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Why a language learning break can help you get better

I’ve just returned to learning German after a language learning break. To my surprise, my brain hadn’t rejected all the German I had previously learned. In fact, I felt like I was somehow more fluent than before.

Keep reading for this week’s post on why, sometimes, taking a language learning break is exactly what you need.

Gif from FRIENDS with the words WE WERE ON A BREAK relevant to topic Language learning break.

It’s no mystery that German is a particularly tricky language to learn.

I had my first German lesson for over one month last Wednesday. 

It was scary and nerve-wracking to get back into the dirty details of German grammar. I felt like I might have forgotten everything I learned over the past two years.

Alas, everything was fine. I remembered more than I thought I would and I didn’t have a breakdown.

But why did you take a month off?! I hear you cry from a socially acceptable distance.

Gute Frage, mein Freund/meine Freunde, gute Frage.

I’ll give you the most simple, direct answer first: money. 

I started Kurzarbeit in March, which has been both a blessing and a curse at the same time. I’m a glass half full kinda gal. Continuing to be employed and get some money is better than being made redundant and getting nothing at all. It’s also allowed me more time and freedom to work on my blog, hobbies and other side hustles.

But at the same time…I’m having to budget and cut back on certain luxuries now.

I knew I had enough German under my belt to successfully hold most conversations I need in daily life. I’ve even survived a Bavarian dentist talking to me while he’s got all his tools in my mouth. 

So I decided to take a language learning break.

That is to say, I stopped deliberately learning.

What the hell is deliberate learning?

Have you ever read Grit: The power of passion and perseverance by Anglea Duckworth? If not, you totally should! It’s a great read and very inspiring. It certainly gave me a kick up the bum.

Anyway, in Grit, Duckworth talks a little bit about how exactly experts practice to get so good at what they do. 

They practice deliberately, covering four basic requirements:

  1. A clearly defined, stretch goal (what do you want this practice to add up to? What’s the end target?)
  2. Full concentration and effort (that means put down your bloody phone!)
  3. Immediate and informative feedback (from a teacher, coach, etc.)
  4. Repetition with reflection and refinement (the only way to learn what articles go with what noun)

Most of the above are done while nobody else is watching. It’s frustrating. Uncomfortable. And, at times, painful (hello, Genitiv and Reflexive Verben).

But the end result is magical (that moment you can finally call the dentist in German without sweating profusely).

Taylor Swift blowing a chef's kiss.

This is the exact way we learn languages. At least, it is for those of us who have to learn a language given that we’re living in the native country of said language.

Deliberate practice is fantastic. It’s how proper learning gets done. It works. But it’s also really draining.

The other reason.

This leads me on to the other reason I stepped away from German. I was exhausted. I had been deliberately learning German for at least 30 minutes, sometimes up to 4 hours, per day for 18 months. 

I was burnt out. My language skills had plateaued. I wasn’t learning anything new and was starting to really hate German again.

After getting over the initial hurdle of “what in holy hell is this language?!” I have actually fallen in love with German over the past 6 months.

German sentence: Dass das "das", das "dass" und das "dass", das das "daß" ersetzt, gleich klingen, ist verwirrend.
With the caption "this sentence makes sense in German"
This sentence makes sense in German

So when I start to feel myself getting angry with it again, I know it’s time to take a step back.

I felt that giving my brain a holiday from grammar, sentence structure and stupid verb conjugations would relax and revive me. The same way taking a two-week all-inclusive trip to Mallorca relaxes and revives the Germans.


You’ve seen those LEARN GERMAN IN YOUR SLEEP videos that are like 6 hours long and repeat phrases over and over again, right? 

And you’ve probably thought to yourself what a load of

Hagrid from Harry Potter point his finger with the words Codswallop if you ask me written in white font.

…as did I.

Their claims that you can learn a new language in your sleep are certainly click-baitey as hell. But as it turns out, there is some science and logic behind what these videos are getting at.

When we sleep, our brains continue to tick away. They process all the information we’ve learned that day and file it away in its respective boxes. Countless studies have proved that sleep is good for the brain and is crucial for forming long-term memories.

This processing, filing and compartmentalising we do during sleep can also help us learn more. Some recent studies have shown we can absorb sounds, tones and even translations during sleep.

It’s why many people recommend you learn languages right before going to bed. It will be the last thing your brain sucks up and processes.

While I haven’t been doing any sleep-learning in the past month, I have used this kind of method to continue learning German.

Passive Learning

There’s a really great free course on Coursera about how to learn effectively. Yeah, I know. It’s weird learning how to learn. But it was super helpful to me, especially since I’ve been out of education for a number of years.

The course discusses the two main ways our brain processes information – focused thought and diffuse thought

Focused thought ties in nicely with that deliberate learning I was talking about earlier. It’s that highly attentive state of mind we use when we are deep in concentration. Focused thinking allows no room for distractions. And it can be quite intense.
But diffuse thought is linked to sleep-learning. It happens while you’re doing other things. While your conscious mind relaxes, your brain forms solutions to problems or finally starts understanding what the bloody hell “doch” means. It’s passive learning.

How to learn passively

So while I parked my deliberate German learning in the Tiefgarage for a month, what did I do to make sure I was somehow still taking in information?

Well, to start with, I live in Germany. That’s a pretty good way to have a passive intake of a language. 

I still heard and spoke it on my daily Spaziergang, in the Bäckerei and Supermarkt.

As well as that, I made sure that I lived most of my week in German. Although my boyfriend is also British, he works away during the week.

I spoke out loud to myself, read the news and even a book in German. I listened to German podcasts and watched German shows/movies.

Basically, I absorbed and spoke as much German as was physically possible during this time. Not having the pressure of thinking about whether my grammar was correct all the time made speaking much easier.

Return to learning

Last week, I blew the dust off my All-in-One German Grammar Book. Sat down with my different coloured revision cards and felt tip pens. Opened my German learning notebook.

I began with the easy stuff to see how much I could remember. Then I flicked through my notes until the point where I had left off.

It was a little rusty, but most of it was still there.

Over the week, I started to pick up the unknown, more complicated elements. The things I had not previously learned. And I found I remembered some of them from my passive learning month. 

Words or phrases I heard in a show or podcast. A sentence structure or grammatical function noticed during a conversation with my neighbour, or while reading the morning news. 

Suddenly, the deliberate learning process felt slightly less uncomfortable and painful. Still frustrating at times, though.

But that’s German.

Have you ever taken a language learning break? Or a break from a hobby you were trying to perfect?

Did you find it helped you in the long run?

If you have, let me know. If you’re planning on doing so after this – also let me know!

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