Why it’s maybe time for you to take a break!
Hello from Edinburgh! After just living through an insane two months of a crazy workload combined with big stuff happening in my personal life too, I am officially exhausted. My creativity has flatlined, my energy is non-existent. The idea of producing anything right now horrifies me, and a recent bout of Covid has meant that all of the great work plans I had set in place for before I went on holiday have gone up in smoke.
But, you know what? THAT’S OK. Because my brain and body is screaming I need to take a break, and that’s exactly what I am going to do. And I am here to tell you guys (yes, me, the teacher who never stops harping on about why you need to completely immerse yourself in English to make real progress and you need to expose yourself to it everyday) that maybe this is what you need to do as well. Perhaps it’s time to put down your English studies for a few weeks, or even months. So let me tell you why.
What is language burnout?
Let’s start with an explanation of what burnout is. It’s that feeling of dread whenever you start to think about doing an English task, or going to your lesson. It’s when you feel like you are drowning and everything about the language horrifies you. When you no longer find joy in learning where you used to love it. That feeling of resistance when you try to pick up a book or watch a film in English. And guess what – it’s totally normal! It has nothing to do with you being a terrible student, or even having a terrible teacher. It’s your body and mind telling you to take a break.
How long have you been studying English?
Language burnout can often be related to a perceived lack of progress. This can be particularly frustrating with English because it is often a language that you begin to learn in primary school and all throughout your formal education. A lot of students I have met feel bad about their English level because they think that by now, after maybe 20 years of learning, they should be proficient speakers.
There are a lot of reasons why that in no way needs to be the case. For starters, the English input you have been getting is very possibly not what you need. It might not work with your learning style, or how you have to use the language. Although it’s been a lot of years that you have been learning English, how regularly have you actively interacted with it?
There is no point feeling annoyed about where you are with your English just because you started a long time ago. This is not a good way to measure things. Life is messy and will affect how much you can commit to reaching goals. During the first lockdown, I managed to run 5km in less than 12 weeks after never having run before because I had the time to dedicate to it. Now, with life going back to normal, I am crazy busy again and I don’t think I could run further than 2km without stopping. But it’s OK – I’ll get back to it when my life allows it.
Let’s evaluate your relationship with English
It’s also worth considering how you feel about learning English. A negative relationship with the language will, without a doubt, impact your progress and send you much faster towards burnout. Because English is the “global language” (at least for now), you are expected to have a decent level, and it is often required for a lot of jobs. Younger generations are now benefiting from technology which makes it a million times easier to engage and learn the language, however if you aren’t a Gen Z-er, then you probably didn’t have those advantages.
There are A LOT of valid reasons why people might have resentment towards (white middle to upper class) English being seen as a necessary language – take colonialism, racism, classicism and xenophobia for starters. I wrote a blog years ago about the dangers of English being seen as more important than the language(s) of a country. I personally see it as a form of cultural vandalism at best, cultural terrorism at worse.
I bet you think that you’re not proficient enough too
And then there are some of my most hated words when it comes to learning English – native speakerism. Thankfully, the EFL world is moving towards being a proficient speaker in English instead of sounding like a native speaker, albeit slowly. But for decades, the measure of a “good” English speaker has been how much you can sound like the Queen.
This has such a negative impact on people’s progress in the language, and means they are constantly pushing themselves to achieve a perfection which is both unnecessary and non-existant
You don’t need to sound like a native speaker – your accent is awesome. And anyway, what kind of native speaker do you even want to reproduce? Because we have endless accents in English. I’ll let you into another secret – if you don’t use a million idioms and phrasal verbs in a sentence, people will still understand you!
Do you know your language goals?
Have you stopped to consider why you actually want to speak English? What you want to achieve with it? How you are going to measure this progress? Burnout can often happen because we feel like we aren’t getting anywhere with the language – but if you don’t know where you want to end up, then of course you’ll get frustrated and demotivated.
Instead of ploughing on with the next level of your English course, why don’t you take a break to evaluate what you actually want and need to do. You might find that you have actually already achieved some of the things you need. Not only that, consider who you use English with. If it’s as a lingua franca between other L2 speakers of English, a lot of that tricky language to learn like the idioms and phrasal verbs I mentioned earlier aren’t actually used. You would be better focusing on language which is relevant to your job for example.
Maybe it’s time to stop?
Another thing you probably never expected to hear from an English teacher! Perhaps you need to take a break from learning English. And that’s OK! Even if you don’t use your English for a year, when you come back to it that base that you invested in will still be there. Sure, you’ll need to do some extra work to build up those linguistic muscles, but they will come back. It doesn’t mean you have failed, or that you’ll never learn English again. In fact, you’ll probably come back with a much better energy and attitude towards the language, and that will make learning so much easier as you move forward.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself.
We often pile pressure on to ourselves which no-one else has asked of us. While there are of course situations where not passing that English exam can have consequences (such as for visas or a new job) there are plenty where it won’t. And shit happens. There is a lot in life you won’t be able to control.
Also, a quick reminder that we have all just lived through A GLOBAL PANDEMIC which affected each and everyone of us, and even if you had a delightful lockdown there is still no doubt that it will have touched you somehow. So, this summer I invite you to disengage. Do not open your course book. Uninstall Duolingo. Forget about those podcasts. Do whatever will make you happy, enjoy a well deserved break, and after your time off, make space to evaluate what your English needs and goals really are. Future you will appreciate it!