Are You Too Strict With Yourself When Learning Languages? 11


Are you too strict with yourself when learning languages?

In the last year or so, the internet has been flooded with blogs about productivity, smart thinking, smart learning, optimising your routines, increasing your effectiveness, developing good habits and so on, and so on.


This seems to be a trend that’s here to stay – it can be applied to the way we work, the way we eat, the way we organise our daily lives, and, of course, the way we study foreign languages.


Put procrastination in the closet because you won’t need it for a while (or, ideally, ever again!).


Being productive is good but…


I like to think of myself as a productive person and a productive language learner.


I like to set myself clear goals with everything I do.


I like to challenge myself and push myself to work smarter (which doesn’t always mean harder).


I like to tick things off my to do list and evaluate the impact of what I’ve done.


I like to have a routine and I like to read about how I can make myself more productive, procrastinate less and lead a life that’s aligned with my goals and values.


Whether it’s learning languages, eating healthily, exercising or just keeping my ‘life admin’ under control, the countless blogs on smart and optimised living help me improve in the different areas of my life.


If you’re really trying to get to somewhere – whether it’s fluency in the language you’re learning or just a good conversational level that will help you communicate when you’re on holiday – the advice on productivity that’s out there can be really helpful.


It can help you find faults in your habits and routines, identify the things that you do that have little impact and help you focus on what really matters. It can be a life changer – believe me.


Don't wish for it. Work for it.


I did say ‘but’ in the title of this section, though, and there’s a good reason for that. Read on to find out what I mean.


You need to remember you’re human


The advice on productivity, effectiveness and super-smart living is sometimes written or communicated in a way that suggests that there’s absolutely no space for being ‘average’.


Everything is maximised, optimised, streamlined, and so on, to the extent that it becomes the new norm.


Anything that’s not structured, optimised or systematic becomes ‘average’, and a lot of productivity gurus imply that that’s not enough.


Staying in bed until 10am is not right because productive people get up early. The earlier, the better, in fact. Aim for 4am to be a super-human.


Having cake (and I’m not talking about the gluten-free, sugar-free and dairy-free variety) is not right because it will kill you or you’ll get fat.


Skipping a revision session or not doing any language learning for a month is not right because it will move you away from your goal and make you lazy.


You’re human, though. And you’re not perfect. And that’s ok.



It took me a while to realise that


And, boy, that was a liberating experience. I can still achieve my language goals even if I don’t religiously stick to my schedule all the time.


I can still achieve my fitness goals even if I have a period of exercise-free weeks because I just don’t feel like it.


I can still be proud of what I can say in the languages I’m learning even if I’m not fluent yet (in fact, I’m proud of my Japanese even though I’m only at the start of my journey).


I can mispronounce something and not feel embarrassed. Because I’m human and I’m learning, and that’s what life is about.


I can speak with a foreign accent and wear it like a badge. Because I’m human and I’m not perfect, and that’s ok.


The pressure is on…


Can you feel it? I can. And that’s why I’m telling you, dear language learner, screw perfection, be human and enjoy life. You’re great anyway!


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  • Purcy

    Hi Agnieszka,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us language learners. It is a very good reminder that we are human with all our shortcomings even though we don’t like them. And we don’t like to hear that. But it does reduce stress. I also think that in for example language learning it is important understand yourself and your ways of learning in order to make adjustments at the different stages of the language learning journey.



    • Hi Purcy,

      Thank you for your comment! You’re absolutely right that it can sometimes be difficult to admit that we’re not perfect, especially when we’re trying so hard! It’s part of the learning process and, as you say, it can help us move forward when we know what it is that we’re not doing right yet.

      Good luck with your studies!

  • Erik Alfkin

    Sometimes it’s tough to know when to push through and when to back off. I sometimes think I need a break from pursuing my goals, but then find that I fall behind too far. Other times I think I need to keep pushing, but find myself burning out. Like so many other things involving us fuzzy-logic humans, there’s probably not an easy answer. It’s about figuring out our own signals on when to push and when to relax.

    My target level in Swedish is taking a lot longer than I’d thought is would, but I’ve finally found some really good techniques for me. I sometimes wish I’d figured this stuff out earlier, but then again, some of those stops and starts took me in unexpected directions that helped me figure out where to go next. Some steps I simply wasn’t ready for, like finding out how awesome Memrise can be (my first couple of forays there were less than satisfying but now my vocab is on overdrive).

    • Jack

      Spot on. Honestly, the pressure to be constantly productive and moving forward to pursue our goals is unrealistic but urged by so many scholars and bloggers nowadays. In reality, it’s comforting to know that so many high level language learners, and even ones who end up attaining fluency or proficiency probably went through the same unpredictable phases in their own journey. I’d like to see a blog post by some famous polyglots on those down periods.

      • You made a good point there about ‘down periods’. Success is what people talk about the most, as if moments of low confidence or frustration were something to be embarrassed about. And it’s not at all! We all go through such moments and we should talk about them more. It can be so encouraging for learners who are experiencing them right now to know that they’re not the only ones who are struggling. There’s probably a blog post in this 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Erik! Figuring out when to relax can be so difficult. I almost feel like I need to schedule it in sometimes because there’s always something more I could be doing. I really believe that people who learn languages are some of the most ambitious people who like to have a sense of achievement. This can be a great thing but also something that can hold them back if they don’t celebrate the journey they’ve already been on.

      Good luck with Swedish and yes – Memrise is great. I’ve been using it for Japanse and love the memes there.

      Best wishes,

      • flootzavut

        I have chronic fatigue syndrome, and this comment amused me because the last time I saw a specialist, this was exactly what she told me, that I needed to rest more! (Like people who learn languages, people with chronic fatigue tend to be ambitious and driven.)

  • Jack

    This is extremely relieving to read. For the past year, I’ve politely declined nearly every compliment that I speak Korean well, not out of humility, but actually believing that I really wasn’t even near a level worthy of genuine praise. That type of attitude is almost assuredly from my heightened expectations influenced by those all those articles and pieces of advice on productivity you mentioned, Agnieszka.

    In fact, it’s almost as if the expectation is so high (fluency or proficiency) that satisfaction is nearly impossible. For beginners, the excitement of learning a new language and the complete lack of pressure to be proficient is slightly different than that of an intermediate learner, but regardless, if I can’t enjoy the whole journey and forgive yourself, then I’m forgetting why I started learning in the first place!

    Thanks for the advice, Agnieszka; it’s great to hear that from someone else.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jack! You’re right that it’s much easier for beginners to experience the feeling of satisfaction when learning. The times when they didn’t know anything are far more recent in their memory, and they can compare that to what they know now, which, as you say, is very exciting.

      Good luck with your Korean!

      Best wishes,

    • flootzavut

      This is so true. I think for me also I tend to compare my level of a new language not with what I didn’t know when I started, but what I know in a language I know well and have been learning for a long time. I know in my head it’s ridiculous to compare my Hebrew (which I’ve studied on and off but mostly off for a few years, and ‘properly’ since the start of September) with Russian (which I studied at university), but I get caught up in that gap between how well I speak and how well I’d like to be able to speak, and I end up feeling like I’m not very good at all. Whereas actually, for someone who’s only been really putting my nose to the grindstone for a few weeks, I’m not at all bad!

  • dandiprat

    For me language learning is exhilarating but sometimes it does lead to me not getting enough sleep. I don’t usually get the urge to take a whole day off but I definitely want to dial it back sometimes and spend more time watching soccer or something. Wish my Cantonese programs didn’t come on every single day of the week including the weekends. Oh well.