Prozac for Language Learning: Language-Learning Burnout Prevention and Treatment

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burnoutOkay, that’s it!

You can’t do it anymore.

You’re done learning languages.

You did everything they told you.

You worked on your target language every god-given day … you decorated your home by labeling everything with sticky notes using your target language… you even used all of your dead time to practice your flash cards while waiting in line at the supermarket, the post office … even in the bus you were whispering the phrases you had so diligently added to your flashcard app.

But now the fire is extinguished.

And you feel more than discontented. In fact, you feel hate. You hate the language you once loved and you hate language learning in general. It’s all shit, it doesn’t work, and it’s only for super geeks.

You estimate the chances of you learning this language lower than those of Ted Bundy being in heaven.

You feel it’s time to pursue other endeavors.

The Diagnosis

What is it, doc?

What has taken over my mind and body?

“Well, you may not accept my explanation, but yours is a classic case of language-learning burnout.”

“If untreated, this will lead to many dire consequences in your already miserable life.”

“Firstly, you’ll probably drop the curtain on your language learning. This will give temporary relief. You’ll feel lighter … as new, almost. Ready to explore what more life has to offer.”

“But this reprieve will betray you. It will rip your dream of speaking another language apart. It will confine you to your own little pathetic world.”

“And even if you manage to “escape” to another country, you will remain in your own bubble since you don’t speak the language. How are you going to know, to explore, a country and its culture, if you can’t communicate with the natives?”

“Don’t get me wrong. You could do nothing about it, leaving it as it is. The world will keep turning. It’s really up to you, but I doubt that’s the kind of life you want. Do you really want to give up on your dreams that easily?”

No, doc. I don’t. But what on earth can be done about it?

“Well, we’ll just have to find you the right mix of medicine.”

Treatment and Prevention

Language-learning burnout is a serial killer of dreams. You’re not the first and certainly not the last sufferer of it.

Lots has already been spoken and written about it. To get a really balanced view, it’s best to take that into account, and then add a little of your own sauce to it.

Boredom

Accomplished polyglot and creator of the LingQ system, Steve Kaufmann, says he’s never been plagued by LL burnout because he always varies his materials and activities. On top of that, he always strives to do interesting things in the language.

For him, boredom is the problem. Use native materials of your area of interest and you’ll never get bored, says Steve. And if you do, change your materials!

Steve always has a lot of useful things to say about language learning and this is no exception, there’s just one problem.

It’s not really for beginners. And they too, can burn themselves out.

The issue is that they don’t really have the luxury of using native materials. What are they suppose to read or listen to in their target language? They won’t understand a thing! For them it might even be the perfect recipe for burnout.

It’s a great idea for the intermediate learners and beyond, but not really applicable for those of you who are just starting out.

Impatience

Self-learning addict David Mansaray provides us with an alternative view. For him, the reason behind LL burnout is impatience.

He says:

When we set out to learn a new skill it’s common to feel impatient. There’s a long road ahead and we want to enjoy the fruits of labor – but they come later.

When we become impatient, there are two common responses:

  1. Stop trying – fail instantly
  2. Work extremely hard – attempt to speed up the pace and shorten the distance.

Covering great distance in a short period is useless if it means you can’t complete the journey.

 

Impatient people are a sign of our times. We’re all in a hurry, chasing our dreams and goals. Ironically, if we could just be a little more patient, we would achieve our goals faster.

But, you know, it’s not really our fault. We are being brainwashed to be impatient.

And the world of language learning is no different.

They bombard us with promises of fluency in a month — two, maybe. A well-known language-learning company even promises that you can learn to speak a new language in 10 days!

When asked about this ridiculous claim, they say that when you know how to say “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”, you are already speaking the language!?

The problem is that these kind of claims give us false hope and unrealistic expectations.

Unrealistic promises make for unrealistic expectations. And unrealistic expectations will lower your frustration tolerance.

And a low frustration tolerance is exactly what the wolf of language-learning burnout is looking for. Whoohoooo!

Too Much, Too Soon

There are, of course, valid reasons to be an impatient language learner. You may have a trip to a foreign country coming up, and you need to reach at least a basic conversational level. Or your boss will fire you if you don’t speak fluent Italian within a year from now.

Still, it’s better to start small, because if you’re not already learning something on your own, your brain is not going to accept that you start doing so for four hours a day. There will be a lot of inner resistance because the change is simply too much.

The good news is that you can seriously ramp it up afterward.

How?

What you need to do is:

  • Start small – 30 minutes a day will do
  • Establish this routine, and once it’s conquered:
  • Increase your learning time with 15 minutes a day, every two weeks
  • Never do your language learning in sessions of more than 30 minutes each, before taking a break

Now, you can try to go faster and add more than 15 minutes a day — and if you’re really pressured, this may be necessary — but you would effectively increase your chances of suffering from the dreaded language-learning burnout.

If you want to read more about this, then I recommend you visit the link above and also check out this article on Tiny Habits. It’s about slowly introducing new habits, so your mind won’t put up such a fight.

Learn As You Go

To some extent, we’re all different.

What works for you, may be a complete failure for me, and vice versa. If the above methods of language-learning burnout prevention do not benefit you, it’s time to try something different.

It’s time to ask yourself some questions:

  • What caused the burnout, and when?
  • What could prevent this from happening the next time?

Maybe it’s a conscious/subconscious mind thing, but it’s pretty amazing what you can come up with by just asking yourself a few simple questions.

Try to come up with solutions, and then test them in your own little language-learning laboratory. It’s perfectly possible that by doing so, you’ll find the best language-learning burnout solution of them all.

But what if you don’t?

What if it seems there’s no solution for you?

If absolutely nothing works, maybe it’s not preventable and the only thing you can do is accept it. And no, that doesn’t necessarily mean throwing all your language-learning materials in the dust bin.

There’s an alternative.

Is a language-learning burnout the end of the world?

Let’s face it.

Sometimes you’re just sick of language learning.

You tried to make it more fun, but this actually had a reverse effect … you tried to be patient, and this only worked for a while.

Does this means you’re out of luck?

Fortunately, no.

An interesting approach is letting the burnout be part of your language-learning strategy. If you knew that it’s coming and you recognized it, how long would you really drop your language learning?

If you expect a burnout, you can look at it from a more detached viewpoint. It would barely upset you!

Yes, maybe you let it all go for a few days — a week at the most — but that’s a whole lot better than a few months, or worse, forever. Besides, a little break can do you good. It lets your brain do a large chunk of subconscious processing of the language.

How Fast Should You Go?

When it comes to language-learning pace, you could say there are two philosophies, and both can work great.

The first and generally most recommended by experts, is that language learning is a marathon. The second one says that language learning is a series of sprints.

It really depends on the time frame you have, and on your character.

  • In a (justified) hurry? Go for broke, expect the burnout. Then, let it go for a few days and speed it up again afterward. Repeat. This is doing a series of sprints.
  • Easily upset? Do a little language learning every day. This is the marathon approach.

Some language learners use a combination of the two approaches. They start out fast, doing a lot, but then their subconscious minds slow them down. They can’t keep up and need to switch to a lower gear for a while. When they have gathered enough energy for another sprint: off they go again. The trick is that they never come to a complete standstill.

Kome kun, of the Eastyouji Japanese language blog, even suggests putting an immersion system in place for when burnout strikes.

If and when you are feeling burnt out and discouraged from learning your target language, but deep down you know it’s just a temporary phase due to over-doing it, then you need some sort of system in place that will keep you surrounded by Japanese (or whatever language) even when you don’t want to be doing it.

The Road to Recovery

“Now you understand that each case is different. Your language-learning burnout may be caused by boring materials, doing too much too soon, or it may actually be a non-issue based on your reaction to the symptoms.”

“The ball really is in your park. I want you to set up your language learning to prevent this from ever happening again ,or do the exact opposite and anticipate the burnout(s), use it to your advantage.”

“Whatever you do, remember for what you’re actually doing it. Do you want to stay monolingual all your life? If you give up, that’s exactly what’s likely to happen!”

“I know, language-learning suffering seems sticky, powerful … but that’s just a temporary feeling. It’s not out of the question that, if you continue, the world will look a lot brighter tomorrow.”

What’s Your Medicine?

Ever been tormented by language-learning burnout?

Did you get out it?

How?

Share in the comments below.

You just might change somebody’s life.

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Comments

  1. Hey Noel –

    Really good in depth article here.

    I think language learning burn out can be compared to physical exercise burn out – it’s like people who are at the gym 3 hours a day, 7 days a week, who think that they need to be actually working out all the time, when in reality rest plays a big part of the actual muscle building process.

    Sometimes less is more…why would you want to get to Point A in 1 month but never get to Point B, when you could get to Point A in 2 months and still have enough energy to get to Point B in another couple of months, always moving forward slowly but surely?

    Anyway, just wanted to stop by to say that this should be a helpful post for anyone currently struggling with the thought of giving up due to burn out!

    Robert

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hi,

      Thanks, Robert.

      I really appreciate the kind words.

      Yes, that’s the most recommended path to take.

      But not everyone is the same. Some people are rather chaotic (character-wise) and they may burn out anyway, even with the marathon approach. For them it’s more about managing the burnout. If they already know they’re going to burn out, they don’t have to let it control them so much.

      And sometimes, well, you just don’t have a choice. If you absolutely have to speak basic conversational German in six months you just have to give it your all. The good part is that if your motive is right you might not even suffer from burnout. A good motive is enough to keep you going, even if you don’t like it.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  2. Sergio Rodrigues says:

    I was about to get a learning English burnout when I realized I had reached a plateau, with the feeling I wasn`t improving anymore. In the hope of improving my listening skills – one of my main weakness – I subscribed a lot of podcasts and got frustrated because I couldn understand most of them. So, I decided to diversify my learning process, watching TV series, movies, reading comics, etc and started feeling much better and having fun while learning.
    I think it is the best recipe for burnout.

  3. Hi Noel,
    Unfortunately, this so-called Language-Learning Burnout is not a new thing for me.
    As far as I’m concerned, I think it is caused by not to perfectly figuring out how much I have been improving, and whether or not every English language learning method I’ve adopted has been working well so far. All that makes me feel frustrated.
    Anyway, I’ve NEVER thought to give up!!
    ps: LingQ seems to be a very interesting website! Thank you very much.
    Cheers, Luke.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hi Luke,

      Good to hear from you again!

      It’s always a bit of a challenge to measure your progress, because as you probably know your ability fluctuates. On some days we seem to be on the verge of fluency and on others it seems we haven’t learned a thing.

      The main problem is that, on bad days, we always underestimate the progress we’ve made.

      That’s where learning methods with strict metrics, like Anki, come in handy.

      With my first new language, I actually didn’t measure a thing. But I had some songs in that language that I listened to right from the beginning, without trying to translate them immediately. Down the road, on bad days, I would listen to them and always be in awe of the improvements I had made.

      It’s a very simple method (non-intrusive, exactly as I like them :-)) to measure your progress, especially for listening.

  4. You’re right, for many people there’s going to be a period of burnout. It’s great to think about this before it happens to prepare for it. Really useful tips, Noel!

    I like Kome kun’s suggestion of surrounding yourself with the language so you’re still getting exposure even when you don’t want to. I currently feel like this with French, but I have some music I enjoy listening to so even though I can’t bear to pick up a book, I’m still getting some subtle exposure while I temporarily take a step back.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hi Ruth,

      Great to hear you like it!

      Yes, preparing for the obstacles that you’ll likely encounter is extremely valuable. This is why I’m not a fan of overly positive thinking. In order to achieve success in anything, you need to know what threats to that success there are and then figure out how you will deal them.

      Thanks for your comment.

  5. Great article!

    I enjoyed the simile of language learning burnout being a killer of dreams, I can’t agree more. I go through language learning burnout periodically and each time I get out of it it’s usually due to some external source of motivation related to the language that I stumble upon or I have an internal realisation that I’m straying too far away from my goals. That usually gets me back into a study habit 🙂

    And thanks for quoting my article, too 🙂

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Thanks, James!

      I think your suggestion of an immersion system for when burnout strikes is very intelligent.

      As I said in a previous comment, it’s crucial to take into account potential obstacles in your path to language-learning success.

      Thanks
      Noel

  6. If I can suggest a sports metaphor, I think warming up before studying is key to avoiding burnout. You can literally do stretches, some pushups, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation – whatever helps you relax.

    Because when you study (anything, not just languages) in a relaxed state, your mind is more open and receptive. It will resist less and accept more.

    You can also incorporate cool down exercises so that you’re not just jumping out of the learning experience into the next task. This can include more meditation, listening to music or just flipping through a magazine of the language you’re trying to learn without focusing on the words, just the images.

    Bookend your learning efforts with warmup and cool down exercises for long enough and you’ll start to condition yourself to desire a pleasant, if sometimes rigorous experience because you’ve brought rituals to the routines that make burnout much, much less likely.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Anthony,

      That’s a very good contribution.

      It’s definitely important to not stress about language learning, even if you don’t like it.

      And the warming up and cooling down exercises… excellent ideas.

      Thanks.

  7. This is a very good article, Noel.

    I recently started learning Portuguese. For some reason I didn’t find the motivation to keep studying it. I think that what happened was I didn’t define a precise goal/outcome. I just wanted to learn some Portuguese, that’s it. When you can’t picture in your mind the outcome, the benefit of the work you are doing, then, you’ll find tones of excuses to give up when the inicial excitement dissapears.

    Hopefully, I will start again with Portuguese this 2014, with a more precise and defined outcome 🙂

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Thanks for the comment, Oscar

      Yes, I think this picturing in your mind is important.

      What works great is picturing the negative consequences of you not learning the language. If there aren’t any, it’s always harder to keep going.

      Thanks for the input!
      Noel

  8. Well Noel, I personally think that we cannot stem burnout as individuals, but if we support each other, we remain energized collectively.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      That’s a great point, as well.

      And maybe that’s the advantage of learning a language with a friend.

      Thanks, Mike.
      Noel

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