difference, in terms of motivation and enjoyment, if you can afford them. I find it so hard to shake off a sense of guilt about that, though! If I were really a dedicated language-learner, I’d be so passionate about it, I wouldn’t need silly props like nice pens, right?

For me, of course, the danger also lies in delaying studying until I have the right stationery/the right desk organizers/the right layout (or the right textbook, of course). But the right resources are the ones you use — it does me no good to buy a new cute notebook if it still doesn’t get me to study, and the old crappy free notebook I got from work is just fine when I end up filling the pages with notes from italki sessions.

What kind of study area do you have? Are you lucky enough to have enough space and the freedom to arrange it how you need to? If not, what compromises do you make? What would you like it to be like? How does it facilitate studying or make it more difficult? I’d love to see photos, if anyone wanted to share!

I’m in the Guardian!

… I can’t believe I can even write this sentence, but: my article, “Learning a language helps me talk back to the voice of depression”, is now live on the Guardian’s language-learning site! I’m really honored and excited (and nervous) to have the chance to share my experiences with language-learning and mental illness with their audience.

Please do go check it out, share, and comment there, here, or both (and if you’d like to retweet me announcing it, here you go!).

Many thanks to Holly Young at the Guardian for giving me this opportunity — there have been so many great articles about language-learning posted there recently, I’m thrilled to be in their company!

Baby-stepping into the new year

Well, so it’s 2015. At least the holidays are over (they’re always difficult for me, and after a very challenging 2014, especially so). Time to get back in the swing of old routines, or maybe start new ones.

(I should say that I managed to keep up with reading my zillion daily news emails in French and German through two intercontinental plane journeys and a busy, noisy holiday period with my family. That is something I’m legitimately proud of. This weekend I had my first Skype conversation exchanges of 2015, and one of them told me my German was even better than when we spoke in mid-December, the weekend before I left! I’m proud of that too.)

I think, as a person with depression and anxiety, I am particularly susceptible to decision paralysis or the tyranny of choice. In the world of language learning blogs and communities, there can be a lot of discussion about the ‘best’ way to learn, or at least ways that people like to say are inefficient, a waste of time or money, only for people who aren’t serious, etc. It can send me into a real agony of indecision: I’m already stupid/lazy/bad, I have to avoid making yet another wrong decision! And then I freeze while I try to analyze things and come up with the right plan, the right tools, the right links (and then hope I have the right amount of energy and focus to work on them, of course).

So I’ve been considering Olly’s post about sprints (here’s another great post with a similar theme). I’m especially trying to take to heart the point about how it’s okay if you pick “the wrong thing.” That’s partly because sprints are brief, and hey, you can always pick something else the next time. But also because doing something to further your language study is better than doing nothing, so in that sense, there really isn’t a bad choice.

I also appreciate the reminder to start tiny, so you don’t fail. Because, like many people, once I decided to try a sprint, I thought, oh well, here are five things I could be doing, that I’ve been wanting to focus on… let’s do them all! It’s New Year’s, it’s January, this month is gray and miserable, what would be better than to throw myself into lots of study?!

Yeah. Until I get busy or have a bad brain day and wipe out and can’t do the 77 language things I’ve decided I should be able to do daily. And then I feel terrible.

Anyway, I’m starting slowly. I’ve decided to go through Deutsche Welle’s Wieso nicht? course. Each day I’m going through an episode three times: first just listening to it, then listening while reading the transcript, then listening while reading the transcript and attempting to read along out loud. I’m only a few days in and I already feel like it’s changing (hopefully improving) my German pronunciation and awareness of the shapes one’s mouth makes when speaking German, in contrast to the way I speak English.

Is anyone else starting off 2015 with a sprint? What are you doing? Have you done any before? What kinds of activities do you find useful for sprinting? Is there anything else you’re doing to your language-learning routines to kickstart the new year?

(And for those of you still setting New Year’s Resolutions, I like Lindsay’s post, as well as this one from LATG.)