It’s been 10 days now since I’ve moved to Sweden, and there are still boxes and bags to sort out in most rooms of the house.
Every day I need something that I don’t have yet: a pair of scissors, a broom, a couple of batteries.
The day when I was supposed to leave, a big snow storm covered Bologna’s airport and they cancelled my flight. I had to wait a few more days before I could finally step into my new home.
But now I finally have my own desk and I sorted my notebooks and textbooks in drawers and bookshelves. The busy days are not over, but I feel like I learnt some small lessons from this new move abroad. And it’s something that you can apply to language learning, too.
Some things won’t go as expected
I like to stay organised. Well, I more than like it: I’m a bit obsessed with lists and planning stuff. It’s one of my ways to cope with anxiety: creating the illusion that I have everything under control.
Especially when I have something big coming on – something like a move – I plan and write all the steps to take, one by one.
After years of living abroad, there’s one painful truth I keep rejecting with every cell of my body. No matter how precisely I schedule things, no matter how neatly I write them in my diary in pretty colours, some things won’t go as expected.
Just like the big snow storm that hit Bologna in March and stopped my flight.
Tons of stuff can go in unexpected ways in and around language learning as well. Learning a new writing system can be harder than you thought. You can struggle with more complicated grammar structures while going from beginner to intermediate level. You might get stuck on a learning plateau and feel like you’re not making progress.
Maybe your primary source of motivation disappears, or you lose your notebook somewhere. Perhaps you fall head over feet in love with another language or life simply gets in the way.
All of this is normal. You can’t avoid unexpected things to happen, but you can learn how to work your way around them.
First, accept the glitch and acknowledge the way it makes you feel. Then think of the best way to move on from there.
In time you’ll realise that accidents along your learning way can be a blessing. While moving through and around obstacles you’ll grow resilience, patience and creativity.
Sometimes you’ll have to give something up
Every time I move countries comes the sorrowful moment when I need to decide which books to leave behind. They’re one of my most beloved possessions and still, I can’t bring them all with me at once.
So I look through my bookshelves for the ones that I will actually want to read in the next months. Next time I visit my family, I’ll grab a few more. Some of the ones I used to love as a child but I never read again will stay there, in my parents’ house.
I wish I could have all of my books with me, but I’m forced to prioritise and make decisions.
The same can happen with languages.
You might love French, but you need Spanish for your work so you need to dedicate more time to it. You’ve just started learning Korean, but you’re about to move to Berlin and you need to make some more progress in German.
Of course, many things that are not language-related can come up, too.
A university exam, a crazy month at the office, a newborn child, a move to a new house, can all absorb most of your time and energy for a while.
In this situation, there are a couple of possible ways to follow.
You could try to load your days with an ungodly amount of activities, take hours away from sleep, hack time and be extra-productive.
Eventually, you’ll get so anxious over time and lack of it, that your brain will sink into a deep fog.
Or you could prioritise something, slow down or put on hold something else for a little while.
It’s better to do one or two things well than to attempt to do 10 things and fail at all of them while ruining your mental balance.
You have the right to take a break
Through the packing and unpacking, I strived to stay consistent with my Swedish learning and my yoga and journaling habits. I would tick off a box in my diary for each of these activities and feel good about myself.
In the last days at home, though, spending half an hour more with my parents to chat about this and that felt like the most valuable way to use my hours.
After a whole day cleaning, moving weights, filling boxes, my body demanded rest.
So I skipped a few days of study on my textbook. The same happened in my first week in Lund, when we had to unpack, build IKEA desks and move furniture around.
We’ve all been through this: having a million tasks to take care of, and still feeling guilty for not forcing some language learning in our days.
Learning while exhausted, or while your mind is wandering in all different directions, won’t help you much. You’ll likely forget most of the information you assimilate during those study sessions, and on top of that, you’ll get one step closer to a breakdown.
Don’t feel bad for watching a silly show or for hiding your nose behind a novel instead of studying on a particularly tough day.
Taking a break is an act of kindness towards yourself and the best way to recover and go back to learning at the top of your strength.
A little goes a long way
I used to think that writing one tiny sentence on Instagram wasn’t proper study. Recording it as such was some sort of language learning cheating.
The only study that mattered was made of solid 30-minute sessions on my grammar book or a full-length text.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by language learning if you think like this.
In fact, making a mini contact with your target language daily is more effective than studying once a week in long sessions. When having the language as a part of your days becomes a habit, you’ll find it natural to get back to it regularly.
On stressful periods, dedicating 5-10 minutes a day to your target language is an accomplishment to be proud of. And it’s good enough.
A few ideas for quick learning activities to fit into a busy life:
- Use Instagram to work on all language skills, just a few minutes a day. Write a short text or record a video, or check some native content to learn new grammar and vocabulary.
- Talk or think to yourself in your target language.
- Review one page or half a page of your notebook.
- Read one page of a book.
- Watch one video on YouTube.
The one thing to remember is: don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have all the time you’d like to dedicate to studies right now. There are things in life that need to be taken care of and doing a bit every day is plenty.
Make space for what you love
When under pressure, we often have the tendency to believe that the things we love are only a distraction from the “important” stuff. Like a little hindrance we spoil ourselves with that takes part of our valuable time.
We forget that our passions and loves are the fuel that keeps us going. Even more so when the going gets tough.
Taking one hour away from the “real work” and putting it into something that gives us joy is the best way to go back to business more motivated than before.
With language learning, this works both ways.
You might want to take some time away from household works and dedicate it to study. Or you might prefer reading a novel instead of learning, for a day. It all depends on your priorities and what makes you the happiest.
Be honest and kind to yourself. Don’t push and struggle to the breaking point, when you’ll be forced to stop all activities because you can’t take it anymore.
Big changes are going to happen in the lives of all of us, and they’ll demand attention and drain energy.
Acknowledging that you’re not a superhero and you need to slow down on something is one of the most loving things you can do for yourself.
You’ll get to the point when you can create a new routine and fit into it your daily tasks, your passions and your language learning. Until then, take a big breath and accept you’re human.
When was the last time you had so many things to do and you felt like you couldn’t be everywhere at once? How did you handle your language learning then? What is the one thing you don’t want to give up to, even in frantic times?
Let me know in the comments!