good things

In which I’m on a podcast and fail to make resolutions

Hello, dear readers! It’s been a while.

I keep discovering things about recovering from surgery, and one of them is: everything just takes more time and more energy. Even when it doesn’t feel onerous at the time. Even though I’m at the point where I’m basically back at work as normal, and I now have energy to go out and see friends, go to concerts, etc.

Some things have to go, it turns out, and for quite a while it’s been things like this blog — and often, doing more intense study, for which I am trying to forgive myself! Though I am proud that I’ve managed to keep up some language study every day, from the day of surgery (Duolingo in the morning before heading to the hospital, flicking through news emails while lying on the hospital bed waiting to be discharged!) onwards. That’s not nothing!

I do have a bit of exciting news: I was recently a guest on the Creative Language Learning podcast! Not to talk about language learning per se, but to discuss the title Mx., which is the title I’ve chosen as a genderqueer person. Many thanks to Kerstin for interviewing me, and to Kerstin and Lindsay both for giving me time on their show and having such thoughtful conversation about this topic! It’s a good episode in general; do check it out: Podcast Episode 28: What You Are is What You Say (Language and Identity).

It’s the time of year where I want to make all kinds of plans and start all kinds of projects, but… this year it feels a little bit vague: I want to do something, but can’t quite settle on what. I should probably make some SMART language-learning goals, like pass the B2 exam in German or read the first two Harry Potter books in German (I own them and would like to read them and declutter them!), but… I’m afraid to commit! Anyone else having this problem? Have you set any new year’s resolutions about languages? I love reading posts about this, so point me at yours!

Last but not least: if you are celebrating holidays at this time of year, I hope they are good ones, full of cheer and love and generally nice things. And if you’re not celebrating, I hope you have cheer and love and nice things too!

See you in 2016!


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!

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?

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!

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!

Being the person they think I am, redux

Insert generic apologies for being away from the blog (depression/winter darkness/physical illness/mice in the roof above my flat/you know how it goes). Hopefully I’ll be more on course to post again soon; I still have so many half-drafted posts and things I want to talk about!

But in the meantime, a quick anecdote — along the lines of being who my conversation partners think I am:

Today I had one of my regular Skype conversation exchanges. We spent some time discussing job interviews — both he and I happened to have two in the past week. (Mine were for positions in countries where my target languages would be useful, go me!) And I said something like, “Oh, maybe over the next year I can work harder on getting my French and German up, because it’d be really useful to be able to pass the B2 exam for both of them [in terms of being eligible for more jobs], but… that’s probably not going to happen.”

(Self-denigration as reflex: I feel like a lot of this stems from depression but also it’s me living in England, where people deprecate themselves as a matter of course.)

And he said, casual as anything, “Why not? Why wouldn’t that happen?” As if he had no reason to assume that I wouldn’t be able to do it. Of course he doesn’t know about how depression and anxiety grinds me down and keeps me from doing a tenth of what I like to imagine I might do otherwise. But, you know, we’ve been practicing my German together for probably six or eight months at this point — and he’s said a few times that he’s noticed great improvement.

So why not, right? Why can’t I be the person he thinks I am, that would be able to pass that B2 exam? Why can’t I act like that person?

I’m in illustrious company! And also now on Twitter!

I was really pleased and honored (that makes it sound calmer than in reality!) to be included in Stephanie’s roundup of Language Blogs That Tell a Story over at To Be Fluent. Thank you, Stephanie! It makes me really happy that people are finding this blog useful and interesting. Her post has tons of fantastic language bloggers in it, not just the usual suspects — do check it out!

I’ve also finally set up a Twitter account for this blog. I’ll be sure to tweet new posts and hopefully other interesting bits and pieces — I’m still finding my way around having more than one Twitter identity (any suggestions for free Android apps to manage multiple accounts would be appreciated). You can follow me or read my tweets in the sidebar of this blog or directly on Twitter at compassionlang (darn username length limits).