5 ways to avoid overwhelm when learning a language

Anxiety is one of the worst things to wake up to.
It shows up whenever it wants, stays for however long it likes. Often, it makes simple everyday activities into a challenge. It interferes with work, social life and also with language learning.

You can’t make anxiety disappear with a wave of a magic wand (yet!), but you can search for patterns and recurring causes. Little by little, you can try and implement strategies to ease your discomfort.

When it comes to language learning, there are several elements that might stress you: finding time to study, not getting the results you want, starting to speak, just to name a few.

In this post, I am going to address 5 problems I have experienced on the practical side of my language learning routine. Then I will share with you strategies I implemented to organise my monthly studies in order to avoid overwhelm.

avoid overwhelm when learning a language

Goal setting

Many successful language learners recommend setting measurable and practical goals in order to get results. They also list accountability as one of the key factors to help you work towards those goals.
For anxious learners, though, this can become a double-edged sword. Getting support from fellow learners is a blessing, but you might also feel like everyone is looking at you underachieving. You know, rationally, that it’s not true, but anxiety is the opposite of rational.
You want to keep setting goals, but without feeling the pressure.

Let’s do it!

Recently, I started using a more flexible system to set goals. I draw a mind map of the activities I want to engage in during the month and hang it on the wall in my study corner. In the centre, I write which language I’m studying. Then I add 6 circles for different skills and aspects of the language: vocabulary, grammar, listening, speaking, writing, reading. Finally, I write around them the activities I plan for each skill. In the end, it looks like this:

mind map

This structure will also help you understand at a glance if you are working on all language skills in a balanced way.

Resources overwhelm

Nowadays you can find plenty of resources for most languages on the internet. Free apps, podcasts, grammar explanations, authentic materials are easily accessible from anywhere.
This is clearly a huge advantage and it makes it possible to study virtually any language from any corner of the world, as long as you have internet access. However, it could also become a source of stress. Every new tool sounds like the most amazing thing, you want to try it, you twist your learning routine to fit it in. In the end, you spread yourself too thin and use too many materials, so you lack the consistency you need in order to study effectively.

Let’s do it!

Right after drawing your goals mind map, pick the materials you will use during the month. Try and pick not more than 2-3 tools for every skill. If you are focusing on a specific skill, then pick a maximum of 5 resources to focus on. Try to stick with what you picked until the end of the month: if you find new materials you’d like to use, add them to your resource list for the following month.

Wasting time

Have you ever had a Sunday when you were totally up for a productive study session, then you checked Facebook and your day just disappeared into it? Or you wanted to watch a couple of episodes of your favourite series, and ended up spending the whole day in front of your TV? You probably felt frustrated and mad at yourself for wasting your time.
Studying regularly is the safest way to see fast results in your language learning. Sometimes, though, you feel like you have no time at all. You can’t find half an hour to practise and you are not improving as much you want. You seem to be unable to dedicate time to your language studies consistently.
Start planning your study sessions in advance: this will help you create a routine and make language learning a regular element in your life.

Let’s do it!

Take some time every week to plan your study sessions. Work your way around your commitments and actively create space in your week for language learning. Write in your planner at what time you are going to be able to do it and for how long. It would be ideal to decide which activity to do in every slot as well. On Monday you are going to have the evening for yourself? Then set 20 minutes to read and translate an article. On Friday you start work later? Write a journal entry in your target language before heading out.

Underestimating your achievements

Oh, insecurity! As someone who struggles with anxiety, you surely know that tiny, annoying voice that tells you over and over that you’re not good enough. It creeps in your head and whispers “Your grammar is a mess!”, “You don’t know enough vocabulary”, “It takes you forever to formulate a sentence!” or “You got nothing done this week”.
Don’t let these negative thoughts kill your motivation. Even people who already speak several languages and act super confident still have their struggles, I promise you.
To have a clear idea of your progress, record it in a notebook. You can also record yourself speaking and listen to it a few months in: you will be able to hear how much you improved.

Let’s do it!

Before going to sleep, track every language learning activity you accomplished on that day. Write it down in your diary: you can go into details or just write a few words. What matters is to have some proof of your hard work whenever you start doubting yourself. Thinking of your achievements, however small, at the end of the day, will strengthen your confidence and motivation.

Lack of insight

Overthinking is one of the favourite pastimes of anxious people. Most of the times your mind revolves around one thought, often negative. You look at it from different perspectives, make it huge, analyse it for hours. So the idea that you might be lacking insight into your language learning sounds like nonsense to you. However, it’s important to train yourself to think positive thoughts and constructive critiques, instead of destructive rants. Some time of focused reflection on your studies can help you find clarity and see your struggles from a different perspective.

Let’s do it!

Every week, write a journal entry about language learning. What are you satisfied with? What didn’t go as expected? What was your biggest achievement? Is there anything you should do differently? Are the resources you chose still effective? What is your next goal?
This time is important to help you give form to your successes, worries and objectives. Journaling about language learning will make you more aware of your strengths and weaknesses.

Have you ever felt anxious about language learning? What are the things that stress you the most? How do you cope with it? Let me know in the comments.

Looking for ways to keep language learning in your life even on those days when anxiety won’t let go of you? Join this free 4-day email course and let’s discover together how to do just that.


Iā€™m Elena Gabrielli, introvert, grammar geek & proud Ravenclaw :)
I’m on a journey to help introverts and other quiet learners make language learning into a tool for self-care (and keep anxiety out of it).


  1. Elfin Waters
    22nd November 2017 / 4:30 pm

    Great post Elena! You’ve found your niche, you know? And a very good one, too!

    Everyone is anxious at some level. Most of my students are and need help with that. I hope you’ll keep on exploring the topic!

    • Elena
      23rd November 2017 / 9:24 am

      Thank you, Elfin! Yes, it took me some time, but I think I know who are the people I can help the most now.

      That is true, anxiety is so common but we still talk too little about it. I am definitely going to write more articles on the topic!

  2. Danae
    22nd November 2017 / 7:25 pm

    Elena, I think you start a revolution here! This is amazing. I particularly loved the mind map.

    Personally speaking, I’ve found that learning a language is for the most part a fun activity for me, giving me the right amount of excitement and push to learn more. I have this “problem solving” attitude around the learning part of it.

    It’s the performance part I’m mostly scared of; this is when anxiety kicks in. When I’ve done my study, learned the vocab, practiced the pronunciation and all went well, I feel like I need to prove they did go well. So I start panicking about the speaking part. (Now you understand why I became interested in speaking lol). I think, like you say, developing strategies and figuring out tips & tricks is key here. There is definitely a way out šŸ™‚

    I look forward to reading more!

    • Elena
      23rd November 2017 / 9:49 am

      Danae, thank you so much! Yes, I think the mind map is the tool that helped me the most.

      What you say about language learning being fun in itself is very interesting. I feel in a similar way, but I hadn’t given a proper form to the thought yet.
      For me organising the practical bit is stressful (though I need to because everything has to be organised! lol) and speaking is obviously hard too.
      For anxious people speaking is often the biggest struggle. I’ll have to work on it because I still haven’t found a completely effective solution to that. It’s great material for future reflection and possibly articles!

  3. 23rd November 2017 / 10:56 pm

    Davvero un bel post, dai delle ottime idee e non solo per studiare lingue! I tuoi metodi potrebbero servire anche per imparare a disegnare meglio e per tante altre cose

    • Elena
      28th November 2017 / 5:58 pm

      Grazie mille! Sarei davvero felice se qualcuno usasse i miei consigli non solo per lo studio delle lingue, ma anche per imparare altre cose! šŸ™‚