5 invaluable, practical ways you can fight overwhelm as a language learner

January 3, 2020

Overwhelm is an interesting beast.

You might be familiar with it if, like me, you have dozens of different interests and hobbies. You want to be successful and put 200% into everything you do.

How many times have you tried to convince yourself that a situation is not that serious, only to still end up getting nervous, anxious or just exhausted by your own thoughts? How many times have you told yourself…

  • “I try to stick to a schedule, but I’m so overwhelmed by it that I just keep postponing.”
  • “Language learning takes a long time and is a process that never ends. I feel like I’ll always be stuck.”
  • “I’ve hit a plateau and it seems vocabulary has just stopped coming in…it’s so overwhelming to look at huge lists of words I don’t know.”
  • “I have so many books waiting on my shelf, so many installed apps I don’t use and so many online lessons I keep postponing…I just don’t know where to start anymore!”
  • “Not sounding as good as I thought I would by now. What do other polyglots have that I don’t? How the hell do they learn 10 languages in a year?”
  • “I set high expectations for myself and then get depressed when I realize I’m nowhere near them…I feel dumb and like I’m wasting my energy on all the wrong things.”
  • “When I realize how much I still don’t know, I almost pass out.”

I hear you. I know all of these feelings like the palm of my hand. As if my brain didn’t have enough reasons to feel busy, I’m also an expert at setting the bar really high for myself, even when nobody else asks me to!

“But I thought I loved languages! Does this mean I’ve started to hate them?!”

You can love something to death and still need a break from it. Think about it as a basic need.

While you’re studying languages, you might feel like you need a snack. One thing doesn’t exclude the other: you’re learning languages and feeling hungry at the same time. Just like hunger, overwhelm is a sign that your body needs you to take action: a break.

It doesn’t eliminate your love for languages or learning. Sometimes, overwhelm is just that – your brain asking you to pause and give it some minutes of your attention, quality time and availability.

What if I told you the solution is not ending overwhelm once and for all?

Whoever promises you that you’ll never feel overwhelmed again is probably after your money.

Everyone gets to feel overwhelmed sometimes. You’re not the only one who gets to enjoy that side of being human! Having said that, I’d like to help you with practical steps that’ll take some weight off your shoulders.

I hope my tips will make life lighter on you. Let’s go!

1. Create a visual inventory of all of your resources.

I may or may not be obsessed with shopping for new books that smell nice. I also keep signing up for new language apps and platforms. The consequence? I overwhelm myself with dozens of coursebooks I never get to open and apps I don’t even remember installing.

First-world problem? Definitely. But it is a fact that the moment you start surrounding yourself with a bunch of things you don’t use, you feel chaotic and guilty. When your shelf is filled with books you don’t use (but want to) and your phone is overcrowded with apps you never open, it’s time for a change. My answer? Create a quick inventory!

Start by taking a realistic look at the language coursebooks and phrasebooks you’ve gotten, the apps you’ve installed (and take this opportunity to decide if you want to keep them or delete them), the courses you’ve started online or offline, and list them all. Then, add a progress bar to each of them. After that, register how much you’ve completed to date. Here’s what it looked like when I did it:

Notice that I didn’t do anything special. I didn’t get rid of books, I didn’t sell them, I didn’t finish them. I just registered how many I had, for what purpose, and how far I had gone into them. This awareness helped me immediately. I no longer felt that my collection was out of control or neglected. Now, I was ready to complete these progress bars one by one.

Also, every time I bought a new book, I added it to my list. Even if I couldn’t read it or work on it immediately, at least I continue to have an updated visual idea of my resources. Which leads me to…

2. Start a language journal. Really.

I know what you must be thinking right now.So, the solution to my overwhelm is buying yet another notebook and add yet another responsibility to my already busy schedule?”.

Believe me, I used to think that way too. “A language journal? I don’t have time for that. I don’t have time for doodles, more notebooks, more distractions. It’s just not for me!”. Turns out, it was.

No, I don’t use it every single day. No, I don’t have the most creative language journal full of detailed artwork, autumn leaves and careful aesthetics. It’s just a damn good way to keep everything in the same place, and that alone makes it fantastic to fight overwhelm.

  • Keeping track of the movies you’re watching in your target languages? Language journal.
  • Tracking your progress in ten different courses, coursebooks and apps? Language journal.
  • Want to dabble in a language and never look at it again? That’s okay because you wrote your notes on your language journal.
  • Learning languages at the local cafe, but have no idea what books to take, what coursebooks you want to pick, what notebooks you need? Answer – you only need one language journal where you keep all of your language notes. That alone will keep you entertained for hours, especially if you open an app, start playing and take notes as you go. No more thinking about dozens of different materials to carry on your back.

At the end of the day, it’s all about keeping your space organized to keep your mind organized, too.

3. Don’t stick to anything.

Remember when I mentioned a language journal? Yes? Great! Now, remember that part where I mentioned you should journal every single day to keep up with a routine? No? Me neither, because I didn’t say it! (hihi)

Seriously, though. The last thing you need when you’re dealing with a thousand responsibilities falling upon your shoulders is more obligation.

Whenever I tried forcing any type of strict schedule, method or study plan when I was already overwhelmed, I failed. I started seeing the world in black and white: I either did everything as planned and felt exhausted but accomplished, or I would fail to do my list of tasks…and felt sad and defeated. The kind of defeated you’re not supposed to feel with language learning.

So please, don’t give yourself unnecessary pressure, schedules, study plans and obligations thinking that you’ll have quicker results. Not only are you likely to go into panic mode if you feel overwhelmed, but you’re also going to foster negative self-talk (“I’m a loser”, “I can’t even stick to a schedule”, “I’ve failed three days already, so I might as well let the whole week go and start again next Monday”, etc).

4. Remind yourself that any activity is better than no activity.

“Take it one day at a time.” “Baby steps.”

This theory has many names and wording options, but my favorite is that we should make it our goal to start one little action in order to spark more action. Plain and simple.

Unless you’re currently happy and satisfied with measuring your goals with numbers and strict deadlines, don’t make it your goal to be fluent in a couple of months, speak 10 languages in three years or write a massive essay every day. Why do I mention this? Because overwhelm tends to make everything look monstrous. Everything becomes a matter of success or failure, of extreme happiness or depressing darkness. Suddenly, it seems as if it could swallow us whole, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

What if we think in ridiculously tiny steps? I’m talking really, really tiny. For instance:

  • “Let me just write two sentences in my target language on this napkin”.
  • “I’ll come over here, open this coursebook and review two or three words”.
  • “Today I’m just going to open that app and complete three steps”.
  • “I’ll just quickly say “hi” on that language exchange app. It’s okay if it doesn’t lead to a deep conversation or Skype call. I’ll just say hello!”

The way you refer to your activities matters, the way your internal dialogue develops matters, and the way you act on that dialogue matters even more.

5. Do it right now, not later.

When you feel the impulse to do something for your language learning, regardless of how small it is, use that energy. Use that impulse. Don’t let it slide.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t complete the chapter, if you don’t remember the words you’ve just read 10 minutes later, if nobody’s watching, or if you manage to complete your life’s masterpiece. Do something. Anything. Anything small is better than something big you were going to do, but didn’t.

You wouldn’t believe the amount of things I postponed for years due to overthinking and overwhelm. When I finally decided to take tiny steps to complete them – sometimes ridiculous things, such as sitting down at the computer and writing one paragraph – I was amazed at how simple it was and how much of a demonic creature I was constructing inside my poor, overwhelmed brain.

6. Avoid celebrity polyglots like the Bubonic plague.

Sometimes other people’s success is energizing. Other times, it’s human to feel vulnerable and insecure when you compare yourself to others. I’m here to tell you it’s healthy to allow yourself to take a break from a digital world in which everyone seems (keyword: seems) more talented than you are.

Sometimes, your brain needs some quiet. Sometimes, it’s time to stop looking at other people’s gorgeous notes, flawless handwriting, exceptional pronunciation, almost non-existent accent, and gigantic list of languages.

Yes, I’m talking about those “Polyglot-speaks-35-languages-in-under-7-minutes” videos. I am also talking about those “How-I-learned-Spanish-in-3-days” videos. If you feel any sort of negative feeling after dealing with this type of content, please avoid it. I’m not ashamed to say I muted one or two very prominent polyglots for months on end because of how perfect their life was. Once I felt better, I just unmuted them. Simple!

Life will already hit you with several unpleasant invitations to question yourself, so why contaminate your hobby with this mentality as well? You’re stealing genuine pleasure and play from something and turning it into yet another “you vs me” game. Save yourself, save your energy and save minutes of your life in which you could be learning your favorite language!

An important message about being honest with yourself.

If you find yourself regularly…

  • thinking you’re going to pass out if you don’t get a break;
  • having to ask for basic information two or three times in a row, like what day it is or what time it is, and then seem to forget it immediately;
  • feeling like you’re going crazy because you’re always overwhelmed at everything, such as the thought of dressing up or meeting with a friend for coffee;
  • forgetting simple things / doing some things twice without realizing because you’re exhausted;
  • wanting to drop everything and just go to sleep;
  • not wanting to hear people talk because you feel your brain is about to break;
  • feeling like if you add another tiny little thing to your plate, you’re going to give everything up and have a mental breakdown…

It’s time to stop. Seriously. Burnout is a reality and can have serious physical effects. You’re mistaken if you think your mind does not have a direct effect over your body and how it performs. I don’t have to go far to find a convincing story, although I have several from close family and friends. I’ve lived it myself and it was one of the scariest moments of my life – to realize I was losing intellectual and even speech skills due to how exhausted I was.

You won’t be able to do your job or complete your degree if you’re drained. You won’t have pleasant conversations with interesting people from around the globe if you’re about to collapse. Your brain might be asking you for some mercy.

Take that break. When you return, everyone who matters will still be there to help you get back on track.

And I’ll be right here to welcome you back.

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