life with brainweasels

Dispatches from my sick bed #2: the Grumpy Language Learner exists

I wrote this almost a month ago, but then didn’t have the focus or brain presence to post it. Surgery seems to be like that: I’m recovering well physically, but my energy levels are still pretty erratic and I don’t always manage to focus on tasks as much as I wish I did, sigh… Anyway: have some vintage thoughts from my head!

You know how now and then language bloggers will ask readers what they struggle with in their own learning? What their biggest problems are on the road to fluency? I’ve replied several times to different bloggers with some variant of: mental illness (depression and anxiety) and physical limitations/illness. I have seen, in return, precious little about these issues on any of these blogs. I’m sure they receive hundreds of replies, and it makes sense to focus their response posts on the ones that they think will speak to the most people. And yet it’s kind of infuriating that this stuff rarely gets a mention.

Hello, we’re here. People who are sick in all kinds of ways exist and we learn languages and we deserve attention and advice too. You can’t just apply all your “get up 15 minutes earlier! Just think positive! If you’re not doing it, it’s because you don’t want it enough!” advice to our situations. No, being ill isn’t sexy, it’s not something you can write a super-positive post about, it’s not something your one-size-fits-all advice is going to work for. We’re not cool. We don’t fit into your narrative of winners who just need the right productivity tip to turn everything around; we exist in other ways than just as your inspiration pr0n.

People who are ill or who are disabled exist. Some of them have even achieved the vaunted polyglot status! Others of us might yet! But you know, it’d be nice if some of that language learning community cameraderie recognized us as we are too. Sure, you can sometimes adapt more general advice about making time for study when life is hectic or stressful, but there are also specific things that relate to illness/ability that could be addressed — and recovering from surgery made me very keenly aware of this lack.

It’d just be nice to feel seen, you know?

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Small steps and self-compassion: a pre-surgery linkdrop

Remember in my last post I mentioned I’d be having surgery sometime this fall? It wasn’t scheduled to take place for a couple of months, but now it’s happening very suddenly, due to me getting a cancellation slot. It’s a good job I already started thinking about how to occupy myself while recovering. I won’t have time to organize my bookmarks and all that kind of stuff that I wanted to do beforehand, but I do have a shiny new tablet, and I guess I’ll make do!

Let this serve as official notice that posting here will probably be even more sporadic than usual while I’m recovering. In the meantime, have some links that feel timely (even though in actual fact, I’ve been meaning to post some of these for months…):

  • Follow Through, Don’t Give Up! over at the Language Pond has a lot of smart things to say that feel particularly relevant at the moment. The struggle to figure out if I really need to take time to rest, or if that’s depression talking me out of things because that’s what depression does (it’s a lying jerk), is a constant in my life. It’s also difficult to be kind to myself when I do need to chill out, to have the honesty and compassion to even acknowledge a need to rest.
  • 24 Unusual Ways To Learn a Language Every Hour from BRAVE Learning. I like the idea of sticking these into Evernote and then pasting in links relevant to what I’m studying: another project I probably won’t end up doing, to be honest, but I’m sure it would be really handy! In the meantime I can at least use these as prompts.
  • 5 Ways to Fit in 5 Minutes of Language Practice from Language in Bloom. I especially like the suggestions to conjugate verbs and to write down words you recognize from a short podcast.
  • Language Learning Goals Derailed? 8 Simple Steps to Getting Back on Track from Language Hero. Setting yourself a target time for language study every day and then halving it is a really good idea; it reminds me of what blogs like Zen Habits always say about starting so small you can’t fail.
  • Set D.U.M.B. Goals – Motivation March – Part 3 from Language Surfer (I almost typoed “Language Surgery” — guess we know what’s on my mind! What would a Language Surgery blog be like, anyway?!). This is so important! I appreciate the reminder that SMART goals aren’t always appropriate — say, when one is recovering from surgery and isn’t on top form, cough cough — and that moving forward with “DUMB” goals is still moving forward.

And a few more general links:

Well! There’s a bunch of good reading for you all, if you haven’t already seen those posts, or at least a reminder of the content if you have (I certainly need reminders of these things!). And I think that’s all for me for a bit — we shall see! Maybe in a week or two I can post an update on language study while on painkillers, exhausted, generally out of it. And if not, well, maybe something when I’m past that fuzzy stage.

Having this surgery sooner rather than later is better healthwise, of course, but I admit I’m also relieved because it might mean (depending on how recovery goes) that I won’t have to miss any German classes this fall! And also, one of my longest-running Skype conversation exchange partners is coming to London in a few months. His visit was timed exactly with my old surgery date, so I was bummed that I probably wouldn’t get to hang out, but now it should be fine. Hooray!

Anyway! Be well, everyone. Take care of yourselves, be kind to yourself, and drop me any links you think might be interesting or useful to read from my convalescent bed!

The language learner’s guide to recovery from surgery (or my guide, at least!)

How are the language buddies going? I sent out the matches a week or so ago (and tweeted but neglected to post here — sorry!). I hope they’re going all right, but if you’ve had no response or something else has happened, let me know here (or via email: compassionatelanguageblog at gmail) and I’ll see if there’s something I can do. For myself, it’s been really helpful to have someone to write to in German regularly; writing is my weak point and I know the only way to get over it is to do it more. And yet I so rarely do…

In other news: I’m finally starting to feel a tiny bit more relaxed and grounded in my new flat. Good. Summer is slipping away and I need to have a good stable base for myself before winter. I don’t think I have Seasonal Affective Disorder per se, but I definitely find darkness and cold and winter really challenging.

I especially need to set myself up well in terms of making self-care and coziness and good stuff easy or automatic, because I am likely to be having fairly major surgery in a couple of months (maybe sooner, if there’s a cancellation and I can go in with little notice). I’ll probably have four to six weeks off work, maybe longer, and several months where I need to be careful with myself and ease back into things (I suspect I may not be able to do yoga for about six months, which is pretty upsetting to me, but so be it).

Because I’ll be easily fatigued and very limited, certainly at first, in what I can do and how much I can make it to the outside world, I’ll need to set myself up with a lot of distractions. Fortunately, there are many lovely language-learning distractions out there! A whole internet full!

I bookmark tons of things (I use Pinboard, by the way, which I really like), but my tags aren’t as clear as they could be. I’ve got tons of things tagged “German,” but haven’t been as good at subdividing them, or doing so consistently.

So! Pre-surgery prep work #1: going through my bookmarks and making a tag specifically for things I think will be good to watch or listen to or look at while recovering from surgery. It needs to be easy, so I can just click without too much thinking or trying to remember where I put a link, and without too much decision paralysis.

This list of stuff could include:

  • TV shows.
  • Vlogs. I need to subscribe to more of them on YouTube! Especially vegans posting fluffy food hauls or makeup reviews. But I also like stuff like Die Klugscheisserin, and I also currently have little experience with vlogs in French, so if you have any recs, let me know! I’m not a gamer, but sometimes I think Let’s Plays are amusing — there seem to be lots in German that I can follow, but the French ones I’ve seen generally have unclear vocals that are hard to parse.
  • Things I’ve been meaning to look up on German Wikipedia. Unlike lots of the internet, I rarely fall down Wikipedia rabbit holes — I look up things and mostly stick to what I actually came to the site to read about somehow!
  • Podcasts/radio shows on specific topics of interest. I found a German podcast about productivity techniques the other day — I wonder if I bookmarked it…
  • Sites like Gute Frage with lots of random short texts from people. I wish Ask MetaFilter was available in German.
  • Tags on Instagram or Flickr, etc. that lead to happy-making photos likely to have good captions to read as well.
  • More German Twitter accounts to follow, maybe — I follow a ton of politicians and bloggers, but there’s always room for more good ones.
  • Any other suggestions?

I’ll be sure to put my backlog of German magazines neatly near my bed, as well as some manga translated into German.

I should also leave myself a note that it’s okay to just poke at these resources and let the language wash over me, and if my focus isn’t laser-sharp and I can’t understand as much as I might normally, that’s okay! Because my job will be to rest and recover. As tempting as it is to consider all that time off work as time I could really power ahead with German, it’s probably not going to work that way.

I should also update my Anki decks with important words from the last few months of conversation exchange, oops. That would entail me actually going back to Anki seriously; I’ve had a real block about it for months.

I’m also going to look into finally getting a tablet; I suspect that will be a lot easier to manage, especially in the first few days post-surgery, than my laptop. I know there are a lot of buyer’s guides online, but if anyone has any particular recs (or un-recommendations!), especially regarding language stuff, I’d appreciate hearing them. I’m not tied to any one operating system (I have a Mac but an Android phone), I don’t need it to be the fanciest thing ever but probably want something more than the most basic model, I am not a gamer so don’t need that kind of capability but do want something that will look good and run well when playing videos or Skyping or whatever.

I do intend to keep up with my conversation exchanges via Skype, once I can focus enough to carry on a conversation! That should also help me feel less isolated. (And honestly I’m hoping after a couple of weeks I might feel okay enough to travel very carefully and gingerly to German class…)

Anyway! I’m really itching to get this surgery over and done with: the uncertainty about dates and the waiting is bothering me more than the actual operation or recovery. I mean, I’m nervous about being in pain and being limited in what I can do for months particularly when winter is rolling in. But I know this surgery is the right thing to do and I’ve been trying to get the NHS to agree for over a year. I just want to be sorted already! I guess coming up with a list of fluffy vlogs and other stuff to watch while I’m recovering is my version of pre-surgery broodiness (apparently some people clean the house, etc. instead! Ha! Not me!).

No doubt I’ll post again before I go into surgery, but it helps me to get this sort of thinking out there. And if people are around in London in late autumn and maybe want to go for a cup of tea or something similarly restrained, depending on how my recovery goes, that might be a nice idea!

What else should I do to keep going with some easy, joyful, engaging language learning while I’m recovering? Have any of you had to prepare for intensive time resting/hanging out in bed or mostly at home while you deal with health work? Any tips, relating to languages or not?

Regrounding myself with languages, and: in which I ask for a little bit more of your patience

I’ve been traveling the past few weeks, and it was both more draining than I hoped and with less internet access than I wanted — which is why posts here have been even scarcer than usual, and why I’m a bit later than intended with the language buddy match-ups. Apologies for that; your patience is appreciated! I’m just worn out right now and trying to remedy that.

I didn’t study much while on the road, and in fact, I was using a language I haven’t studied for a long time. It was really pleasing how so much of it came back to me, but it did make my German fade. And it started to feel strange, and more than a bit perfunctory, to do things like pay serious attention to the daily news emails from German (and French) newspapers or watch vlogs.

Since I got back into town a few days ago, I’ve been scrambling to find something to remind me who I am (odd, and disappointing: oftentimes when I travel, I feel that it reminds me even more of who I am), to find something that feels comforting, reassuring.

This weekend I went for a run; I’m not really a runner but have been trying to do more of that this summer, which was interrupted while I was out of town. It felt good to get back to that, and aerobic activity seems to be somewhat effective for me in distracting anxiety. Then I painted my nails, because that’s something small and relatively easy to do that’s nice for myself.

I also tried to linger more over my news emails, to remind myself what it is to try seriously to parse news articles. I’ve been reading a few pages of a book or a magazine in German before I go to bed — nothing super-challenging, just something light to ease myself back into things.

I have to try to remember, to reawaken, the satisfaction of doing these things on a daily basis, in a mindful fashion. It goes without saying that this will help my German, but I’m also hoping it will help bring me back to myself and give me more of a sense of stability. Because I’ve been studying German for a while now (just under two years), and studying languages for much longer than that.

I’m rattled from coming back into town (and having to go back to work, boo), but also because I only moved house a week beforehand. I don’t quite remember the tentative new routines I started in this flat, not to mention I keep saying, “But where did I put my nice tea? And where on earth is that notebook I wanted to scribble lists in?”

So yes. Recentering myself, somehow. I’m going to try to be really nice to myself, really patient, really kind and forgiving. There are a couple of life things that are provoking extreme anxiety at the moment (apart from the general post-trip/return-to-work anxiety!) and I just… need to take care of myself.

I’m going to try to do more of the fun things with languages at the moment, too: I think my news emails are important, and I like reading them (except sometimes when the news is super-grim and I end up seeing five articles about the same mass shooting or whatever). But other things can be more fun, more engaging: I need to catch up on my vlogs — fluffy food haul or clothing haul or makeup videos seem right up my alley at the moment — and I could spend more time poking around German Instagram (I really like getting the bite-sized bits of German in people’s captions when I take a moment to check my feed on a tube platform or while I’m waiting on line somewhere).

The realization that snapping more fully back into language study mode would feel grounding to me is a bit astonishing. It makes me feel like I’m really a serious language person, somehow. Which is hilarious (that I’d need that kind of validation, and would get it from this), but hey, I’ll take it.

Anyway — all that to say, I have to remember that I need to be patient with myself and my various health issues (physical and mental, both of which have needed some attention in the wake of my return). And I ask for your patience, too — I’m going to try hard to get to the language buddy stuff this weekend. And I’m going to try hard not to get an anxious block around doing anything at all with it!

So, stay tuned, everyone!

Conversation partners, shared experience, and a lessening of anxiety

Headspace, the meditation app I mentioned last time, has a sequence about anxiety. And one of the points that come up is that we should try to remember that many, many people throughout the world deal with anxiety, and we should try to feel that we aren’t alone in this and it’s a very common shared experience. Sometimes that’s cold comfort, of course; sometimes the weight of one’s own misery is such that it obscures any way to really feel connected to other people in any way it matters: sometimes, who the eff cares if other people are miserable, because we’re miserable, dammit, and that’s enough to deal with.

But once in a while, it does feel like such a relief to know that your problems aren’t unique, that others are fighting similar battles. A while ago, I wrote about how it was helpful to see myself as my conversation exchange partners do, in terms of imagining myself as more than just a bunch of symptoms of mental ill-health. Recently I experienced another moment where conversation exchange made me feel a little better and a little calmer (apart from how it’s generally something that leaves me feeling better at the end anyway).

One of the people I’ve started speaking with recently (for only a couple of months, I think) has been looking for a new job. A couple of weeks ago, she told me that she found one, except it’s in a different city and she’s starting on the 1st of August. So between the start of July and the start of August, she has to clean out her flat, pack everything up, and move to a new city (once she’s found a flat there, that is). And then start a new job.

Somehow it felt incredibly comforting to know that, while I’m flailing around trying to declutter my stuff and pack everything up and not panic, she’ll be doing the same. I’ve actually had a lot more notice than she did about moving (though she probably suspected she might have to move), and I’m only moving to the next neighborhood over, and I’m not starting a new job. So she’s going through a lot more than I am. And if she can make it, so can I, right?

But yeah: something about imagining her stressing out about the same things as me (do I have enough boxes, should I get rid of thing X, how many Freecyclers flaking on me will it take to get rid of this stuff? Though I’ve been told Germany doesn’t have Freecycle per se…) is really reassuring.

It’s comforting (to me, certainly!) to realize how many language learners struggle with the same things I do that are directly related to what I’m studying. But because language learning has so much to do with connecting with people across cultures, countries, and languages, I really appreciate that it can give me that sense of comfort through a more general shared experience.

(I should say I drafted this post a week or two ago, and now — phew — I’m installed in my new flat. Still getting used to my flatmate, and we’ll see if she ends up getting annoyed hearing me on Skype with my conversation partners frequently — anyone have any tips or funny/horrific stories on Language Learning with Roommates? — but a major hurdle overcome!)

PS. You can still sign up for language buddies!

Sign up for language buddies! And why things are a little hectic around here

This is rather a long, personal post (ha, haven’t had one of those in a while!) — the most important thing is in the first two paragraphs below, about language buddies. Props to anyone who makes it through all the rest of it!

I’m really excited that so many other people are interested in my language buddy idea! Thank you so much for your enthusiasm and linkdropping and retweeting. There’s a really great post with some more thoughts about this idea — do check it out!

I’ve put together a really basic Google Form. If you’re interested in getting a language buddy, please sign up! And please share the link! How about people can sign up through the end of July? This would give people time to think about it (and to even find out about it!), especially as this is a time of year when lots of people might be traveling. After that, people can keep signing up if they want, and I’ll match them as I can, but it would be much easier (for me/you) to sign up before August.

OK, here’s the personal bit. This is where I have to ask you for patience in getting this up and running. I’m moving house in a little over a week (oh the heaving of panic in my chest just writing that!), and then shortly after that I’m going on holiday (which should be relaxing but I suspect won’t be, partly because I’m going with some of my family…). I’d kind of hoped this wouldn’t matter, in terms of at least getting this started: how many spoons does it take to throw together a quick Google Form, post the link, and ask people to sign up, right? And then I could worry about matching people later…

My optimism also stems from the past few months, where I’ve had an uptick in mental health. There have been days (weeks, even) where I’ve been pretty excited to get up in the morning and see what the day brings. Seeing spring and now summer unfold over London has really lifted my spirits. The flowers, the trees blooming — magnolias especially — everything coming alive again, the farmer’s markets transforming from withered apples and the same root vegetables to green and fresh things, the days getting longer: I’m really loving it, this year. (Maybe because last year I genuinely didn’t think I’d see these seasons again?)

A few other things going on have also helped me move forward in terms of depression and anxiety. So this year has felt a lot brighter. I started dreaming again, you know? Things I wanted to do with this blog, places I wanted to travel, projects I wanted to start.

With this stronger mindset, I’ve been handling the stress of moving relatively well. But this morning I was sharply reminded that, yes, I’m still ill, yes, I still do have depression and anxiety and it can still fell me. As soon as I woke up, I was hit by a wave of fear and ache and sadness; I jolted awake super-early because that’s what my body does when I’m not doing well. And I knew I needed more sleep but I was too freaked out to relax enough to get it, and too freaked out to get up and do anything that might distract me enough to calm down a little. So I just huddled in bed, miserable, for a few hours.

Screw anybody who gets sniffy about people using their smartphones in bed, by the way: I broadcast my distress on social media (and got support from my friends), I looked at distracting photos on Instagram, and I did about three times as much meditation as I do daily, in an effort to chill even a little.

(I struggled with meditation for a long time, and I still do, I absolutely still do, but having the app Headspace to guide me once I’ve selected a specific program — for anxiety, creativity, stress, etc. — helps with the resistance and the paralysis induced by trying to decide what meditation to do. Headspace isn’t free, but you get a short free trial; I periodically get some vouchers too — some of them might be expired by now, but if someone wants one, let me know.

And for language-learning, I’ve recently been poking at the 7Mind German meditation app. I find the voice incredibly soothing even when I can’t understand every single word…)

Anyway: all that to say, hello, universe, I have received your message! I understand! I was foolish to imagine that I could move forward with a lot of stuff now when I’m moving house, which is incredibly stressful for people even without depression.

And I want to be clear: I’m not moving because I want to. I love my flat (despite a few quirks). I love how much light it gets, how I can hear foxes screaming in winter and often encounter them on walks back from the tube (London has tons of foxes! I’m worried that I won’t see any near my new flat though), the trees nearby, the location, how cozy and safe it often feels for me, how it’s enough space for me, how it’s sheltered me and helped keep me alive for the past few years.

So why am I moving, then? Because London rents are skyrocketing, and in my neighborhood in particular; it’s become incredibly trendy and gentrified. The estate agent is raising the rent £150 a month. That’s not something I can manage.

So yes, apart from the ordinary stress of finding someplace new to live and decluttering and packing and doing tons of change of address forms, there’s the plain fact that I don’t want to go. I don’t want to leave this neighborhood and my flat. Eventually, sure, but I’ve long said that I didn’t want to move from this flat until I was ready to actually move out of London (which I’m not).

Anyway: blah blah sob story, I’m far from the only person this has happened to, poor me, tiny violins, whatever.

At the same time I guess it’s time to acknowledge to myself that, despite a lot of progress in stabilizing my mental health this year, I’m still pretty vulnerable at high-stress times like this. It’s humbling to be brought down so quickly from “stressed and anxious but functioning” to “why does it even matter anyway, if I make it through this, my stupid little life” and “I can’t bear this, I don’t want to be alive anymore.” It’s so tiresome and scarily familiar. I’m fighting, but, you know, I didn’t think I’d be here again so easily.

So: please please be patient with me. I do want to set up this language buddy thing! Please stand by, and I’ll do my best. But it might not be until late August or even later. I’m sorry for those of you waiting! Let’s hope that me saying things will be slow somehow miraculously results in the opposite happening…

And please wish me luck with my move!

Two weeks ago I was awesome.

Life felt very good for a while, but it’s getting more stressful lately (being forced to move house, having some health issues cropping up — as well as feeling at the mercy of the whims of the NHS, always fun). I wrote the below during my good few weeks, but never got around to posting it. I thought I’d put it up now as a reminder to myself of how it felt, and as a way to acknowledge my accomplishments.

Here we go, straight from the mouth of me a couple of weeks ago:

I’m feeling pretty confident about my German lately (… don’t ask me about my French, just don’t). Recently, I had an unexpected opportunity to use German for work purposes. I thought I’d probably just end up making small talk and introductions and then we’d all switch to English, but I ended up conducting business in German for hours! I felt like I was floating on air the rest of the day (and then I slept really well that night, because it was exhausting).

It was a good confidence boost in any case, but especially because one of my goals is to speak German well enough to work in a German-speaking office. Suddenly conversing auf Deutsch in an office (even if not in a daily sort of sense, but for a special purpose like a meeting) transformed me from someone who studies languages out of interest and curiosity to someone who might be able to make money from speaking languages.

Let me be clear: I’m not studying languages to earn money per se (except if one wants to live in Germany, it’s obviously an advantage to be able to speak German well enough to get along in an office). And I’ve seen many language learners who have no intention of using their languages in work contexts, but nevertheless speak very well. But for me, someone who has a habit of diving into new hobbies with vigor and then gradually abandoning them, being able to speak German for work, no matter in how limited a context, made me feel like maybe I could take myself more seriously.

It’s nice not to feel like a flake!

On another note, I’ve also been doing several yoga videos in German. This, too, is immensely satisfying. Let’s be frank: I’m probably unbearably smug after I finish each one, both from the physical deliciousness of yoga and from being able to do it in German. It helps that I’ve been practicing yoga for a while, so certain sequences are predictable; it’s easier to hear the German and understand quickly. I can feel roughly how long someone would expect you to stay in a certain position, and I can tell, from the cadence of the instructor’s voice, whether or not it’s along the lines of, “inhale, exhale, relax yourself into this position a little more,” or, “now stand up and go into a different position,” even if I can’t see the screen at the moment.

It’s reinforcing the body parts vocabulary that I’d already picked up, as well as giving me some new words. And while we know that we can’t really multitask, doing yoga while also getting some target language practice in actually works!

… and now back to me today, trying to batten down all the hatches, productivity- and self-care-wise, and telling myself sometimes life changes can be an adventure and maybe I’m up for them. Tomorrow I’m also starting the June italki Challenge! So, okay, self, this month you just have to be freakin’ awesome and kick some ass. Let’s do it.

Anyone else doing the italki Challenge? Anyone else need to psych themselves up to get through this month? Feel free to comment with your particular circumstances and I (and other readers, perhaps?) can cheer you on!