study tips

Eff Your Misogyny and Learn a Language

A couple things I’m tired of seeing in language communities: people snarking about how they don’t like Instagram because they don’t want to see pictures of people’s breakfasts. Or they don’t watch vlogs because all they find are teenage girls giggling about who they have a crush on.

There’s a lot to unpack here (one of my first thoughts was to wonder how adept these people are at searching on the internet: I’ve found it very easy to find relevant vlog content, just by doing YouTube searches for keywords relating to my interests in German. I realize the availability of vlogs in different languages will vary, but the principle stands: it shouldn’t be hard to find vlogs that aren’t Follow Me Arounds or whatever).

Are these comments accurate? Are these things Serious People (including Serious Language Learners) can dismiss out of hand? How might photos of people’s food, or vlogs where they talk about what they’re eating, be useful to a wider swath of language learners? (I’m not even going to say “teenage girls’ food,” because I know a lot of people posting these things aren’t young women, but of course teen girls are the easy target.)

Well, everyone has to eat. If you’re going to a country where your target language is spoken, it might behoove you to be very conversant with food vocabulary and customs (especially if you have any dietary requirements). I can’t even count how many words relating to food preparation (cutting, chopping, peeling, slicing, etc.) and ingredients themselves (not only vegetables, but spices, packaging, etc.) I’ve picked up from Instagram and YouTube. For probably 99% of these words I haven’t had to make any flashcards or do anything particular to retain them: I hear and read them so often that I don’t need to.

And please note what good listening practice vlogs — yes, even those by teenage girls! — are. Everyone’s always banging on about how you need to listen to content intended for native speakers, right? I definitely have some of the strongest listening comprehension skills in my German class, and I am pretty sure that’s because I watch a ton of German stuff, including, yes, a ton of vlogs. And no, not every teen girl talks in whatever stereotyped idea some people have of how “kids these days” talk, either…

My second point: how easy it is for people to roll their eyes at popular expressions of teen girl culture. If teenage girls like it, then it must be trivial, stupid, or irrelevant, right? Not only misogynist but wrong!

And now I’m going to talk about how this intersects with my depression, because these things are inseparable.

In addition to people sneering about teen girls’ vapidity in posting photos of their breakfast, I’ve read numerous blog posts (in English, German, and French) arguing that photos on Instagram and Facebook make us unhappier, because we see others’ perfectly arranged meals, bedrooms, or outfits, and feel inferior.

For me, it doesn’t work that way. I don’t feel guilty looking at someone else’s elegantly presented breakfast. I see a photo and think, oh, gosh, blueberries, I haven’t had any in a while, which is silly because I love them; I should buy some for my breakfast tomorrow. Or I think, hm, I’ve never tried figs with oatmeal, but German vegan Instagram loves them; I’ll give them a shot.

It’s kind of like taking my own awareness of little good things in my life, but a hundredfold, because I can take pleasure in others’ small joys, too. Sometimes when you’re depressed, these moments are a lifeline: sometimes the only one you have.

Let’s also note that many girls use posting pics of their meals as a way to recover from eating disorders and learn to take pleasure in eating (I just read an article in French about this the other day, in fact); similarly, many people who’ve historically been excluded from society’s ideals of attractiveness use selfies to reclaim their bodies & resist toxic standards.

Does that mean you need to find these things interesting? No, of course not (and frankly, most of the people posting these things probably wouldn’t care if you didn’t: they’re not posting them for you, which some people might also find offensive). But to insist that they are meaningless or just another sign of how superficial the world has become? Ill-informed. Wrong.

Are there things on Instagram or YouTube that I find dull or problematic? You betcha! But that’s true with anything (including the language learning blogosphere: I’ve seen many posts just seeping with sexism/classism/xenophobia/fatphobia/racism/etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum).

I really also want to point out that young women, like anyone else, can be multifaceted. There are a few vloggers whose lighter, fluffier (to me fluffy isn’t an insult, by the way) videos on hair dye or snacks I enjoy, but that also post videos exploring issues of animal rights or vegan philosophy, or in support of refugees. Shocker! It’s possible to be stylish and have Deep Thoughts (and even, hello, be a feminist) too.

I find it super-interesting (by which I mean not interesting at all, because it’s drearily predictable) that, while I’ve seen some people make fun of Let’s Plays (which, like many gaming-related spaces, can be pretty male-dominated), I haven’t seen any widespread hate-on for them from language learners. Indeed, I’ve seen some big name polyglots recommend them. But I’ve easily seen three times as many words spent decrying the ways that teen girls use media like Instagram or YouTube.

Gosh, I wonder why.

So: if your first impulse is to dismiss all this as useless crap, check yourself. And consider that maybe, just maybe, these teenage girls you sneer at might have something to teach you as you work towards your target language.

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?

Last call for language buddy sign-ups!

Just a quick reminder about signing up for language buddies! As I said previously, I’d like to start matching people up in August.

I should note that I’m currently traveling, and it’s been a bit more hectic and mentally draining than I thought — so I might not end up doing the matches until closer to mid-August. We have almost twenty people signed up already, though, which is super exciting! Please do fill out the form if you’re interested at all!

Do you have a blog I should be reading? Do you want to be my language buddy?

In which I’m looking for more blogs to read

Can anyone recommend blogs by people learning languages, perhaps who’ve never learned any to fluency (however you want to define it) previously? Maybe they’ve dabbled in languages, even learned some to various levels of proficiency, but they wouldn’t say they’re fluent or call themselves a polyglot. I guess I just want a community of people who are fumbling along as I am. I value the advice from polyglot blogs, but sometimes I just want to talk about all this with people who aren’t completely sure about what they’re doing, not people who seem so confident that they have the answer for whatever stumbling block I’m working on. Lately it feels like every polyglot blog is trying to sell me something: their ebook! Their magic method! Something else they’re convinced I need to pay for in order to succeed! It’s really tiring.

I do talk about language-learning with my friends who are doing it as well, sporadically, but I want to fill my feed reader (I like Feedly, by the way) with the thoughts of other language learners on a more regular basis. Does anyone have any recommendations?

In which I want a language buddy or three; do you?

Another idea I had was finding some language-learning buddies. It’s relatively easy to find tutors or even coaches (for example, Fluentli is now doing language coaching). But what I’m looking for right now, what feels missing to me, is an arrangement with someone where we could both check in daily on how we’re doing on our languages. I do check in on coach.me daily with a brief note on what I’m doing, but most people there that I connect with aren’t studying languages, or perhaps the platform just isn’t built for the kind of more detailed, one-on-one checkins I’d like to have.

Especially with someone else who’s learning a language: someone who’ll understand how frustrating it feels to yet again have a day slide by without so much as opening up Anki, or someone who conversely can be excited for you when you want to gush about the great conversation exchange you just had. Do other people routinely have that kind of interaction?

I know there are tons of language-learning fora online, but to be honest, I haven’t clicked with any of the ones I’ve seen: they seem too impersonal, too large, too competitive or snide or just plain rude. And even if I did find a home forum, per se, it still might feel nice to have a language-learning buddy and get that mutual support and encouragement.

s having a language buddy something people would find useful? Is there an untapped need for this kind of thing? Should I start some kind of language buddy matchmaking service?! I thought of this randomly last night, after reading Chris Winfield‘s thoughts on why it’s worthwhile to come up with ten ideas every day. And lo, suddenly I had this idea! I realize by posting it here, someone more motivated than I may come along and steal it. To be honest, I’d be pretty okay with that, because it’d mean I could get a buddy without having to set up a system to find one!

But I’m serious, if people think that would be something they’d like to do, please comment or get in touch some other way! Because if there’s a bit of interest, maybe I could just do an informal, small kind of matching: get people to fill out a Google Doc and then pair them up manually. What kind of criteria would be useful in pairing people together? I don’t think people need to match on languages that they’re studying, but it’d probably be good to match vaguely on what kind of support or interaction they’re looking for.

For me, I’d like someone to email daily (maybe using a set list of prompts, at least to start with?), to say, hey, this is how my day felt for French, and German, this is what I did, this is what I struggled with, this is what I’m hoping to do tomorrow, and what do you think about all this? And how was your language day? And we could both encourage each other or possibly offer suggestions or blahblahblah. That sounds really comforting and useful and cozy to me.

… of course, I am pretty good at coming up with ideas sometimes and then just letting them… drop. But we’ll see. Do tell me if you think this is something you’d like to try though!

Edit: I should note that I do NOT think that people need to be studying the same language for them to be good language buddies! After all, we’re still doing the same process: trying to learn a language, and the encouragement and listening is more important — at least the way I’m envisioning it — than being able to offer specific tips related to a language. Someone who uses Anki, but for a different language, can still talk to me about ways to get over slacking off with my flashcards, you know?

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?

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!