When Should You Give Up Learning a Language?

ElzetteDecember 7, 2020

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Woah there, Negative Nancy. What’s with this topic? 

I know, but we need to talk about this.

Normally I wouldn’t advise anyone to stop learning a language, but my recent decision to put a pause on learning Dutch to focus on Korean instead got me thinking.

When is it okay to step back from a language you’ve been trying to master? 

I hesitated for a long time before publishing this post because I want this to be a space that motivates you to stick to your language learning goals even when you feel like giving up.

But I also want to be real here. Sometimes there are very good reasons to make the decision to discontinue your language studies.

Ultimately, this is a very personal choice, but here are some reasons you may decide to put your language studies on hold.

You’re doing it for the wrong reasons

There are many reasons to start learning a new language, but not all of them are the right reasons.

For example, you may find yourself in one of these situations:

You picked what you believe to be a ‘useful’ language that would look good on your résumé, but you actually have zero passion for the language

Your parent/teacher/spouse is pressuring you to learn a language for whatever reason (heritage, a college application, that résumé thing again…)

You studied the language in high school or university and figured it would be a waste not to keep it up, even though you really don’t have any interest in it

Studying a new language is a big commitment and it’s important to figure out why you’re doing it in the first place. If the reason is more about pleasing others than yourself, it may be time for some self-reflection.

It’s causing you undue anxiety

While language learning can be a fun, relaxing hobby for some, it can also be a very stressful activity for others. If you are an introverted learner, you may feel overwhelmed by the pressure to speak to complete strangers in a language you barely know. You may find it stressful to try and fit language learning into an already exhausting schedule. Or the anxiety of writing and passing exams may be getting to you.

Whatever the situation, if you feel your mental health is being threatened, it’s time to take a step back to see how you can change your approach to learning a new language. This could mean stepping away from your language studies altogether for a while, and that’s okay.

You’d rather focus on a different language

As I mentioned earlier, I had great ambitions to learn Dutch. The idea was that it would be a quick win because I already know Afrikaans. But somewhere along the line, I became more interested in learning Korean.

With a full-time job, this blog, family life and two other languages to maintain, there was no way I could give Dutch the attention it deserved. So I’ve decided to bench Dutch until I can get back to it. (Update: I recently started re-introducing Dutch with quick daily Duolingo sessions. I’ve set no other goals and I’m exploring the language in low pressure ‘dabbling’ mode.)

Sometimes we are just more drawn to one language at the expense of another. If your interest has shifted, I say ditch the guilt and follow your passion.

Of course, if you have the time and you’re up for a challenge, you could try your hand at learning two languages at the same time.

You need to focus on something else for a while

When I decided to enroll in a first-year Chinese course on a whim back in 2010, I never expected the decision to delay my PhD by a year. 

I don’t regret taking that leap for one second, but I did have to re-shift my focus back to my dissertation after I completed the course. It was crunch time. I had a scholarship to maintain and a looming graduation deadline. I took a break from studying Mandarin, finished my dissertation on time, and picked up my language studies with a private tutor two years later.

Priorities shift and sometimes we need to dedicate all of our attention to one big project.

So, are you saying it’s fine to just give up?

Not exactly.

A big part of learning a new language is figuring out how to overcome obstacles and diligently pursuing your goals. Having to work hard for something makes the payoff that much sweeter. I really hope that you can find the motivation to go after what you really want.

That being said…

Perseverance is an admirable trait, but it’s not always in our best interest.

Ask yourself: What’s the best decision for me at this time?

It’s okay to take a break.

It’s okay to want to move on to a new challenge or language.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t go back to learning that language when you’re ready.

Have you ever stopped learning a language? Why did you decide to take a break?

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  • Lola

    December 22, 2020 at 9:40 pm

    Good advice as usual, Elzette 🙂
    I haven’t given up on Czech yet… that said, my breaks are sometimes a little long.
    Thanks for writing!

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