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?


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!

Lang-8 and my aversion to failure

I think most of my language-learning energy lately has been spent on actually studying, leaving me with no opportunity to write about it. That’s not a bad thing, but obviously makes for a rather boring blog!

Anyway, a quick note about Lang-8. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, you can post writing in languages you’re learning there and receive corrections from native speakers. In return, you should correct people who post things in your native language(s).

I love the site; I’ve used it before, years ago, before I stumbled into the language-learning blogosphere or anything like that. And it was useful — it always seemed intuitively useful to me, and when I actually wrote there, it was really helpful. But I have a strange resistance to using it. I’ll do tons of conversation exchanges and read a billion news articles before I write anything there. Maybe because you can sort of fumble your way through a conversation and in most cases no conversation partner is going to correct every single thing you get wrong.

But with writing, because it’s not spontaneous, it feels like it takes so much more effort, and if you keep making a lot of mistakes (particularly similar ones) then it feels disrespectful to the people who are correcting your posts, like you’re not doing a good enough job in absorbing the things they’re telling you, or not being serious enough. I feel a responsibility towards these people somehow!

I haven’t figured out a good system to capture the corrections I get, either. I know there’s a notebook system on there to paste in things, but I’d rather integrate the corrections into something like Anki. The problem is, unless it’s something very straightforward like vocabulary, I’m not sure I’m using Anki to its full potential. (I’m sure there’s a good way to do grammar review with Anki that fits with the way my mind organizes itself, but I haven’t been able to make myself experiment until I find it yet.)

I also fear that, if I start writing on Lang-8 again, I won’t be able to keep up writing there. And that would feel like a failure and… when I’m struggling mentally, I’m super failure-averse. Why start when I’m only going to stop again? (Writing that down, I can see how illogical that is, but that’s how the troublesome part of my brain works.)

So, feeling guilty for being a “bad” language learner and not being able to efficiently use the corrections I get — this seems to be enough to kick my avoidance into full gear. I really, really should use Lang-8. And yet… and yet.

How do you use Lang-8? Is there another tool or website that “everyone” says is amazing that you just can’t get into? How do you organize notes from these things? And how do you get over your resistance?

(Relatedly: Ramblings From An Imperfect Language Learner, which also includes some stuff about depression — always glad to see more people talking about that!)

Conversation exchange and the din in my head

As someone with depression and anxiety, one of the things I struggle with is too much brain noise: my mind stuck in a loop, the same upsetting thoughts rattling around and around and around again. One trick I use is to go through the alphabet and name a dog breed for each letter (I had an encyclopedic knowledge of such as a child and retain much of it). I can do it, but it takes concentration. Sometimes it only distracts me long enough to get to Z and then my mind snaps right back into the rumination again, but once in a while it does snap me out of it.

I do a fair bit of yoga. There are days when, even when I start off crying as I get onto the mat, it absorbs my attention so that there’s only yoga. There’s only the things my body is doing. The din of my mind is far away. It doesn’t always happen, and it often doesn’t stay for long, but when it does occur, it’s pretty glorious.

Conversation exchange sessions can also trick my mind out of an anxiety loop. I have to concentrate in order to follow along and respond at least somewhat appropriately. There’s no room for misery or doubt or anything except trying to process those words coming at me.

Unlike many people, I don’t get particularly anxious when trying to speak my target language. Sometimes I get stressed when something important or expensive depends on my comprehension — when I’m traveling, for instance. But with conversation exchange, that doesn’t happen. Whether or not I’ll click with the other person, whether or not we’ll have things in common to discuss, whether or not the conversation will drag because we find each other weird or boring — those things I worry about! But the actual forming of language feels all right. Almost kind of soothing, in a way, and I think that’s because of the mindfulness aspect and the laser focus it requires, which leaves no room for anything else. There’s just me, and these words I’m trying to shape and get out.

Of course, my brain can relax during the English half of the exchange, which sometimes means the dark thoughts slip back in. But at least in the other half, I’ve got to pay attention. A bonus is that doing so makes me feel slightly accomplished. Which is a lot better than feeling useless and stuck and miserable.

(I read another post about yoga and language-learning the other day, incidentally, which makes some other comparisons between the two activities; worth checking out.)

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!