Staying positive when language learning is stressful

Fastened heartbeat.

Dry mouth.

My voice shakes.

A hot flush to my cheeks warns me I blushed.

About a month ago, I was in front of a class of people I had never met, ready to give a talk in Swedish.

I had prepared and I knew it by heart but… social anxiety thought it’d be nice to show up.

It was the national exam after the Svenska som andraspråk 1 (Swedish as a foreign language) course. I thought I could get some rest afterwards, ease into the second part without pressure. As school started again, though, I found out I had to complete the course in 10 weeks instead of 20 this time.

After embracing a creative, mindful, slow approach to language learning, all of this is like an alien planet. How can I deal with stressful, anxiety-inducing, performance-focused language learning again?

Finding my path was harder than expected

My first reaction was of complete rejection. I slacked and procrastinated, my brain refusing to collaborate at all. A thick fog wrapped up my mind every time I picked up any of the course assignments. I pushed through because my good-in-school self won’t allow to fail on a test or show up without homework. But every page I read, every word I wrote was a battle.

Following my own advice was a real challenge this time. Again and again, I went back to the two pillars of my language learning: reflection and creativity. How can I make this into a somewhat meaningful experience? How could I possibly sneak some creativity through and into my Swedish practice?

It took time, but I’m used to be patient in language learning. Finally, after quite a lot of journaling, I found some ideas to work with.

So here are the strategies I will use during the Swedish course to keep a positive attitude towards language learning, even if the conditions are not ideal.

Are you also studying a language in a stressful setting – for example with a deadline, for an exam, during an intensive course with a strict curriculum? Then try to implement some or all of these ideas and let me know how it goes.


Find a reason to keep going – connect to the big Why

Even if right now you are studying in a rigid, limiting setting, remember that you are still learning. So think back about the reason why and the things you’d like to be able to do.

Ask yourself:
  • How can I use the present experience to move towards that?
  • Are there any adjustments I will need to make?
  • How can I make this learning experience relevant to me?

For example, I want to be able to play with the language and to express the things I want to say in a natural and nuanced way. To do so, I’ll experiment with advanced structures in my essays – which also means taking the risk to make some mistakes. The hardest part is to let go of perfectionism and of my innate striving for good grades. The reward, though, is that I’ll be able to learn from the course things that matter to me.

Look at the big picture

Do you ever get worked up about something, only to realize later that you were stuck on one negative detail? So often, we get caught on something small and negative – our brain is wired like that. But we can decide to actively look for opportunities and positive bits in the big picture.

Ask yourself:
  • What can I learn during this experience?
  • What language knowledge or useful skills will I get at the end?

For example, having to memorize a lot of words for a test in a week isn’t my preferred way to learn, or the most effective. I know that, when studying that way, I’ll probably forget a lot soon after. But even if I remember only 10%, that’s already some new words I add to my list.

Go the extra mile: practice gratitude

By actively looking for things to be grateful for, we rewire our mind towards positivity. And improving your language learning experience is just one of the numerous positive effects of gratitude.

At the end of each day, write in your diary one thing that went well, one thing you learned or that you are happy about in your language practice. At first, you’ll need to make an effort to come up with something. With time, your gratitude muscles will strengthen and you’ll start to notice things to be happy about without even trying.

To prepare for times of discouragement, you can also make a gratitude jar. Write your achievements and things you are grateful for on small bits of paper, put them in a jar and reread them when you need a little encouragement.

Ask yourself:
  • What can I do now that I couldn’t do one year ago with this language?
  • What did I learn this week?
  • One language learning moment I enjoyed today?

One step at a time

Looking at everything you have to study at once can be intimidating and seem like an impossible task. Wow, do I need to submit all of this in only 10 weeks? Panic.

It becomes more manageable, though, when we break up the tasks into smaller bits. One after the other, we can work consistently on completing the activities.

Make a timetable for each task’s due date to help you stay on track, but keep your focus on the next step only.

“I have to submit one paper by Monday” sounds more feasible than “I have to submit 10 papers by the end of the month”.

Ask yourself:
  • What is the next thing I need to do?
  • By when do I need to do it?

Add creativity… from the outside

I believe that creativity is at the core of what makes our language practice a nurturing, engaging experience. So how do we find space for it, when we don’t have complete control over our studies?

You can try to add some creativity… from the outside.

  • Dedicate some time to playful, inspiring activities outside of language learning. Schedule some time to experiment and play. Go back to an old hobby you’ve been neglecting.
  • Doodle, colour, build something in the breaks. To keep concentration, I like to use the Pomodoro technique for my studies. After 25 minutes of focused work, I take a 5-minute break. That’s when I grab my notebook and draw something, let my mind rest. Creativity is the perfect way to recharge, too.
Something I doodled in my breaks

And what about using skills you learned through other creative adventures to help you with language learning?

A mind-mapping technique I learned during a creative journaling course* has been revolutionary for my writing. It helps me immensely with completing essays faster, making them more coherent. Instead of staring at a blank document for an hour, I pick my colours and make a visual map of the things I want to write. It works wonders.

Ask yourself:
  • How can I fit some creativity in my life around language learning?
  • What creative skills can help me in this language experience?

Learning a language in a fixed setting can feel frustrating, limiting, stressful. It dries your enthusiasm’s roots and makes you want to leave your books to clean the kitchen instead.

Especially for those of us who learn as a hobby, this change can become a heavy burden. There are ways to make it better, though, if you’re ready to dig and explore with some patience and kindness.

Would you like to continue the exploration? Cultivate is a workbook that guides you through the basics of this approach to language learning. An approach that uses curiosity and introspection to lead you towards mindful language learning.

What are your strategies to stay positive during a tough language learning experience? How do you deal with the stress?


*The course is The Story Starts Underground by Trisha Traughber at Vagabond English. Do check her work if you love reading and writing.


I’m Elena, an introvert, an immigrant and generally a nerd.
By asking new questions and looking for new perspectives, I’m exploring the connections between language learning and mental health.