Loss of Passion

So, it’s clearly been quite a while since I last wrote here. I’ve tweeted a few things here and there, but I’ve largely been silent on Twitter, too. What gives?

If you look at my previous post, you can probably connect the dots. My trip to Germany, while lovely, really did a number on my passion for language learning. Perhaps loss of passion isn’t the right way to put it, although that was the first thing that came to mind. Maybe loss of direction or a general feeling of defeat would be a better way to put it. After years of toiling away with German, going to Germany and feeling lost (at least with listening / speaking) was a bad feeling indeed. I felt very defeated, frustrated, and as if I had wasted all of that time over those many years.

I thought and wrote about sticking with it, figuring I wouldn’t let my experience in Germany get me down. No need to be like a native, enjoy the process, etc.Β  And that really was my intention at the time, to keep chugging along and enjoying the experience. But reality has been different. I still love languages and have always enjoyed learning them, but the drive has just been gone, and I’m not quite sure how to get it back. Since returning from Germany, I’ve not done much language learning at all. I’ve written a few short messages to my tutor; I’ve read and listened to a couple of articles in LingQ; and that’s about it. I’ve thought about doing more, but I’ll look at my books and think – why bother?

To make matters worse, I’m at a level with German where I don’t seem to notice progress any more. I read, I listen, I learn words, but I swear, it always seems like there’s just as many new words to learn, expressions I don’t understand, grammatical quirks that elude me. I obviously understand that you’re never really “done” with a language, but I’ve got to say, I usually feel like I’m on a treadmill that’s never going to turn off, and that’s no good at all. This feeling is what I mean when I feel directionless in regards to language learning. I know enough German to recognize what I don’t know, and there’s a lot of it, so I’m not sure what to focus on. Too many fires to put out, so to speak, and it’s not clear to me which ones I should douse with water and which ones I should let burn for a while.

Having said all of that, I’m not quitting per se, but I do have to quit beating myself up over how I’ve been feeling. I suppose this post is part of that. I’ve been feeling anxious about not doing anything with languages, about not writing here, about not sharing language stuff with folks who follow me on Twitter and Facebook. I know, I know, you guys have other sources (traitors! ;), but this is something I really did want to do, so I feel like I’ve been failing in that regard. But I need to toss the guilt and anxiousness aside, because it’s doing me no favors. Ultimately, I may get back into the language learning thing – I’m going to try to – and I may not. And if I don’t, well, that has to be okay, I guess.

If you fine people have any anecdotes of being in similar positions and clawing your way out of it, feel free to chime in. I would appreciate it!

(As an aside: this is language learning “real talk.” None of that “it’s easy and great and it’s always a joy and you can be fluent in 3 and a half minutes!” stuff here, no sir. My apologies, though – I know some people prefer their language learning stuff to always be optimistic and uplifting, and I just don’t have any of that currently. Maybe in the near future if I can pull out of this slump!)

(Aside number two: I realize this isn’t the first time I’ve been in this situation and written about it. Life is cyclical, I suppose.)

12 thoughts on “Loss of Passion”

  1. Very eloquently expressed, Josh. I know the feelings you describe.

    It’s a question of expectations: we experience a sense of failure when we don’t meet them.

    You expected to be able to converse in German when you went to Germany, but was instead confronted with an unforeseen and insurmountable challenge! It was massively humbling, and naturally made you rethink everything you thought you knew. The German language turned out to be far bigger than you bargained for at the time you travelled.

    But our brains are very plastic and crave new information all the time.

    I say: get up, dust yourself off, regroup, and rethink your expectations.

    You may not measure up to native speakers, but there is still joy to be found in the journey that is learning. The journey is always more enriching than the destination.

    I’ve enjoyed your musings and hope you post more every now and then.

    My German is appallingly rudimentary (I speak Spanish fluently and French confidently, though flawed) but I enjoy picking up a new German word here and there, or falling asleep listening to a German voice speak gibberish to me. No expectations = no disappointments!

    I hope this doesn’t come across as unsolicited advice. It’s written from the heart, free-associating, and just meant to share my thoughts after reading what you wrote.

    Whatever you ultimately decide, I think your Language Geek blog is a super idea!

    1. Hi Peggy!

      Certainly not unsolicited advice – I asked for input! You’re right in that my expectations often don’t line up with reality. I don’t want to be good with German, or passable, I want to be a copy of a native. Not likely to happen! πŸ™‚

      I will most likely do just that – the getting up, the dusting off, etc. It’s somewhat funny, in that I’ve recognized what you said before: I enjoy the journey of learning a language. I just sometimes lose that joy when I’m too focused on results and measuring myself against other people (more often than not, native speakers). Too focused on the destination, and not nearly enough attention on the journey itself.

      Thanks for your input. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my blog, and I hope, with some luck, I’ll be posting more often. If I can get my head in the right place, I love languages and talking about them, and I’ve missed writing here. The embarrassment coming from lack of studying / practice led me to not write for a long time, and I suppose that was silly.

  2. HI Josh:

    I’m wondering why you feel you have to continue with something you no longer enjoy much.

    If you don’t need it for survival or your job, why beat yourself up? Maybe it’s time to give yourself permission to let it go. You can always come back to it when and if you have the urge.

    You’ve recently gotten married; this is a new season of your life and some of your goals and aspirations will have changed. Nothing wrong with that. What seemed right for you a few years ago might not apply now. You aren’t defined by whether or not you can speak German fluently or at all, for that matter.

    My unsolicited two centimes is this: try letting it go completely and see where your interest and happiness leads you. Life is way too short to force yourself to do something that isn’t at all necessary.

    1. Hi Tante,

      A very good question! I have a hard time explaining it. Language learning is something I’ve been doing for years now, and it’s always been important to me, and it still is – I’ve just been struggling with feelings of failure. (Honesty time: depression doesn’t help!) You’re right though, that I don’t need it for my job or anything else, and I really do need to quit beating myself up, whether I continue to study or not.

      I guess it just comes down to desire. I don’t want to throw in a towel, I want to figure out how to rekindle the passion I had. Less beating up of myself could certainly help in that department, however. πŸ™‚

  3. When I ran across your post in my news feed, I had to double-check that I wasn’t the one writing it. It’s not just language learning either. I’ve been feeling uninspired in a variety of areas. Having been through several of these cycles, I think the one bit of advice I would offer is to celebrate even seemingly minor successes.

    In my trip to China this past Summer, I had several major failures. Maintain a conversation with friends? Nope. Understand instructions on the train from Beijing to Huizhou? I’m still not sure they were even speaking Mandarin, at least that’s the lie I continue to tell myself.

    It’s easy to get caught up in those challenges when “fluency” was the original goal, but then you miss the smaller successes that show you *are* making significant progress. How many elevators did I ride and eavesdrop on locals discussing where my daughter and I were from? How many meals did I order even if half of it was just pointing? How many words and phrases did I learn even if the learning came about from making mistakes? In my first trip to China, people rarely understood what little I attempted to say, and I understood none of what they said. This time the gap was mostly vocabulary, grammar, speed, and confidence.

    I’m guessing you have a similar laundry list of successes from your trip to Germany. Focus on those, give your brain a bit of a vacation, and then come back to it and see if the passion returns.

    1. Hi Jason!

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been having similar issues with inspiration. It’s always good, however, to know that other people can relate.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences. Now that I think back to the trip, you’re quite correct – I had lots and lots of small successes! Signs and menus and other written things weren’t a problem anywhere, and I actually translated a lot of stuff for my wife. Particularly handy when eating at traditional restaurants that didn’t have English menus!

      I was also able to sometimes pick out bits of overheard conversation. One of my biggest issues in life (and yes, life, not just language learning) is discounting the positive. I’m a very black and white thinker, so if something isn’t 100% success, it’s 100% failure. Choose one, ya’ know? And let me tell you, that kind of mentality is really, really bad for language learning!

      My brain has had plenty of rest over these many months since our trip, and I’ve been trying to ease back into a regular language learning habit. We’ll see how it goes.

  4. I appreciate your honesty. A few gentle thoughts for you to consider (and use or discard as you see fit- no guilt attached!):

    I think it is a huge problem that we are encouraged to hide or gloss over our difficult. It’s been reading and learning about other people’s hard that has given me the most courage and persistence when facing my own.

    Some passions are relatively constant in our lives, some seasonal. Perhaps you are in German language winter right now. Beating yourself up won’t bring spring any faster, but it may make it harder for you to enjoy it and make the best of it when it comes. Perhaps you can think like a gardener for a moment: Wintertime is when they allow themselves to dream, and later, plan and re-plan their gardens. They may keep a few houseplants and pots alive in the meantime, but that downtime is a blessing and ultimately a protection to them and their longevity.

    What are your dreams about language? Have they really changed, or are you afraid to believe in or even desire them anymore? Sometimes we go to great efforts to produce something that in the end isn’t as satisfying as we thought it would be. If so, dream some more and/or dream differently. Give yourself the chance to experiment here and there.

    What can you get from German that you can’t get from any other language? For me there are things I want to know and understand, books that I’d like to read that have no English translation, dialects I want to be able to distinguish and know the differences… and the whys. Losing my vision in chunks from a genetic eye disease has thrown a huge monkey wrench into that. I fail at my language goals a lot. I get discouraged. I try again. Or I try different. Or I try something else totally outside of it and, in time, find myself gently led back to it.

    I don’t necessarily feel fluent in English. I’m aghast at how much after all of these years that I do not know- the grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors that I make- and that is my native tongue! I’ve had to learn that learning another language is unlikely to be magically easier or better. There is a richness and a joy to knowing there will always be a new word to taste on your tongue, a new way to see or understand your world because German approaches it in ways you haven’t before.

    Lastly- if you allow it to- this experience could help you to be a kinder and more compassionate person. A better teacher, because you are deeply aware of the struggle and discouragement of hurting as a learner. Isn’t teaching a bit of why you post here? Consider the present as graduate school for the goals and dreams you’ve had for yourself- you are taking it to the next level. And you can. Because you are willing to be vulnerable. Because you are willing to be honest. I for one am proud of you. Well done!

    1. Hi Melanie!

      I agree – we are very often pushed to gloss over our difficulties. I think constantly painting a picture of language learning (or any other task) as being easy is doing a disservice to other learners. That’s one of the reasons I have, on more than one occasion, written things like this post – language learning can be rough!

      You’re also right about the “seasonal passions.” I’ve gone through that many times with language learning. I’ll be all about it for months, and then just kind of stop. I eventually get back to it. Things have felt a little bit different after going to Germany, because I’ve felt like the trip really did strike a hard blow to my passion and confidence. I’ve been concerned that my passion wouldn’t come back, and that’s certainly not what I was aiming for with a trip to Germany!

      I had not considered the idea about the experience helping me be kinder and more compassionate, but you’re right. I can certainly relate to people struggling with learning! I’ll keep that in mind going forward.

      Thank you for your comment. It’s given me a lot to think about.

  5. Hi, Josh,

    I’m right now in Istanbul and I do share your feelings. I’ve spent more than five months here and I’m feeling defeated. I thought I knew a lot of Turkish before coming and at the school I’m attending I’ve noticed how little I knew. I’ve passed all my exams here (I’m at the c1 level, but it doesn’t mean anything to me) and I’m conscious of the progress, but I see a lot of work before me: above all speaking and understanding (I’m so tired that I understand less than one month ago). My expectations were very high when I came, perhaps too high. I’m tired, exhausted, depressed and my head and eyes hurt (I have migranes all the time). I know this phase. It’s a normal phase. I speak English, German, modern Greek and now Turkish (apart from my professional languages, Ancient Greek and Latin and lower knowledge in other languages). When learning the other languages I underwent the same phase (twice or three times with each one at different stages of my progress). It’s normal. I’ll go back to Spain and within two months I’ll resume Turkish and I’ll realize the huge progress and I’ll begin again. Your post is just a declaration of sincerity and humility. You should be proud of it. Learning languages is a tough process. It’s not easy, many times it’s frustrating, your foreign language level doesn’t match your mental age in your own language (in Spain I teach modern and Ancient Greek at the university and I’m a sworn translator Spanish-modern Greek-Spanish), and many times you feel defeated. That’s quite an usual landmark in learning languages. That’s the reason why many people begin and give up. The extraordinary is to stand up and persevere. Of course you need a reason to do so. If you enjoy using languages (reading, listening to songs, talking to people even for ordering a meal while abroad, whatever), you’ll find yours. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Valuable things in life are difficult. If learning languages is valuable to you, you’ll stick to it. It’s important that people explicit these problems at language learning, we should talk more about this issue, because, apart from methods for learning languages in an effective way, it’s important to find ways to encourage people to persevere (I’m a professor myself and I spend a lot of time encouraging students). The psychological factor in learning languages is as important as in sports. In fact learning a language and making sport or playing a musical instrument have many similarities. Athletes have coaches; languages teachers should behave too as coaches and in fact we do.
    In short, many of us share your feelings. You’re not alone in your frustration. If there are people out there for whom learning a language is an easy task, I’m glad for them. It’s not for me, but it will never be a reason for me to give up.

    I wish you the best.

    1. Hi Antonio,

      Thank you very much for your kind, supportive comment. I really appreciate it. As I said in my email, it’s always nice to know that others have been in the same tough spot. I’m still sticking with it and have been enjoying my language learning a lot more. It’s amazing what cutting yourself some slack can do. πŸ™‚

      Thanks again!

      1. Last Friday I passed my C2 exams in Turkish with better results than I expected. Right now I’m back in Madrid and I’m preparing my luggage: I’ll spend three weeks on holidays. My brain needs them. In September I’ll go back to learning Turkish in a systematic way. Looking backwards it was a feat to pass from an A2 to a C2 level in less than 6 months. Looking forwards I have still a lot to learn (although useful to test your progress, exams are just exams). It was a first battle. The war is not over, it has just begun. The important thing is that I’m still interested and motivated to improve my Turkish. I’ll use these weeks to reflect on my approach, goals and methods. I did some big mistakes (too little exercise the last two months, too little leisure), but other things were successful (last month I read more than one text every day and this made a great difference in my progress). But my real pride is that I never missed a lesson, never missed a homework, never gave up, no matter how tired or depressed I was. It was a victory over myself. And besides I survived several terrorist attacks and a coup d’Γ©tat in Istanbul. I must consider myself very lucky.

  6. Just came across your post and wanted to thank you, because I no longer feel so alone πŸ™‚ After already speaking 3 European languages fluently and 2 more at an intermediate level, I started learning Arabic through simple self-teaching years ago, and for SIX YEARS I have been taking good, high-quality, official courses at an excellent school, some in Standard Arabic, some in a dialect. And I feel like I am still at the bottom of the mountain whenever I attempt real-life conversation! (reading is going slightly better) I was reading Tante Leonie’s comment especially and it intrigued me because I have had the exact thoughts she expresses so many times while learning Arabic. What’s the point really? Do I need this language for my life? I haven’t really got many specific ties to the Arab world (though a few which could continue without speaking Arabic certainly). I guess it could help me professionally if I reached a very high level, but it’s in no way a necessity.

    However, I think for those of us who have made language learning a way of life, this is like our Olympic sport in a way. Like any other obsession, the goal does not necessarily have anything to do with usefulness or logic, but rather with the sense of achievement and excellence that comes with having reached the goal originally set for ourselves. It is not necessarily a psychologically healthy pursuit, but it is one that we are drawn to, like a marathon runner who does his 10 miles a day…or a moth that burns up flying into a lightbulb, hahaha. Tante Leonie is actually right and gives the best life advice: we should just move on and perhaps return to our obsession after a healthy time discovering other interests and pursuits…but it is such hard advice to follow when you are hell-bent on doing what you said you would, fully thinking it was possible. At least for me with Arabic, the journey of a 1,000 miles started with one step, which I took, but then I realized the trip would actually be 10,000 miles long (and that number keeps rising!). Good luck. I am still waffling over a long break.

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