As exciting as language learning can be, there’s no denying that the process of acquiring and mastering a new and foreign tongue can also be incredibly stressful.
After all, learning a foreign language means:
- Finding time in your busy schedule to learn every day.
- Acquiring (potentially) thousands of new words, grammatical structures, and cultural concepts.
- Making lots of mistakes, often in front of complete strangers.
- Unlearning years of habits ingrained into you by your native language and culture.
- Continually challenging yourself to perform the “skill” of language as best you can.
The above stressors may seem scary or intimidating, but in reality they are simply part and parcel of a transformative process that has a lot more upsides than downsides.
That being said, becoming a competent and successful language learner does not mean avoiding these stressors entirely, but being able to manage the stress they cause over the long-term so that it doesn’t cause you to burn out, or give up on your learning because you feel overwhelmed.
The following are five tips to help you avoid language learning burnout, and continue successfully along your language learning journey.
However, before we get into the language learning advice, the first thing that must be said about burnout is this: take care of your health and well-being. Those things come before all else, even language learning. If language learning is stressing you to the point where it impacts your health, stop what you’re doing and seek medical or professional help.
If your health is fine, and language learning is simply making you feel a bit stressed on occasion, then you may follow through with the rest of the advice here.
1. Just Keep Learning
In the face of burnout, the most important thing to keep in mind is to keep on learning. Change up anything and everything you wish about the way in which you learn—what you learn, how much you learn, when you learn, where you learn, why you learn, and more—but make sure that language learning remains a regular part of your life.
When stressed by language learning, most people’s first thought is to take a small break. This is a natural response, but one that could place your long-term language learning goals in jeopardy if you’re not careful. This is because it is incredibly easy for a one-day, one-week, or one-month break to turn into a permanent one, particularly as motivation wanes.
If you can, avoid taking breaks. If you’re currently thinking of taking one, try slowing down instead. Learn more slowly, instead of not at all. Low momentum is always preferable to no momentum.
2. Vary Your Language Learning Activities
Once you decide to learn a language, the language doesn’t just magically appear in your head. A language is a set of skills, so to learn one, you must engage in any number of activities that will help you build those skills.
If you’re in the middle of learning a language, you know what your current learning activities are.
You might be learning from a coursebook like Assimil, Teach Yourself, or Colloquial. You might be chatting with a tutor in italki or a language exchange partner from HelloTalk. Or you might be learning from a mobile app like Duolingo, or LingoDeer.
Any level-appropriate language learning activity you do should be a bit stressful. That stress, in most contexts, means that you are challenging yourself and moving outside of your comfort zone.
If these activities are too stressful, however, this is a sign of a problem, and a signal that you should probably vary your language learning activities.
What should you do, exactly? That’s up to you. The range of language-related activities is incredibly vast, so there’s no one correct option for all learners.
Whatever you do, try something different than what you’ve already been doing. The novelty of a different learning resource or method can often rekindle your motivation, and carry you past your current feelings of being overwhelmed.
3. Find Something You Enjoy
Sometimes, the cause of overwhelm is not which activity you do to learn, but that you’re trying to actively learn too much.
For example, if you’re currently overwhelmed by your plan to learn fifty new Japanese vocabulary words a day using Anki, then switching to another flashcard app like Memrise or Quizlet to do the same thing won’t make your life any easier. As before, you need to slow down, not necessarily try a different resource.
Your brain can only absorb language-related information so quickly. If you try to learn actively at too quick a pace, you’ll soon resist learning altogether.
The best way to slow down without actually reducing your contact with the language is to find a passive language-related activity you enjoy, and do that when you’re not doing the more challenging stuff.
So by all means, keep learning Japanese vocabulary at as fast a pace as you can stand, but break it up with fun, passive activities like watching Japanese movies, listening to Japanese music, or reading Japanese novels or comic books. If you’re not learning Japanese, you can do those equivalent things in your target language.
When doing these passive activities, don’t worry about trying to learn from every small detail. These are not your core learning activities, so try to simply enjoy them, and see what you can understand.
Engaging in passive learning using pleasant language-related activities like books, music, and movies can help you build positive associations and connections with the culture of your target language, with none of the stress of active learning tasks. The positive emotions elicited by these activities can help soothe any feelings of burnout you may have, and keep your learning going.
4. Review the Easy Stuff
Another way to avoid overwhelm while still making progress in your learning is to find an active learning activity that is beneath your current skill level in your target language.
Say, for example, you’re an intermediate level learner of Welsh. You’ve absorbed a lot of grammar and vocabulary lately, but are feeling some internal resistance at the thought of cramming even more words and structures into your brain.
Instead of immediately pushing forward into new grammatical territory, you decide to go back, and retest yourself on earlier simpler topics and content.
So, you turn to something like Duolingo, or Memrise’s introductory Welsh deck. Using beginner resources when you’re already an intermediate learner may seem like an odd choice, but if you’ve never used the resources before, they can provide considerable learning opportunities, allowing you to:
- Review and reinforce previously-learned information.
- Approach old knowledge in a new and novel way
- Eliminate errors or gaps in lower-level language skills and content knowledge.
- See clear proof of your language ability, as you easily accomplish tasks that would have been difficult for you at a lower level.
5. Take a (Well-Planned) Break
If, despite trying all of the above options, you still feel the need to take a break and temporarily pause your learning progress, you may do so.
However, to avoid falling into the common trap of repeatedly and indefinitely extending your language learning break, you’ll have to do some very strategic planning.
First and foremost, you’ll need to define the break in detail. How long will it be? Are you ceasing all language learning activities during this break, or only some?
Next, you’ll need to put the break on your calendar. If you have a physical calendar, write the word BREAK in your chosen date range in big, bold letters. If you use a calendar on your computer or phone, input it there, and set up corresponding alert notifications for the beginning and end of the break period.
Lastly, you’ll need to implement an accountability strategy that will force you to return to language learning when the defined break period is over. Some strategies include:
- Scheduling one (or more) italki tutoring sessions for the days immediately following your break period.
- Informing your coach, accountability partner, or accountability group that you will be returning to language learning on a certain day, and asking them to check in with you to make sure you’re back on track.
- Enrolling in a course, class, or other unavoidable commitment after your break period that will specifically require you to use your language skills.
The idea here is to use the break time to give yourself time to decompress and destress, but to have a system in place that will guarantee you will return to learning once your break has finished.
It is quite natural to feel overwhelmed by language learning from time to time. No learner, from the newest newbie to the perpetual polyglot, is immune to feelings of impending burnout.
What does separate the language learning veterans from their less-experienced counterparts is that they know how to modify their learning in order to avoid stressing themselves out too much, and possibly giving up.
In this article, you’ve seen five such ways to modify and alter your learning path to absorb or side-step feelings of burnout, such as slowing down, changing up your activities, doing fun and passive things in the language, reviewing lower-level material, and even taking a short, planned break.
If you’re currently at risk of giving up language learning because you find it too challenging, or too stressful, try these methods. If you know someone who is thinking of giving up their language goals, share these strategies with them.
At their core, these techniques will help you and your language learning friends build the perseverance and resilience necessary to reach the fluency you seek.