Friday, 23 January 2015

Chronic illness and language learning

A couple of years ago I became ill. My recovery is a slow and ongoing process (and I may never return to 'normal' whatever that may be!), but I am now much better than I was. However, one of the 'leftovers' from being ill was/is a much lower energy level. I now have to rest more, take breaks from activities more often, and if I do too much (either physical or mental) it will take me a while to recover.  For example the Toki Pona marathon while being a great experience really pushed me physically and mentally. Because I now know my limits I was prepared, and although frustrating I knew I'd have to do things like not stay on for the Christmas party we'd been invited to. I also needed 3/4 days of very quiet downtime to recover after the event.

What does this have to do with language learning? 

I decided to learn Russian again 18 months after my initially being ill.  One of the reasons was to give my brain a workout. I was suffering from 'brain fog' and my memory was pretty bad. I hoped that by taking up a language again, and giving my brain something to do these symptoms would lessen. I'm not sure if learning Russian has had much effect (yet!), but these articles give me hope!

What happens in the brain when you learn a language?
Learning second language 'slows brain ageing'
For a Better Brain, Learn Another Language

How do I do it?  
It's taken me two years to get to this point, and I'm still figuring things out, but what I can say is that it's all about pacing yourself, knowing and managing your energy levels and coming to terms with what you can and cannot achieve on any given day. It's about being flexible enough to change plans on the days when it just isn't happening. It's about coming to terms with being a slow language learner and being ok about it. :) 

In practical terms this is what it can look like.

Bad Days - Having an illness like this can mean that I have to change how, when and what I study. On really bad days it can mean doing nothing, and realising that taking one day to rest might mean I have a better week than if I push on when exhausted, and end up having to take 4/5 days to recover (yeah, been there done that more than once!). 

Slightly better, but not great days - On the days when I'm in zombie mode I rely heavily on apps, stuff like Memrise or Duolingo. Anything that means I can use my phone or tab and just lay in bed and press buttons really. I might listen to podcasts or watch videos on youtube. I've also found the Pimsleur and Michel Thomas audio courses useful for days like these. I might not take much in, but it's all exposure. Sometimes I can't take much before it feels like my head is going to explode, but I think that 10 minutes is better than nothing. 

I'm having less and less bad or zombie days as I become better at managing my energy, but they do still happen.

Good days -  I obviously take advantage and do more.  It might be studying grammar or using a course book, reading, writing, translating, anything I know I can't do on a bad day. It also means knowing my limits and stopping when my brain starts to get fuzzy. I also make sure I'm only focusing on one task so I'm not studying verb conjugations while on facebook with the radio playing. I'm putting all my energy into that one thing. 

Balancing activities - I find that by balancing a draining activity and an easy one (what is draining/easy will differ for each one of us) I can still have quite a productive day. An example is italki sessions - yes I've had 3 more! These are obviously a big draining energy activity for me, so on the days when I've had an italki session the only other thing I will do is review on Memrise. I won't go over the lesson and/or homework until the next day. This way I'm not completely knackered, I've had a good day and I'm ready for some more tomorrow. 

Speaking of italki, I think that it and other online tutoring or language exchange services are fantastic for people with low energy levels. We can choose the time of our lesson, and don't even have to leave the house. It provide us with another option than taking a class, which can involve travel and the stress of having to be somewhere at a certain time.

At the moment language learning is the only thing I'm able to do in terms of interests or hobbies. I haven't the energy for anything else, so reading, creative writing, knitting and all the other things I've enjoyed doing in the past are on the back burner for now. However, it isn't all bad. Having an illness can be very isolating, you can become quite a recluse having to turn down invitations, or explain that you're ill again can mean that people stop asking. I have found the online language learning community to be so very friendly and welcoming. I've met some lovely people because of it, and I'm very grateful to be a little part of it.

I hope this post may help language learners who are in a similar position to me, or people that really want to learn a language, but feel their illness is stopping them. 

Thanks for reading this far, it's a bit of a monster post! If you have any comments please leave them below. 

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