Burnout: motivation’s nemesis

A language learner’s worst nightmare.

If you’ve never suffered from burnout, consider yourself lucky. Although this is a word thrown about all too easily by language learners, it is in fact an actual psychological condition. Let’s set the stage: you’ve started learning a language you really wanted to. You’re all joy, curiosity and energy, but within a month or two, you feel less and less motivated to start your learning sessions. Your motivation is AWOL. One day you realize it’s been two weeks, one month, half a year, since you actually did anything. The inevitable result: you feel like a failure.

This makes burnout seem like the red-eyed monster under your bed, doesn’t it?

So how do I avoid it?

It appears that burnout comes as a result of mostly four things: exhaustion, stress, lack of recognition of one’s work, and unclear goals (or a lack of them). Therefore, the best way to avoid burnout lies in three easy measures:

1. Set short term goals.

This has got to be one of the most repeated pieces of advice you’ll read in language blogs, but it’s only because it’s the best advice you’ll hear. Short term goals (that is, short mission-like learning periods aimed towards achieving a goal) do not require you to keep intensive attention to your studies for as long as a long term “broad” goal (such as “becoming fluent”), and therefore are not as exhausting.

2. Pat yourself in the back… when patting is due.

Have you picked up a book today? Watched a movie? Skyped with a friend in your target language?

Set a “minimum possible workload line” for everyday, and strive to pass it every day. That way you can actually give yourself props for staying on top of your language routine. However, do not cheat; do not spend your learning time doing something too easy or with no impact in your learning. Always remember that if you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself.

Incidentally, giving credit where credit’s due is one of the rewarding parts of participating in the language learning community. I’ll talk more about this in an upcoming post, but if you can, get yourself involved in a team of like-minded inviduals. They don’t even have to be learning the same language as you, as long as everyone’s aware of what everyone’s doing. Knowing you’re not working hard on your own can be incredibly motivating.

I’ve noticed the least I can do every day to get actual results is 30 minutes, but that’s how my own mind works. Even ten minutes may be enough for you, as long as you make it a daily ritual and don’t expect too many results at first.

3. Recognize when burnout’s coming.

At first, it’s very difficult to know when you’ve pushed yourself too hard. There’s no big red light to tell you you’re overstepping you’re own limits; it isn’t strange to notice you’re burnt out only after the damage has been done.

The first sign is usually plain exhaustion. Remember, you’re using up mental and physical energy every time you learn a language, so it makes sense that you feel tired. After that will come demotivation and lastly, apathy—after that point, you can consider your language learning to have gone into coma. It won’t be impossible to revive it, but it’ll take time and TLC to do so.

Learn to modulate yourself. When you’re starting to feel tired, respect that feeling and lighten your language workload, or change your course, tools or method. There’ll come a moment when you’ll realize “wow, this combination of time and learning resources really works for me”… and believe me, that realization is precious to any language learner.


Have you ever suffered burnout? What did you do to remedy it? Did your motivation to learn a language suffer as a result? Let me know your opinion in the comments!