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?



  1. I relate to quite a bit of this. I do miss reading – it’s gone out of the window since I started learning Italian last November. One thing that helped was getting a FItbit and listening to audiobooks on long walks.

    I was incredibly fortunate in one respect. I work in a primary school and through that I met an Italian lady who’d just moved into the area with her partner and children. We started meeting once a week and it’s been brilliant. We talk about everything and anything and now I feel relaxed enough with her to have a go at sentences I might not get right. So the way I look at it is, I’ve had all my life to read, but if I hadn’t started learning a language I would have missed out on this friendship.


  2. I like your analysis and this balance sheet. It can be applied with great usefulness to any area of life, can’t it. The reminder that we have agency, and that these choices are always to some degree made by us (even if sometimes made to fit difficult circumstances) is powerful.

    At some point, presumably, as you meet some of your language goals, the balance will shift. Working in an office in German may mean that weekly German class becomes unnecessary, for example, and something else that you treasure will get more space.

    Or the current balance will become untenable, and you will find ways to change it. That right there is me talking to myself, and I thank you for the nudge toward reclaiming responsibility and power over my choices.


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