Taking the world less travelled

Three Ways to Overcome Burn Out

Posted by on May 14, 2008 in Language | 6 comments

When I do something, I usually do it to extremes until I can no long stand to do it any more. For instance, when I was younger I stamp collected to death. All my spare time was devoted to collecting stamps until I could do it no longer – I’m not sure what happened to that awesome stamp collection, now I wish I still had it, but I haven’t looked at a stamp that way in many many years.

The same is true in most of what I do, including language learning. I do it to the extremes sometimes, which can be a good thing and a not so good thing. One side effect of this is that I often burn out.

I define burning out as not being able to find the motivation to do something, feel as though I’ve done it too much. But if I give up then my Japanese learning journey is over.

Learning a language is not fun and easy all the time. If it was we all know multiple languages by now. Unfortunately we sometimes need to push ourselves to just get that bit further. Here are some ideas on how to overcome burn out.

First things first, the most important thing to remember, no matter what you choose to do, is to not give up. If you give up you’ll never know Japanese. You can try blaming the language “But Japanese is too hard” – but ultimately it was you! Millions of other people can learn Japanese, so you can too.

1. Push Through What You are Doing.

Sometimes you have to keep doing what you are doing. For instance, if you are doing a course you may have to do something for homework and the like. Or perhaps this is part of your job. Or maybe you have a bet with your friends and don’t want to have to run down the street naked. Whatever. The point is you have to do it, you have no choice. It has to get done.

Here’s what you do: You do it. You just plough through it. If there is a lot you need to do, then break it up to smaller chunks and work through each chunk. Set yourself time limits and see how much you can get done. You have to do it, so you might as well get it over and done with.

At the moment I’m suffering from textbook overuse. Yes, I am almost three quarters of the way through Japanese for Everyone, and I am sick to death of looking at it! Unfortunately, I have to learn the presented grammar, vocabulary and kanji for University. What I do is just set aside thirty minutes every day to work through it. As soon as my thirty minutes is up I stop and don’t worry about it again.

Soon you will find that actually finishing what you had to do gives you a great sense of achievement. Or at least relief that it is over. When you are finished what you need to do, give yourself a (Japanese language related) reward. You deserve it.

2. Change Tactics

If you don’t have to keep on doing what you were doing, you have the freedom to change tactics. In other words, try a different approach. You will still be learning Japanese, how ever it will feel fresh, new, different.

You see, at the moment I’m suffering from SRS overuse (I told you I go hard at everything I do! And I’m feeling very burnt out at the moment!) I primarily use my SRS to learn new vocabulary and to practise grammar at the same time – through reviewing sentences. Anki has been sitting open on my computer for over a week and I haven’t touched it. If I’m not doing it, then I have to find something to replace this activity.

So I’ve started using the Assimil method. And I’m having fun with it! Even though I am still just reinforcing grammar and learning new words, it feels like I’m doing something different. It feels fun.

And you never know – by trying something new you may discover a method that works ten times better for you than your previous one. If not, no loss, just try something else new.

3. Take An Active Break

If you feel like you can’t go on, then perhaps you need to take a break. A break is completely healthy and may actually help your progress in the long run. But do not take a complete break.

When an jogger is running through the streets and gets to a red traffic light, often they will not stop and stand there, waiting for the green man. Instead, they do what is known as an active break. They will jog slowly on the spot, and when the light goes green they start running again. When they are puffed, instead of stopping and collapsing on the ground, they walk until they have their breath back, and are straight back into running.

So instead of stopping completely and doing nothing, try taking an active break. Sit down and watch some Japanese tv or a movie. Listen to your favourite Japanese music. Go to a Japanese restaurant and see how much of the menu you can understand. Do something!

An active break like this is also a great way to reward yourself for your hard work if you choose to do one of the other methods instead. It keeps us fresh and reminds us why we are learning Japanese in the first place!

But don’t forget to get back into studying again. Set yourself a limit and get back into it as soon as possible. Remember don’t give up. One week’s rest is a good amount of time to recuperate. If you still can’t get back into it you’re not trying hard enough. Don’t make excuses for yourself, just do it!

Get Back Into Learning Japanese And Enjoy It

Burn out = bad. But don’t let that stop you. Burning out is all in your head, so you can go on, you just need to give yourself a bit of a push.

As I said before, if things were all smooth sailing in language learning we’d all be polyglots. And if you don’t do it and give up, well, you are only hurting yourself, letting yourself down. Just keep at it and you’ll progress in no time at all.

In the comments, why not share your experiences of burn out and what you do to overcome it?


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  1. Julia

    Thanks for the tips! I can identify, as I experienced a time of burn-out around last August. It was definitely because I had overdosed on the language learning, and I got so sick of it I started doing other stuff. But then, I somehow got back into it – and I’m glad I did. ^^ I liked your suggestions for the “active breaks”; only thing is, I think I take too many of those. (E.g., spending too much time watching J-dramas and looking at Japanese boys.) I guess the key to language learning is a slow yet steady pace, ね?

    Oh, and kind of off topic, but thank-you for your referrals to Anki and Reviewing the Kanji – I now use those all the time for vocab and kanji respectively, and I most likely never would have found them if you hadn’t mentioned them. So ありがとうね!


  2. アカン

    Carlie, I have a question.

    Since you watch a lot of Japanese dramas, how do you handle listening comprehension? Do you understand most of the dialogue on your first go and keep looping the video or…..?

    As for burnout, I just follow Khalid’s (from Feed Me Japanese) advice: keep review/studying to a minimum. The words and sentence patterns I’m most familiar with today are largely due to interesting content and NOT boring and repetitious review. The only sentence (yes, only one) that helped me (from a dictionary) is:
    (That too, I didn’t need an SRS to remember it).

    “Learning a language is not fun and easy all the time. If it was we all know multiple languages by now.”
    This is just my opinion, but I think it can be. I say this from my limited experience, since I keep SRSing and review to a minimum nowadays. You can check out Steve Kauffman’s blog: http://thelinguist.blogs.com (Yes, he is a polygot).

  3. Steve Kaufmann

    Stay with what turns you on has always been my motto. Listen to content where the content is interesting and the voice pleasing. Some degree of word review is useful, and can be addictive but the condition is that the words come from content that you have read and listened to and is familiar.

    I lived in Japan for nine years, did business in Japanese after one year, but always found the dramas difficult to follow. I am a great believer in the power of the little MP3 player and repetitive listening to content I like.

    Right now I am on to Russian. Anyway, good luck and keep it fun! Don’t let the teachers take the learning enjoyment away from you.

    Oh and a break from learning is a good thing. Your language skills can actually ferment and mature during periods of benign neglect.

  4. Atreya

    I guess I take active breaks every now and then. I usually watch Japanese Dramas with Japanese subtitles (only shows from last season, can’t seem to find subtitles for older shows <_<) to reinforce the Kanji that I know and of course vocabulary. Then again, I don’t understand 95% of what’s being said anyway… ^_^

    I have never taken a complete break from Japanese (so far… and I hope that I don’t take a complete break either). I have loaded Japanese Language support in my Phone and have dictionaries. A.M., P.M., days of the week, are all in Japanese. My PC has the Japanese Version of Windows XP as an alternate operating system. So whenever I am not actively reviewing Kanji/Grammar/Vocabulary, all these make sure that I am learning japanese, at least passively.

  5. GoddessCarlie

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I will be responding to your comments in future posts :)

  6. Daniel

    I’ve always found burnout funny, because I experience the opposite (cool down?). I try to expose myself to such much Japanese media that I tend to run out before acquiring more and start to cool down… So the solution is always more media!

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