Mandarin: end of the road, or why recognizing failure doesn’t have to suck

As a teenager, I was the textbook definition of a “dreaming procrastinator”. I wanted to do lots of things and go to lots of places but never got around to them. My mind, my personal space and my schedules were all a mess. After a couple life-changing events during my early twenties (one of which was a serious accident), I realized there was nobody between my dreams and I… except myself. That’s when I resolved to teach myself to use every day to the fullest, and never waste a day in something that wouldn’t enrich my life.

Part of this life-enrichening process has been language learning. I’d always loved languages, even before I started out on this crazy learning journey, but I only came to realize how much fun it was to learn languages after I’d been learning Japanese (my first language) for a couple of years. Then, after crashing and burning with Russian (my “second” language, if you’re counting the ones that I don’t speak) and taking a break to reassemble myself, I decided that the moment language learning stopped being fun was the moment when I had to hit the brakes, take a breather and re-evaluate why I’m doing this. It’s partially one of the reasons why I’m such a big supporter of “slow learning”: I’m never in a rush to learn any language, and I always advice against putting unrealistic deadlines to a language mission.

That said, I’ve been learning Mandarin for a little under half a year now, and it’s been quite a trip, but for about a month now my heart has no longer been into it. A considerable set of issues and challenges that started back in September have weighed heavily on this language mission, and while I’ve somehow managed to stick to my learning schedule, I’ve realized learning Mandarin is not fun anymore… not right now, anyway. So what to do?

Failure is a lesson

The “F” word (I’m obviously talking about failure) often feels like a heavy-handed slap in this world of extreme demands and instant gratification. However (and as pessimistic as this may sound) failure has been a constant presence in my life, so I’ve learnt to interpret my mistakes as a new roadmap for the next mission, and turn the bitter taste of failure into fuel for tomorrow. There’s no point in interpreting failure otherwise; sulking because you failed solves nothing and can only result in a waste of your valuable time.

Like I said earlier, I learn languages because I like doing so, and because finding something one cares for deeply is actually not an easy feat, I protect the value this activity has for me quite fiercely. This means knowing when to stop before I break something (in this case, the will to keep studying languages). One thing I take great comfort in is the fact that I can come back to this language at any point and I won’t have forgotten it all–I’ve done it multiple times with many languages and have realized that whenever I do take up a language that I’d studied priorly, I advance more quickly, so by now I know that breathers are actually more productive than people tend to think.

In a way, I think failing every so often is good, as long as you don’t let it bring your morale down. With a subject as complex as language, it’s bound to happen, and you need to figure out how to respond to that failure and make it work to your advantage.

But wait… just how does one do that?

  1. Panicking because you realized your language mission is failing? Slam on the brakes, take a few days off to do something else and forget about it all. You need to face the problem with a clear mind, not a stressed one.
  2. After you’re ready to face the music, make a list of the issues you believe drove you to failure.
  3. Imagine several solutions to each of these issues (feasible ones!). For example, let’s say you believe one of the issues you had was that you were doing your learning in the afternoon, when you felt sleepy after lunch: if that’s the case, you could try moving it to the morning before work, or at night, or even break up your learning into bite-sized chunks through the day (like I do).
  4. Go back to the drawing board and implement these solutions, slowly and on an experimental basis. The first one you try may not always work, but in the end you will find that at least one of them will improve your learning routine.

One last measure:

Do not fight what cannot be fixed by your own hand

“But wait!”, you might say. “What you’ve written is definitely not what you’re doing now!”

And you’d be right to notice that rather than reasses and readjust I’m suspending the whole mission, so allow me to explain. In this particular case and during my Mandarin mission, I’ve actually gone through this failure analysis process several times already, and the last time I decided to put my routine through the process again, I realized I’ve never really accounted for timing, and that ironically, this is what is consistently messing up my Mandarin learning mission. Somehow it just didn’t sound right to say “you’re juggling several other things right now, so now it’s not the time to learn Mandarin”; now I feel sort of dumb for not realizing this my stubbornness and the bad timing started threatening robbing all the fun from language learning.

What I mean to say is, it’s as important to be consistent in language learning as it is to be considerate of yourself. If it’s not the moment now, it’ll be the moment some other time.

So what am I going to do now?

After all the hard work I put into learning this language, I’m obviously not considering quitting Mandarin altogether–just putting it on hold until the storm tides over. Between business and family matters, the end of the year is always a busy period for me, so I think I’m going to take it easy until 2016, maybe refresh my other languages, and work on improving the blog on several fronts. 2015 has been an intense year (what with Polyglot Conferences and new Youtube channels) and I’d appreciate being able to welcome the next year feeling refreshed and ready to take on my next mission!

  • Chiara Grandola ,

    Very inspiring and truthful post, Siskia.

    “There’s no point in interpreting failure otherwise; sulking because you failed solves nothing and can only result in a waste of your valuable time.”

    Wise words and wise decision, my friend.
    I still have to learn how to handle failure but I’m working on it.

    • Sis Lagomarsino ,

      Ciao Chiara! As always, thanks for your warm words. 🙂

      I’d say there’s no definitive point at which you can say “oh, I can definitively handle failure now”; in a way, it always feels like a kick to the gut, but I’ve realized that what can turn that reaction from disabling anger or sadness to simple annoyance is learning to stand up quickly and figuring out how to turn a bad situation into a constructive one.