You work hard at your English. You attend classes, you work with a private English teacher, and you meet a language exchange partner every week. You have a goal and you are willing to do anything necessary to accomplish it.
You are doing everything you should be doing to see real improvement in your English skills.
However, even though everyone else around you notices your improvement, you don't think you are getting any better so you start pushing yourself a little too hard.
You start losing sleep because you need to complete your homework. You start to feel stressed all of the time and learning English begins to feel more like a demanding job than a joyful way of improving yourself personally and professionally.
Are you in this place right now? If so, you are at risk of English learner's burnout. Stop it before it happens!
What is burnout?
I used to play junior tennis when I was a kid. We would travel to different tournaments on the weekends in the New England area.
I was lucky to have parents that didn't push too much but guess what happened to many of the best junior tennis players on the circuit. They burned out!
Why did they burn out? Burnout usually started for them around age 12. Someone pushed them too hard, asked them practice too many hours each day, forced them to miss too many "normal" kids events like birthday parties and school dances.
Eventually, they started pushing themselves too much and by the time they hit the 18 and under tournament level, they were gone. Finished. They had quit tennis and probably never went back to it.
Believe it or not, the same thing can happen to English language learners!
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How does it happen? Is it happening to you?
- Burnout usually happens to people who are extremely determined and ambitious.
- You set the expectations extremely high for yourself. You take on more work than you need to take on (sign up for too many classes)
- You start to ignore your physical and emotional needs. You cut back on sleep, have less concern for your health and stop getting exercise. You might also cut out daily meditation or a spiritual practice so that you have more time to study.
- You start to recognize that what you are doing isn't healthy but you don't make any changes. You start to feel physical symptoms like getting sick. You start to lose energy.
- You isolate yourself and continue working hard. This could eventually lead to bad things! You will probably lose interest in learning English and in extreme cases you might face depression or a nervous breakdown. This is not the way to achieve your English goals!
How to Avoid English Learner's Burnout
1) Trust yourself and your efforts
Even if you don't think you are getting better, if you at risk of burning out, that means you are working hard. If you are working hard, you are getting better.
You need to trust that.
Often, if we are in the middle of an intense process like language learning, we can't see what is really happening from an objective point of view.
We focus on our mistakes. We forget that we have learned how to successfully pronounce a sound that was very difficult a few months earlier or we don't realize that we are making fewer mistakes when we conjugate verbs.
Trust that you are getting better.
2) Measure your progress
If you are learning English the way that you should, which is through immersion, you are probably not speaking in your native language very much. That's great.
The problem is, you are now comparing your English skills to native speakers. This a great method for improvement if you don't take it too seriously.
Why would a beginning math student compare himself with Einstein?
Here's a better idea: If you are here in the U.S., get on the phone with someone from home who speaks your native language and who has not been working intensely on their English like you have.
Do you notice a difference between your ability and their ability that wasn't so obvious before?
That is progress. Trust that.
3) Take a day off
Go see a movie. Attend an outdoor concert and listen to music. Meet your friends for a picnic.
Take some time away from your books and get out of your class to relax.
This doesn't mean that you have to stop speaking English. It just means that you need to stop focusing on the English for a day or two or three or maybe a week.
Instead of focusing on the mechanics of the language and your mistakes while you take time off, just use the language to communicate and connect with people. Don't write down your mistakes. Don't take out your dictionary. Just live in the language.
Your job during this time is to get away from your daily study routine.
Take a breath of fresh air and relax.
4) Don't attend every class just because you can
What happens when a kid eats too much cake just because he can?
He gets sick.
If you are studying English in Boston or New York, there are tons of opportunities for you to practice and learn English. You don't need to do all of them.
Select a few methods that work and stick with them.
Don't overdo it or you will burn out quickly.
5) Don't try to fix all of your mistakes at the same time
Choose a focus for each activity and don't worry about the other mistakes that you make.
If you complete an exercise for homework that focuses on phrasal verbs, be more concerned with getting the phrasal verbs correct than getting the correct spelling and pronunciation of every other word in the exercise.
You will make mistakes! It is normal.
It might also be good to choose one skill every week to focus on with your tutor instead of trying to learn every grammar point or vocabulary word that you encounter.
A sense of focus will keep you motivated and help you avoid burnout.
6) Find comfort in chaos through a daily ritual
Learning a new language and living in a new country is complete chaos.
You are usually confused. You are not in control. You are like a child because you have to rely on others. You are often stressed out and you can become easily embarrassed if you say the wrong thing in the wrong situation.
You must find a way to deal with this chaos and cultivate a sense of calm.
Don't ignore your body. Get enough sleep every night. Eat good food. Develop a meditation practice or find another way to cultivate mindfulness.
Learn to put everything down and take a walk when you feel overwhelmed.
Take one hour per week from your usual study time and join a soccer or basketball team instead of studying.
7) Try to integrate English with your daily life
Stress often happens when we feel that our lives are segmented. To succeed with your English, you do not need to have your nose in a grammar book to study English.
You can immerse yourself in English at home or attend parties with native English speakers.
Get your haircut at the local salon and make small talk in English with your stylist.
Make English your life, not your job and you will feel less stressed and more balanced in your life in the United States. Do you agree with this? Click to share this idea with your Twitter followers!
8) Balance structured learning with open-ended learning
Plan your day so that you move between structured English learning activities and less structured English learning methods.
If you work with an English tutor in the morning, meet a friend for coffee and English conversation in the afternoon.
Use different methods every day. Don't just do grammar exercises from a book. Read the newspaper and discuss the story with your tutor. Listen to a podcast or watch online video news clips. Watch a TV series like Friends one day per week instead of attending a normal class.
Mix it up and keep it interesting.
9) Reward yourself
If you are an adult language learner, you can't count on anyone else to reward you.
You have to set up a system of rewards for yourself. The rewards that you choose can be very simple. If you accomplish the task that you set out to do, allow yourself a 30 minute walk around the neighborhood, meet a friend for coffee or take an evening off and read a book.
Think about what "accomplishment" would mean for you and set up a system of goals and rewards.
Here are some examples of accomplishments that might deserve a reward:
- I engaged in English conversation for 15 minutes and didn't use any words in my native language
- I overcame my shyness and started a conversation in English with someone on the bus or train
- I attended my English class for 6 weeks and improved my score on the exam
- I listened to a 5 minute news clip and understood the entire story
10) Cultivate compassion for yourself
You need to be your own best friend in the process of language learning.
No two people learn languages in the exact same way. We all have completely different and unique minds. No one understands your struggle the way that you understand it.
Part of having compassion means taking a break, setting up a rewards system and developing a calming daily ritual, as I mentioned above. But it's also something more profound than that. You need to strive for a shift in your attitude toward yourself.
Some very driven and ambitious English learners can be aggressive toward themselves. What does this look like? Some people don't allow themselves to sleep because they haven't finished their homework. Some aren't able to laugh at their mistakes. They feel anxious and need to keep pushing and pushing even when they are exhausted.
If you do this, your body and mind will eventually shut down. Does that sound like an effective method for success? Not really.
Show compassion toward yourself and you will have a much better chance of success.
11) Connect with a community of other English learners
Community support can be powerful. Stay in touch with reality by meeting regularly with other people who are facing the same challenge that you are facing.
Talk with them about their strategies. Find out the methods that they are using to learn English.
What can you learn from them?
It is very easy to take on "tunnel vision" when you are ambitious and have a goal. An evening out every few weeks with others who are on the same path will help you recharge mentally and physically.
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