Learning a language isn’t all sunshine, rainbows, and an endless trail of Duolingo hearts. It’s forgetting words you thought you knew, mixing up grammar rules, and choking when you try to speak. It has bad days.
We don’t always talk about the real bad days, either. For anyone whose suffered with depression at any point, it’s those days when you’d rather not do anything at all. Lots of language learners have a problem with motivation, but those dealing with depression often lose out on days, weeks, or months because of those bad days.
Between the constant thundercloud over your head, some not-so-good language learning sessions, and all the other pressures of life, how can you manage to keep learning?
First, take a deep breath. You’re not the only one. If there’s anything I’ve learned this year about the community of language learners, it’s that encouragement is everywhere.
Second, toss out all those old expectations you tried to meet. Depression is its own beast. Although learning a language is shown to help conquer it, the nature of mental illness is personal and you shouldn’t berate yourself for not living up to someone else’s methods.
You’re not alone, but your journey is your own. Be patient with yourself. I believe you can do it.
Are you struggling with motivation?
What do you do on those days where it’s hard to just get out of bed? Sometimes, you know you should want to learn your target language. After all, you wanted to before. You still want the things that motivated you before.
But you really don’t have the energy, desire, or presence of mind to pick up a book and start learning.
Give yourself permission to take it easy.
Just like with learning a language, take things one step at a time. Go for step one. Whether that’s saying bonjour to your cat and getting out of bed or uttering いただきます before you eat, give yourself some credit. Remind yourself that you’re not a bad person if you don’t make it past step one.
Don’t worry about your goals.
Have you been to apply all the language learning advice about setting goals, but you frequently have trouble meeting them and then you feel terrible?
Ignore those goals. If they’ve become just another reason you’re not doing well, they’re not helping. You don’t need them, no matter how scandalous that sounds.
Instead, if you want to learn something, do whatever you feel like. Open a dictionary to a random page and pick a word. Google pictures of funny signs in another language and try to read them. Then, appreciate your efforts.
Don’t compare yourself to others.
You’re not worse than someone who studied for an hour today. You’re not less smart or less capable than someone who remembered all of their vocabulary words.
You have your own struggles and managing them doesn’t make you a failure.
Accept your limits.
Don’t focus on what you should be able to do. Focus on what you can do in the present moment. Maybe you don’t have the drive to read the next page of your Spanish book, but you can get through a paragraph or pick out a few new words.
Forcing yourself to do too much can be a strain, which will only leave you feeling more frustrated than before. Learn your limits and work within them. Learning a language shouldn’t be a chore that determines your self-worth.
Do you find it hard to stay focused?
You might get up, grab a snack, open a book, then flop over on the couch. Maybe you forget what you had planned to do and end up turning on the TV or playing a game. Some days, it’s easier to do things that don’t require too much effort, even if you regret the time you waste.
Remember that learning a little bit every day doesn’t have to mean doing something important every time, though.
Try short study sessions.
Spend 5 minutes in the morning on Duolingo before you get out of bed. Try to think of vocabulary words while you’re in the shower. Do a quick round on Clozemaster.
You don’t need to spend half an hour bent over a book to learn something new.
Add more input/ receptive activities.
Listen to some music in your target language. Watch a TV show or a Youtube video. Listen to a podcast. Don’t worry if you zone in and out. You can always listen or watch again later if you’re up for it.
Just take some time to appreciate the language and follow up to increase your understanding only if you have the energy.
Do something comforting.
Don’t let your language learning time revolve around stressful activities. Instead, try a few less intensive activities, like repeating song lyrics or writing a journal entry. Find out what works best to keep your mind occupied and indulge in that activity when you need something to calm you down.
Try to keep your routines, but don’t chastise yourself for taking a break.
Habits can be wonderful tools to keep you from feeling off-balance and unaccomplished. If you’ve already got a routine in place to help you study, keep at it. However, remember that taking a day or a few days off can be important to keep yourself from burning out.
If you find yourself constantly breaking away from your language routine, remember to re-evaluate. Don’t push yourself too hard.
Are you taking care of yourself?
Practicing self-care is one of the most important things you can do to keep learning. Do what you need to keep your mental health in check. If you don’t have a network of support or you haven’t consulted a professional, please don’t be ashamed to reach out.
Accept help when you need it.
Acknowledge when you aren’t able to manage your emotions and don’t try to push forward on your own. As a language learner, you can’t expect to do everything without a teacher, a tutor, a guide, or a friend. It’s the same for your health.
Share your struggles and your feelings.
Whether it’s a community of language learners or a support group for those struggling with depression, share your troubles. Get advice and share your own tips for making it work.
Learning a language also offers a special opportunity to connect with new people from different backgrounds. Some people benefit from taking a class while others appreciate language exchanges. Explore your options to keep yourself from working in isolation.
Focus on your health first.
Learning a language might be important to you for any number of reasons, but always remember to make your health a priority. Take a day off when you need to and don’t be ashamed about it. Give yourself time to adjust to new routines, medications, and resources.
Be kind to yourself.
Depression has a cruel habit of destroying self-esteem and criticizing your every behavior. Do your best to counter that negative energy every day.
Forgive yourself when you mess up. Don’t dwell on your mistakes. Try to find the good and treat yourself with compassion.
Lots of language learners like to keep track of their progress as they learn. I think this is a good strategy to try with both language learning and personal progress. Try to look back at where you were when you started and make note of every good thing you’ve done since.
You might find that you’ve got quite a bit to be proud of.
If you’re a fellow language learner who’s dealt with depression, please feel free to share your struggles, experiences, or helpful advice in the comments.
If you’re currently struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (open 24/7): 1-800-273-8255 or the Samaritans 24 Hour Crisis Hotline (open 24/7): 212-673-3000.