Scary things: dealing with language learning setbacks

It had been a while since I last had to leave a party after half an hour. The moment I stepped in the room I felt overwhelmed.

The place is filled with the smell of incense. Everyone has clearly taken the hippy-theme of the night seriously. In front of me, a sea of flowery shirts and peace signs.

Some people greet my partner with a hug and turn a curious look at me. I introduce myself briskly. I am already a bit on the edge.

Within the first ten minutes, I encounter a lot of kind inquisitiveness, to which I reply going through the same steps again and again, mechanically.

Hi, I’m Elena – I’m here with him, we live together – These are X and Y – I’m from Italy – Ciao bella!

I try to crack a smile, with much effort I lift the corners of my mouth slightly.

After fifteen minutes, I become unable to answer people’s questions. Not in Swedish, but in English or Italian it wouldn’t have made any difference. My socially skilled boyfriend covers up for me, then whispers in my ear “It’s alright, you can go home. I’ll ask if someone can drive you back”. Out, in the freezing Swedish evening, I burst into tears.

I thought I could do this.

After a challenging month, my social anxiety got the better of me. The start of an intensive Swedish course and of a new teaching job got me exhausted. A few previous social commitments drained most of my energy. My dread of parties and of forced interaction with strangers did the rest. In hindsight, I should have stayed at home.


Sometimes, things don’t go exactly as we planned. Sometimes we misjudge so completely, we end up sobbing on a cold Swedish night outside of a cheerful party room.

Or tormenting ourselves because we haven’t achieved all of the short-sighted – if ambitious – goals we had set at the beginning of the month.

Thinking about our setbacks is scary and unpleasant. Just like at a party where we’re not following the dress code, we feel all eyes on us. We’re sure everyone knows we’re a bluff. We don’t belong to the community of disciplined and successful language learners. We’re imposters.

There is no way to make things better if we don’t take some time to reflect, though. We need to go through the discomfort of facing our missteps in order to find a better path.

Let’s have a look at some of the most common reasons why there are months when we get a bit lost. And of course, let’s think of some ideas to clear the road and start making progress again.


A plan that is too ambitious

This month, I started an intensive Swedish course offered to immigrants. To complete it in 10 weeks I would have to study for about 4 hours per day.
I thought this wouldn’t have to disrupt my regular Swedish learning routine. I was adamant on thinking I could add my 1 hour of daily self-study on top of that.
Not only I couldn’t, but I also decided to switch to a 20-week course. This way I’ll actually have the time to delve into what I’m learning, instead of rushing to the exam and forward.

In today’s world, the fear of missing out governs us. We constantly think we’re not doing enough, not fast enough, not productively enough. Idleness is a dirty word and we pile up activities to fill up every minute of our days. We don’t even remember that we need time off.
This makes us exhausted, uninspired and hinders our ability to learn.

When you plan for your language learning, actively plan some time off, too. You can always decide to fit more learning in it if you feel energetic, or maybe you need a nap instead. Go ahead and take it, your brain will thank you.

A plan that is not well thought out

After an intense and frantic day, finally, it’s time for your long-awaited 15 minutes of language learning. You sit down at your desk and… you don’t know what to start with. Your precious time disappears while you try to figure out what should take priority. By the time you decide, you only have 5 minutes before it’s time to prepare dinner.

For some of us, a bit of organisation is necessary to promptly start our study sessions. Some good planning at the beginning of the month or week is time well spent. We can waste less time trying to pick what to do while also working on a more balanced study routine.

Especially when you know that you have some busy time ahead of you, some preparation goes a long way. Make a schedule, have your materials ready to use and cut out the distractions. 10 or 15 minutes of focused study a day are not too short to make progress.

Something unexpected happened

Even the soundest, most balanced plan falls apart when life gets in the way. From the start of a new job to a sudden problem, all kind of things can break your routine.
Sometimes we need a couple of days to get back on track, sometimes we have to put language learning aside for a longer time.

When this happens, the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to accept where you’re at and try not to feel guilty. Some things are out of our control and they already cause enough anxiety as they are. There is no need to add extra pressure on ourselves by stressing over our studies, too.
Ease back into your learning routine a bit at a time. Move things around, experiment with what works best in your new situation. It might take a while for everything to settle. Do as little or as much as feels right for you.

You had a hard time focusing

Is there anything more pleasant than lying on the sofa at the end of the day, picking a book in your target language and immersing yourself in it?
But after the first page, you realise you actually don’t know what you just read. You get back to the start. Nope, a couple of paragraphs later you still don’t remember a thing. You do understand the words and sentences, but your head is not in it.

When it happens to me, it makes me want to shout. Why won’t these thoughts be quiet? I don’t want to rewind my day, plan the weekend, go through the shopping list right now. I only want to focus on what I’m doing and enjoy it.

In a world that gets us spinning all the time, sitting still and being present is becoming a challenge. It can help to start practice mindfulness: do some yoga, meditate, or simply take a moment to stretch and take a couple of deep breaths.
It’s also good to have an uncluttered study space where you can get into learning-mode, leaving everything else aside for a while.

You lost motivation halfway

Sometimes the crisis has been sneaking closer, sometimes it jumps out of the blue. You feel lost. That drive to practice your target language vanishes. Maybe you worked too hard and you’re experiencing a burnout. Maybe you’ve reached a plateau and you’re frustrated because you’re not making progress.

Don’t panic. That’s the first thing we do when we’re lost, and the most detrimental. Instead, take one step back and have a look around. Think about the reasons why you started to learn this language, what you love about it. Turn to look at all the things you have achieved until now, even the tiniest ones count. They count the most. Try to remember where you were going. What is it you want to achieve long-term with this language? What are the small steps you need to take to get there? Start with a small one, start to slowly move again. You’ll realise that the path was there all along, hidden by dry autumn leaves.


Reflecting on your language learning journey, especially when you find obstacles on your way, is an important activity. In time, what used to feel uncomfortable is going to become more natural. Your false steps won’t be a source of shame, but a valuable occasion to understand more about yourself and your learning needs.
Embrace the imperfection of the process and don’t be afraid to share it with others.

You know how everyone reacted to my party breakdown? They told me not to worry, to get some rest, that I had only pushed myself too hard. They were supportive and understanding. And so are most people in the language learning community. Don’t be afraid to share your setbacks and insecurities, only by doing so can you find comforting words and a helping hand.


How do you feel about your language learning setbacks? Are you able to reflect and learn from them, or do they block you?

Leave a comment and let me know. Or come and share your ideas in the Quiet language learners’ nest, home of the introvert language lovers.


I’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. Lola
    8th November 2018 / 10:56 am

    Hi Elena!
    I can totally relate to the language learning setback frustration. I spent my first 3yrs here in Sweden, learning Swedish with SFI, then Komvux grundläggande to gymnasium nivå. Under that 3yrs, I went from loving Swedish to despising it, haha! I hated being graded on something I loved. I passed and went on to my current 3yr language journey into Japanese. Again, I am being graded on something I love at högskolan but I persevere nonetheless. Now when I speak Swedish it flows freely (not perfectly) and my love for it has returned, whereas, when I speak Japanese it is strained and still feels so rudimentary. I’m hoping I will hit the mark of flowing Japanese and feel that intense love I felt at the beginning of this journey. To add to my madness I am also taking Chinese but feel less stressed because it was a filler course to keep my fulltime-student status. Sorry for the novel, I just thought it interesting that you are also in Sweden studying Swedish and Japanese like myself. Thanks for the encouraging post, it’s great to know I’m not alone with these feelings about setbacks.

    • Elena
      8th November 2018 / 4:50 pm

      Hi Lola, thank you for your comment. I’m always happy to read other people’s experiences – and I’m a big fan of long, novel-like comments, haha!
      I feel like it’s a shame to have to worry about grades and deadlines so much. I find the stuff I’m studying at Svenska som andraspråk 1 super interesting (language variations, language and identity… I could read about this all the time) and the test waiting for me after the course definitely spoils things. On the other hand, it’s amazing that education is free here, so I can’t complain too much about things.
      Definitely, you’ll get to the point when Japanese flows too – as I can’t wait to get to the point of flowing in Swedish. 🙂 I’m more of a reading and listening person, so I’ll have to put some extra effort in the speaking part that I tend to neglect.
      Best of luck with your studies and thank you for sharing a bit of your language learning history. 🙂