language exchange

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?


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!

italki June Challenge update — halfway through!

So we’re about halfway through the June italki Challenge! Mine is going pretty well so far (knock on wood). I thought I’d note a few things, for my own reference and in case it helps others in thinking about what use they might make of online tutoring sessions.

One: at the risk of sounding super obvious, I really need to be careful about how much sleep I get. I’m generally pretty good about this — it’s a habit I’ve developed over the last few years, to go to bed at the same time during the week (unless I’m at a gig or something), and which has served me well (no longer nodding off at my desk at work, hooray!).

But I’ve been unusually busy lately, what with trying to find a new place to live and all the decluttering that entails, as well as keeping up with my usual socializing and studying and oh yes, the italki Challenge. I found myself spacing out and on the verge of nodding off during an italki lesson on Friday! That happened to me last year, during a high-stress time when I had a lot of insomnia but was also trying to book myself a lot of activities — including italki lessons — as distraction. It’s disconcerting that it happened to me now, and a good sign that I need to step up the self-care and get my sleep schedule back in order. Not only is it embarrassing if the other person notices that I’m dropping off (I don’t think this has happened to me yet…), I’m not learning most effectively if I’m that tired!

Two: there really is a limit to how much studying I can do in a day, certainly in terms of interaction-intensive stuff like italki sessions and conversation exchange, and while it was an interesting exercise in trying to find my limits, I think I’ve found them!

My challenge month has so far been structured with a heavy first two weeks. I wanted to rack up time while I could, in case I needed to reschedule things later in the month. I had a really important medical appointment last week, and if it didn’t go well, I anticipated a catastrophic effect on my mental health and potentially cancelling not only lessons but basically everything (spoiler: the appointment went well, phew!). So I wanted to make the start of June italki-heavy. I did also just want to experiment and see how much was too much.

This philosophy meant that last Sunday I had three italki lessons and three Skype conversation exchanges scheduled. The last appointment of the day, the final conversation exchange, ended up being cancelled by the other person. Which was a relief! Because by then, yes… my brain was a little tired. I started off really strong — I was lucky and had two good, engaging, interesting teachers to work with. And the conversation exchanges were with two people I really like speaking with. But during the second lesson, I had a few moments where what the teacher was saying just didn’t sink in — I just couldn’t focus immediately. That was all right, and I still think that lesson was helpful.

However, with the final lesson, I found myself in trouble. The teacher just didn’t seem to know how to get a student talking. Usually language teachers will coax a shy student, or an uncertain one, to speak, and will work to keep the conversation flowing. I’m neither shy nor uncertain, but even I was struggling to keep us talking, because the teacher would give really brief answers to anything I asked and then wouldn’t ask me anything. Bad enough on its own, but at the end of my long day of talking seemingly to the whole world in German, it was exhausting and felt like the longest hour of the entire day (in fact, I’m sure it actually lasted three or four hours instead!).

That kind of intense schedule last Sunday was actually kind of fun, but I wouldn’t want to do that every weekend! Now and again, though, why not?

One last point: it really has been useful to write down all my current problems with German and assign each one to a different teacher. I did a whole package of sessions with one particular teacher last year, and I’ve got a few lessons booked with her again, but I’m also using this challenge as a way to find new teachers that I click with.

I’m less interested in a long-term commitment; what’s helpful right now is dedicating an hour here and there to specific questions I have. That works well as a supplement to my weekly German class here, my own study, and my conversation exchanges. It also helps me maximize the benefit of these hours on italki, since these things are clearly not points I’ve been able to get a handle on otherwise! And of course giving a steer to the teachers helps them prepare more effectively: a kindness to them, yes, but obviously also of benefit to me.

Anyway — I’m looking forward to completing the challenge! I should be on track to do just that (I scheduled a couple of sessions that will be over the 12-hour requirement, for insurance but also because I’m having fun — and I’m sure italki has counted on other people doing the same). I know we’re all winners as long as we feel like we’ve improved our languages over the month, which I definitely have, but c’mon, I’m looking forward to an official win and some credits towards more italki sessions.

Are you doing the challenge? How’s it going? If you’re not doing the challenge, does it sound like something you might be interested in at some point? Or does it not appeal?

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.)

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!

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?

Treat yourself like one of your conversation exchange partners

There’s that old chestnut about treating yourself with the same understanding and kindness that you extend to your friends, instead of being hyper-critical and impatient.

I said the other day that I try to be who my conversation exchange partners think I am. It occurs to me that I should treat myself like I treat them as well. Maybe you should too, if you don’t already! I bet you’ve never said to the other person, “Dummy! I’ve told you that word three times already, why don’t you ever remember it?” or “How do you ever expect to learn this language if you don’t go any faster???” or “You’ve studied this tense over and over, why can’t you use it right yet?” or “Do you really think you can do this?”

I bet, like me, you’re more likely to celebrate their small frequent successes — like when you see them struggle with a grammar point and then manage to get the words out correctly — and help them figure out how to keep improving in a way that works for them. It feels wonderful to be on the receiving end of this sort of thing, too: I’ve had people make a point to tell me how much I’d improved after we’d been speaking for a few weeks, for example.

What if I spent less time castigating myself (for not studying “enough,” for not learning as fast as I wish I was) and was able to redirect that energy to patience and compassion and gentle encouragement? What if you did?