Dealing with language learning burnout

Into the fireDoes working through that textbook seem like an awful drag?

Or perhaps a conversation class fills you with dread?

Do you prioritize cleaning the toilet or do other unappealing tasks above cracking open your flash cards and drilling?

Do you want to throw the towel in on your language learning journey and just give up?

If you said yes, you may be burned out.

Overwork, too much pressure (external or internal), lack of enjoyable tasks, and boredom contribute to burnout in real-life jobs, just as they can cause you to burn out when you are learning a language.

I know, I’ve been there. Both in a workplace, and when learning German.

Note: if your burnout is more related to work than just centered on your language learning – please seek the help of a doctor.

My path to language learning burnout

When I arrived to live here in Germany, I didn’t understand or speak German at all.

I took three intensive German courses back to back. At the same time, I had to spend a lot of time with doctors and specialists who couldn’t speak English, and go to many gatherings with family members who could only speak German.

I craved the evenings at home with my partner (we spoke English), and really looked forward to the English courses I was teaching at the time. English gave my head a break.

And I dreaded the next doctors appointment, class or family gathering. So much pressure to speak correctly, learn quickly, and be able to communicate! Even though I was the one who put myself under that pressure.

I got through the exam, finished the round of specialists, and all I wanted to do was to retreat into an English bubble.

I was definitely burned out.

Withdrawing lead to recovery

So, that’s what I did. For a while at least, I took a break.

I avoided the language as much as I could.

After a couple of months of staying in my mother tongue, I wasn’t struck with dread at the thought of speaking a little in German, although the phone was still out of reach!

A few more months, and I didn’t feel like avoiding music with German lyrics, or a subtitled movie.

A few more months, and I felt I wanted to start reading Harry Potter in German. I found a podcast where I enjoyed both the topic and found the speaker amusing.

A few more months, and I felt the urge to open my grammar book for a few exercises, do the occasional word puzzle or crossword, and start listening through the Pimsleur audio course that I’d put aside after the exam.

And at this point, I felt completely fine to chat with my physiotherapist during my regular visits.

I still feel a little knot of anxiety in my stomach when someone calls on the phone though!

What to do when you are burnt out from language learning

1. Take a break. If you can, make it a complete break. This is a lot easier when you are learning a language in a country where it isn’t spoken.

Just as doctors prescribe a break when you have burnout from your job, you should take a break from the language.

If you try to push through, you’ll probably give up on the language for good, you’ll hate it that much!

2. Start with enjoyable tasks. Listening to music, watching movies, anything that doesn’t feel like a chore. Don’t push immediately into revising grammar or word lists.

3. When you feel up to it, start reading. Reading a young adult novel in German was the soft way to slip myself back into word lists.

On the Kindle, I highlighted the words that I didn’t know, and skipped forward. Not knowing a word here and there didn’t break my enjoyment of the story, as I knew it from reading it in English. Later, I collected those words, noted definitions in the ebook, and created a list. These words were much less dry than any encountered in a textbook.

Alternatively, read a non-fiction book about one of your hobbies, in your target language. You know the vocabulary in your native language, so it’s easier to pick up the words in the target language.

4. Find something fun to listen to or watch regularly in your target language – a podcast, radio show, TV show – anything that is semi-regular. Don’t force yourself to consume it though – only do it when you are in the mood.

Tip: Throughout this ‘recovery’ process (and afterwards), give yourself rewards for doing anything to improve the target language, even if that is listening to music.

Leave the grammar, drilling, uninteresting word lists, exams and classes for when your complete enthusiasm returns.

And I promise it will!

Have you had a language learning burnout?

What made you burn out? How did you get through it?

Please do share your experiences and questions in the comments below!

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