Month: April 2015

Roads not taken: giving things up to study languages

Every now and then I realize all over again that learning a language takes time. Wait. That’s obvious. I mean that I’m reminded that I can’t do everything. I can multitask usefully when, for example, listening to podcasts while I walk to the tube, but in general, the time I spend on languages can’t be used for anything else.

When I’m trying to make plans with friends, apart from weekly therapy sessions and random doctor’s appointments, what gives me the most trouble is my German class, as well as conversation exchanges or the occasional italki lesson.

A few weeks ago, I also figured out that part of the reason I’d almost stopped reading over the past few years was, yes, because depression made it hard to focus, but also that my reading energy was all going into Harry Potter in French. I like Harry Potter, don’t get me wrong: otherwise I wouldn’t be reading it in another language. But it’s challenging enough that it’s not the same as just sinking into a novel in English.

Productivity bloggers and language bloggers love to talk about how to fit more into a day: cut out your mindless internet surfing, get up earlier, whatever. And fair enough, you can do that to an extent. But at the end of the day, there are only so many hours in it. (Nobody tell me to get up earlier, please. I already get up at 5, because I start work early and I hate rushing, and I do both yoga and meditation in the morning to keep myself at least somewhat stable. That cannot be traded off to fit in a few more Anki reps; it would be a false economy.)

What other hobbies or friendships or other things might there be space for in my life if I took those hours back from languages?

When you’re depressed (or at least when I’m depressed!), it’s easy to fixate on missed opportunities, roads that are closed to you, things you wish you could do but can’t. It sets off a wail of despair in my brain because so often these missed chances have been because I’ve been too depressed to act. It can be tricky to look at the things I can’t do because I’m studying languages and not reflexively feel upset because they, too, are things I can’t do.

But if I step back and think, this is a choice I’m making, this is a deliberate action, that helps a little. Depression can make you feel really powerless (and being at the mercy of medical establishments in terms of waiting lists or fees or what an individual doctor feels like you deserve to get is also very disempowering!). It’s reassuring to remind myself that I’m choosing to do this.

It also (as I’ve written before) helps me shape an identity beyond being someone who’s depressed. I have something else going on in my life, it’s not just an “eat, sleep, and die” kinda thing.

So. It’s good that I’m giving things up for languages, really! And good that I can even feel like it’s a choice I have the agency and ability to make. But in the name of continued self-awareness, I ask: what exactly am I giving up for this? Probably lots of things I can’t even imagine, but here are a few:

  • Regular sports massages for my messed-up back (the place I like and trust only has one opening time a week when I’m potentially available, which clashes with German class)
  • More hangouts with friends
  • Doing yoga more seriously and also getting into other physical activity more (I used to do karate years ago and am a very occasional runner)
  • More pleasure reading
  • More cooking and baking
  • …this list could be infinite!

(Yes, I know I could find another sports massage place, though likely not as convenient and possibly not as good. Also, I’ve started reading for pleasure in English again, because once I got my focus back, I really missed it. So I split my morning commute reading: Harry Potter most of the way, then the last few stops I switch to whatever I’m reading in English.)

I’m looking at that list and I’m okay with it. That’s probably the most important thing. I’m lucky in many ways: I don’t have any caring responsibilities or work duties that seriously impact the amount of time I have at my own disposal. Maybe that will change. Maybe later on my back will get worse and I’ll have to fit in some treatment. Maybe I’ll decide I need to spend more time making complicated, ridiculous recipes as part of my self-care. Maybe something else will happen to change my circumstances and my priorities, and I hope when that happens I can also take a clear-eyed look at what I can shuffle and what I feel all right giving up.

But for now, this is okay, I think.

I don’t often take a look at my life and think that. It may seem trivial, but it feels pretty significant. Hooray — sometimes — for introspection!

What are you giving up for your language? How do you feel about that?


Patting yourself on the back: noticing language-learning milestones

During the long haul of language study, it’s common sense that celebrating your successes en route can help keep you motivated.

When I’m just starting a language, this is pretty obvious: I notice my reading comprehension has gone up simply because I can recognize more words, or connect phrases into a sentence, even if I can’t parse much more than that: oh, this article is about a car accident or the stock market or the weather in Berlin.

But now, I’m struggling against that intermediate slump: I can read things and understand a lot of them, but fine-tuning grammar and comprehension takes more and more effort. So to get myself back in gear, I thought I’d take a bit of time to note a few German milestones.

Firstly: I’m getting better at discerning viewpoints. That is, not only can I identify the subject of a news article or blog post, I’m more able to tell what opinion the writer might have.

This can be tricky, especially with sarcasm! For example: A while ago, Lutz Bachmann, the founder of Islamophobic, xenophobic far-right movement Pegida in Germany, went and stuck his own Pegida “theses” to the door of a church. (Yes, like Martin Luther.) When I read about this, I thought it had to be a joke (did I accidentally click on the German version of the Onion?). My confusion was compounded because the article contained a bit of dialogue between Bachmann and his advisors about why this would be a good next step for Pegida. It took a while before I was able to figure out that the dialogue was indeed mockery, but the church door action was real (I went googling to find out if other German newspapers were covering it, and then I found a link to a video on YouTube of Bachmann actually doing the deed). Triumph!

On another note: the other day, I was reading a blog in which the blogger explained why she preferred das Vegan Magazin over other German vegan magazines, including Kochen ohne Knochen. The former is basically Corporate Vegan (slick photos, ads for 500€ blenders on the back cover, you know what I mean). The latter is smart, critical, and overall pretty nifty (at least as far as I can tell at this point…). I was outraged! But then, of course, quite smug that I could understand enough to be outraged.

Coming up with ten or fifteen new tabs’ worth of links to investigate from an article also feels like progress to me: not only have I been able to identify that the original article has a viewpoint that’s of interest, I’ve determined that their links are well-curated, relevant, and of a format/reading level that’s accessible to me (in other words, not links to academic articles or legal decisions).

This is another argument for learning languages through things you’re interested in: the vocabulary’s more likely to stick. Especially because you’ll keep hearing a lot of the same words over and over if you read about related topics. So then when you do open every link in a blog post in a new tab, your super-specific vocabulary set helps you decide more quickly which of those new tabs you want to slow down and investigate further, and which aren’t worth pursuing.

I try to cleave to the principle of abundance when going through links like this, and my daily news emails, by the way: I don’t have to feel guilty if I skim things or close tabs without reading them, or mark a source in my RSS feed reader as read when I haven’t read the articles there. What I don’t have time or focus to read today will be replaced tomorrow by new things. (I realize with rarer languages this may not be true, alas.) I don’t need to cling to everything that sounds remotely interesting and feel guilty or overwhelmed by having dozens of things waiting for me to read them. Easy come, easy go. Less stress makes me a happier language learner! Which also keeps me learning languages.

What milestones have you reached recently? Which ones are you proudest of? Are there other ones looming on the horizon that you’re inching towards?