I’ll start tomorrow.
No wait, on Monday. Next month. In January. Once I’ve finished this or that.
There are lots of good reasons to fall out of learning a language: You might:
- Be overwhelmed with work or home life = not enough time or energy.
- Flirt with shiny objects: should I learn Spanish instead? Or take up running?
- Prefer watching Nextflix, tidying the house or doing pretty much anything that isn’t sitting down and studying.
Check, check, check.
You don’t need more motivation or discipline
It’s happened to everyone, and will probably happen to us all again. I have a couple of superhuman students (the kind of people who wake up at 5am to train for a marathon or are able to only eat one biscuit from the packet) and even they fall off the language learning wagon at times.
And if the solution were “be more disciplined” or “have more motivation”, we’d all be doomed, because those moments when you fall out of learning a language are precisely those moments when you don’t have a lot.
So in this post, you’ll learn 9 ways to gently coax yourself back into learning a language, for those times when you worry that you might be lacking the time or discipline it takes to learn a language.
But first, a confession…
I fell out of learning Chinese
“I’ll start later” has been my motto for the last 6 months (actually, probably a few more, but who’s counting?) and my mission to learn Chinese has slipped way off track.
I’m stuck at basecamp on the Chinese mountain: the longer I wait, the higher the mountain seems and the less motivation I have to start climbing again.
How your mind can change mountains (even real ones!)
You probably know that your mind can shape your material world – for example, stress often leads to physical symptoms, like headaches or skin conditions.
But did you know that it can change the steepness of mountains?
In a series of studies, psychologist Dennis Proffitt and his collaborators (1) asked runners, varsity athletes and other university students to stand in front of a hill and guess how steep it was. They guessed in normal conditions and in situations that would make the climb more difficult, like after a 30 minute run, or while wearing a heavy backpack.
Can you guess what happened? When people found themselves in states that would make the ascent harder, they assumed that the slope was steeper. In other words, when you start at a disadvantage, your mind can play tricks on you and make you think the climb is more difficult than it actually is.
Change the mountain before you start to climb
Here are a few things that can make your language learning ascent seem really steep:
- Forcing yourself to do things you don’t like
- Expecting too much of yourself
- Being busy, tired, overwhelmed, or generally not in a good brain space to dedicate time and energy to a personal project.
And let’s not forget the big one – the passing of time. At this point, the mountain feels so steep that the amount of discipline required to get back to learning a language becomes superhuman.
So instead of telling yourself to “try harder”, the real secret to getting started again is to make the ascent appear as gentle as possible, by getting rid of, or reducing some of these obstacles.
Let’s talk about 9 actionable ways to do that:
9 Gentle ways to get back into learning a language
1. Start with a clean slate
Has this ever happened to you?
You put it off, then you feel guilty about putting it off, then you keep putting it off.
You might imagine that feeling guilty would push you into taking action. But research suggests that beating yourself up actually makes you more likely to keep procrastinating (2).
So you had a long break.
It was just a little bump on the long and messy path to becoming fluent in a foreign language. Any big project that’s worth doing – like learning a language – will be full of tumbles. But they won’t stop you, as long as you get back to it and keep climbing.
Don’t dwell. Just dust your knees off and get back to it.
2. Make it really small (or really exciting)
Motivation is a bit like a snowball rolling down a mountain. Sometimes you just need to do something really small to get it going, then you’ll quickly get back into the swing of things.
For this reason, a lot of sound advice will tell you that the secret to getting started is to focus on really small, easy habits that grow over time. For example
- Learn one word
- Do one grammar exercise
- Write one sentence…
That said, while this approach works for a lot of people a lot of the time (myself included), there are times when it doesn’t matter how small I make something, I still don’t do it. And I think part of the reason is that these teeny tiny goals aren’t exciting enough to jolt me into action.
After a long break, sometimes the opposite works – big, crazy language goals that light a fire under your behind and pull you into action. Things like:
- Waking up early and practicing for a couple of hours before work.
- Aiming to have a conversation with a native speaker after a few months.
- Passing an advanced exam.
As with most things in life, there’s more than one right approach. It’s all about experimenting and finding the balance that feels right for you in this phase of your life.
3. Make it achievable
While very ambitious goals can be motivating, impossible ones are not.
If your long break means you can no longer hit the goals that you’ve set for yourself, now’s probably a good time to adjust them. For example, my original plan was to become fluent in Chinese by August. That’s just not going to happen, so I’m moving my deadline to the end of the year.
4. Prioritise fun
If there’s one thing that’ll make your language learning mountain seem higher than Everest, it’s trying to force yourself to do something that you don’t like.
There are so many different ways to learn a language these days that there’s absolutely no reason to torture yourself. If you hate studying grammar, or memorising vocabulary makes you sweat, try reading, listening to podcasts, watching TV etc.
You can look for materials for native speakers if you already have a high level, but these are often tricky to understand! If you’re not there yet, look for materials made for learners – short stories, podcasts and YouTube videos designed to help you learn the language. Here are a few posts with some ideas to get you started:
5. Treat yourself
Try to make your language learning feel like a treat – this way it becomes your “me time” and it’ll feel easier to get back into it. Here are a few ideas:
- Read a short story for learners over a coffee in the morning (or a glass of wine in the evening!)
- Watch YouTube videos.
- Learn on the sofa, while you watch TV
- Playing video games in the language you’re learning.
- Get a pedicure while you read something.
- Go for a nice walk while you listen to a podcast.
- Study in your favourite café.
- Eat a few cookies while you learn…
Combining language learning with something a bit naughty that you don’t normally let yourself do, for example coffee, chocolate, alcohol or [insert your own vice here] can really help to get your bum in the seat.
The options are endless and what makes something a treat will be personal to you, so before we move on to the next point, pause for a moment and think about how you could make learning the language feel like a treat for you.
6. Shake it up
It’s difficult to get excited about going back to something if it feels old and stale. Come to think of it, could that be the reason you fell out of language learning in the first place?
Don’t feel like you have to finish every book or resource you start, I rarely do! If your old way is feeling a bit stale, try a few new things until you find something that you feel excited about using.
Just a little word of caution – beware of shiny object syndrome, a.k.a. collecting lots of new materials without actually using them. You don’t need to find the perfect course (it doesn’t exist!) you just need to find something you quite like the sound of, then start doing the work.
7. Surround yourself with the language
Imagine your friend just started a diet. Which of the following would you advise them to do?
Fill the fridge with…
- Cheese and cake
- Fruit, vegetables and other healthy food
Your environment can either work for or against you. It seems obvious when it comes to health, but the same goes for learning a language.
The more you surround yourself with the language, the more it becomes a part of you, to the point where getting back on the wagon feels like a natural progression. Here are a few suggestions:
- Put post-its around the house with things you want to remember in the language you’re learning.
- Change your internet homepage to a Youtube channel with tutorial videos.
- If you use apps or a podcast, put them on the homescreen of your phone.
- Change the language on your phone (but remember how to change it back just in case!).
- Listen to music, the radio or podcasts in the language you’re learning, even if it’s just in the background.
- Leave a book with short stories next to your sofa.
I’m sure you can think of more that would suit your life situation. Take a moment to write a list and if it takes less than two minutes, set up a couple right now. I’ll wait.
8. Be sociable
Research suggests that you’re more likely to reach your goals when you team up with a friend (3, 4).
This makes sense. When you know that you risk letting someone down, you’ll probably try harder to stick to your commitments. Also, it’s easy to believe your own excuses in your head, but when you have to say them outloud to another person, it forces you to think twice.
Not to mention, climbing the mountain is a lot more fun if you’re with people whose company you enjoy.
Here are a suggestions to make your language learning more sociable:
- If you have friends who are learning the same language, you could meet in a café or pub to study together or practice speaking. You could also try starting a whatsapp group where you chat together in that language.
- Connect with native speakers via an app such as HelloTalk.
- If you prefer face to face, try conversation exchange, where you can find native speakers in your area.
- Look for a conversation tutor that you get on well with. Regular practice with a person you enjoy talking to is probably one of the best ways to stay motivated, and learn a language in general.
If you’ve been feeling busy and burned out (or maybe you still are), you may need to make other changes before you’re in the right headspace to start learning a language again.
Your first mission is find some time in the day when you’re feeling relaxed and fresh enough to learn. Think about your schedule. Can you carve out 30 minutes? If that’s not possible, how about 3 chunks of 10 minutes? Or 6 chunks of 5 minutes?
Next, practice putting this time aside for you. Do whatever brings you joy – make a coffee, read the paper, phone a friend, listen to a podcast, watch Youtube videos, anything you like (I’d recommend avoiding social media in this time as it’s not particularly restful).
Keep this up for as long as you need. After a few days or weeks, you should find yourself feeling rested and ready to dedicate this time to learning a language.
It’s easy to feel frustrated when you fall off the language learning wagon, but the secret to getting back on is to be gentle with yourself. Choose activities you like, team up with people who make you feel good and make sure you’re well rested. Above all, give it time. It can take a few weeks before things start to feel normal again, but once you’re back in the routine, you’ll feel like you’ve never been away.
Over to you
Have you ever taken a long break from learning a language? How did you motivate yourself to get back to it?
1. Proffitt, D. (2006). Embodied Perception and the Economy of Action. Perspectives on Psychological Science.
2. Wohl, M. J. A., Pychyl, T.A., & Bennett, S.H. (2010) I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences
3. Wing, R. R., & Jeffery, R. W. (1999). Benefits of recruiting participants with friends and increasing social support for weight loss and maintenance. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
4. Matthews, G. (2015). Goal Research Summary. 9th Annual International Conference of the Psychology Research Unit of Athens Institute for Education and Research