Having a rest doesn't mean stopping your language learning entirely. Image by Aurimas Gudas, FreeImages.com

Ticking Over : A Language Skeleton Plan for Rest Times

I’ve had a rare decompression week – seven days when I cleared my calendar, took my foot off the pedal and simply chilled. Work, language lessons, everything. It’s a good habit to build in every once in a while, and for sure, many of us don’t do it enough.

But if you’re like me, doing nothing is never really an option.

For a start, languages are a form of recreation for polyglot hopefuls; we study because we enjoy them. Although there’s no denying that they take some energy, it’s a very positive kind of effort. That said, it’s vital to build in some downtime now and again. So, in order to strike a happy medium, I like to have a skeleton routine ready. Quite simply, that is just a set of daily tactics that keeps the engine ticking over while the rest of life is idling down.

Language Essentials

For me, the skeleton language plan consists mainly of those digital habits bound up in streaks. Duolingo, Anki, Glossika – that’s my core trio. They all work well as basic background tasks because, first and foremost, they aren’t particularly time-hungry. They can fit around walks, shopping trips and family visits. They’re especially easy to tick off if you are an eat-the-frog type of person!

But apps like this are also handy skeleton pals in other ways. In particular, you can adjust your use of them to switch into maintenance mode, rather than active learning. With Duo, that takes the shape of revising old topics for a week rather than tackling new ones. With Anki, I dial down the new-words-per-day setting. And with Glossika, I focus on existing repetitions, rather than new phrases.

All in all it’s a nice recipe for catching my breath while not slipping backwards.

How do you power down but keep going? What are your language learning ‘must-do’ tick-boxes? Or do you find it better to completely switch off when taking a break?

A short study break may do your brain the world of good between the book marathons. (Image from freeimages.com)

The returner learner effect : how a study break can be a language learning boost

Brains are mysterious things. Sometimes, they seem to display most counter-intuitive behaviour. Just take the study break, for example. Give yourself a few months off a language, and you might expect to be a bit rusty as a returner learner. But sometimes, on your return, you get that joyful feeling that it never went away. And somehow, could it feel even more solid than before?

It’s more common than you think.

Budding polyglots, by their nature, experience the returner learner effect a lot. Since it is rarely a good idea to study more that one or two languages at once, there can be stretches where any language aficionado is not actively working on several of them. Often, there may not even be opportunities to speak them regularly.

Some maintenance is essential, of course. And we can keep things ticking over with a weekly tactical schedule that at least gives a nod to all of our projects. But it is almost inevitable that some languages will be put into a deeper sleep than others.


Never fear. I actually like to think that we are made to use our brains like this. Short-term, or working memory, for example, can only hold around seven items for processing at any one time. On a longer-term scale, learnt skills, like languages, are also processing-hungry programs that cannot all be run altogether at full capacity at the same time.

Computer analogies, although not always perfect, can be neatly apt ways to think about the brain. Just today, this nostalgic thread about early 1980’s, disk-based computing bubbled up into my Twitter timeline. What better metaphor for the nature of our active and passive languages? There is certainly an element of software-switching going on when I prepare to ‘load up’ a language I haven’t used in a while. Although it’s not quite “Insert Russian: Disk 4”, it can feel like some gear-shifting is required to switch a language back on.

Let sleeping languages lie…

For various reasons, I had parked my Norwegian in the cerebral software archive a few months ago. For one thing, I had enjoyed a couple of trips to Oslo already by last Summer. Now it was time for other plans, other countries, and other languages – at least for a while.

Not only that, but the perennial polyglot itch was making itself felt. I wanted to try new things, and reach new levels with my other projects. My Norwegian was at a decent level; it could withstand a little rest.

Of course, rest should never mean oblivion. Language skills are precious, and it is essential to have a maintenance plan for all of them. Optioned Anki decks is a favoured way to finely control the maintenance all of those you care about keeping, for example. In this way, maintenance can chug along in a fairly low-key fashion.

As long as you do something, those disks should only require occasional dusting to stay serviceable.

And so it was in my case. Along with occasionally reading the news at nrk.no, I kept my Norwegian on a low boil since the end of last Summer.

…until their day comes again

Ultimately, the time comes when sleeping languages grow impatient for the limelight again. My own travel plans had finally come full circle again, settling on Norway (a more irresistible return destination after each trip, believe me – it’s never too long before that scenery exerts its pull!). The time seemed right to dust off the Bokmål.

When bringing your languages out of storage, you need a strategy – something to help load those programs back into memory.

My own, personal favourite is to kickstart passive use via a podcast blitz.

I chose my old favourite Norwegian podcast to stage a return: the fantastic Språkteigen by NRK. It is a real gem for language lovers with a bit of norsk.

In fact, I had been putting off listening to the show for a while. There was a fear that I might have slipped back further than I thought. Would I understand a single word? Should I have been spending more time on Norwegian maintenance? To ease myself back in gently, I selected a low-pressure time – listening on the treadmill at the gym – and clicked play on the programme.

I had nothing to worry about. I was hooked by the subject matter from the first few lines, and zoned right back into it as I listened and ran. By the end, I’d jogged for thirty minutes without realising it, and felt boosted by how much I understood.

It almost seemed like I could understand more than back when I was actively studying.

The choice of material is crucial, of course. I chose something I’d missed listening to.  I wanted to understand.

The returner learner effect

That feeling of being better after a break is down to a number of elements:

Their effects are felt most keenly just in those days when we return to the language. If you select your return material wisely, you can maximise the motivation that provides. Feed on the renewed confidence. In a subject area that demands so much self-confidence compared to others, it is a rare chance to say: yes, I am not bad at this at all!

Building back active production

Of course, a dose of realism is also required. In my case, I had spent six months not speaking Norwegian at all. The extent of my Bokmål use had been completely passive. While the ‘background task’ effect of the brain may well benefit my active production of Norwegian in the long run, I must still acknowledge that work needs to be done to build back my speaking confidence.

But the lesson here is that all those hours of hard work were not in vain. The brain has the learner’s back. In those quiet months, it works on, patiently distilling that mass of material into a solid skill – one that was ready to load back into memory when needed.

Like all effects, the post-study-break boost wanes as the reality of the study regime kicks in again. You will feel challenged once more. That said, it would be worrying not to feel that way. To make a comparison to working out at the gym, it is often when the muscles feel most taxed that the builder makes the greatest gains.

However transitory the returner learner effect, seize upon it to ride a fresh wave of confidence after a study break. Maximise it by choosing media that you know you will respond positively to. Let it reassure you that your brain is on your side, whatever tricky conundrums language learning throws your way!

Plasma ball

How starting over can boost your language confidence

It’s important to recognise the brain’s need for pause now and again. But it might help our guilt-ridden, study-obsessed selves to note how effectively a rest can restart our engines.

I’ve experienced this effect recently, after picking up Modern Hebrew again. Like a few languages, I’ve had an on-off relationship with Hebrew since I was very young. Just like my other ‘side’ projects, though, I’ve never run with it consistently for very long.

Not that it hasn’t been useful; a trip to Israel in 1999 and a random conservation with Israelis in a Paris bar rank amongst the great opportunities I’ve had to use it! At around the A2 level, it was certainly a working, useful knowledge of the language.

That said, I never really had great confidence in my abilities to speak Hebrew well. I drifted off into other languages and other hobbies. Then, something remarkable happened: I picked it up again after a long break.

Starting from scratch – with an advantage

What I did was to reset my Anki decks. In particular, I removed all previous scheduling information from my Hebrew cards, and moved them back into an active deck. In essence, I set up Anki to start all over again with the language.

Note that I hadn’t touched these cards in over a year and a half. Back then, my last Hebrew adventure, I’d had a course of Hebrew lessons through iTalki. During that period, I amassed around 1000 vocabulary cards. But I’d long since ‘rested’ these by moving the whole set into a dormant Anki deck.

zzzRestedLanguages - where my dormant languages go to sleep for a while!

zzzRestedLanguages (bottom) – where my dormant languages go to sleep for a while!

Something wonderful happened in the first few days of reinstated Hebrew. I amazed myself at how much I could remember. Not just words like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, either, but more complex vocabulary nouns like ‘driver’, ‘newspaper’ and phrases like ‘I work in London’. It was still there. I could still speak Hebrew!

Confidence lost – then refound

It might seem crazy that I sounded so amazed. After all, I’d actively learnt Hebrew on and off for a while. But I’d not spoken it in so long, I had written it off. I’d lost my confidence. And that happens so easily with languages you don’t use.

The lesson to take from it, of course, is that our brains are much more robust than we realise. We should have confidence in our abilities; we often underestimate them when we’re in the thick of learning, and it isn’t until much later that we realise how solid our first passes were.

This also serves to remind ourselves of the hard work we spent in the first place. All that work – surely it’s worth revisiting those ‘rested’ tongues now and again? You earned the right to be confident through hard work. Starting over can bring that confidence back.

Where next?

So, where next? As a perennial dabbler, I have a few to choose from. An earnest fresh attack on Greek and Russian would be a good place to start. I’ve not used either properly in a while, and definitely feel that confidence deficit with both.

If you choose to resurrect any of your former language adventures, I’m certain it can also remind you that you have everything to feel proud and confident about as a learner!

Sunbeams in a forest - pace yourself and go for a walk!

Pace and pause

We’re human beings, not machines. And sometimes, it’s importance to acknowledge that fact by respecting your learning pace, and building in opportunities to pause.

I’ve written before on the topic of learner burnout, and it’s definitely a topic that bears repeating. It’s also easy to forget about if you’re in the thick of something you love.

I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. After a packed February, thanks to the iTalki language challenge, I was buzzing. It was an amazing learning experience; my head was spinning with the mental stimulation. But packing in regular lessons for 5+ languages, as well as work, family and friends, takes energy. I was drained.

Still, I kept going on, and after an equally hectic March and April, the crunch came in May. My head just needed a little bit of rest.

Recognise it

The vital course of action under these circumstances is to recognise it. It can be hard to admit that something you love is tiring you out. Know that this doesn’t diminish your passion for it in any way. We only have a finite amount of energy, and all things – fun and mundane – can tap into that. And it happens to everyone!

Don’t feel guilty

Secondly, there is no shame in it. We all tend to place a burden of expectation on our own shoulders. If you’re driven by achievement in a field that you love, you can sometimes expect a little too much from yourself. Then, when your body and brain start to complain, it’s hard to admit that you need to turn it down a notch. Learner guilt steps in.

However, taking breaks is essential for keeping a steady pace. We are simply designed that way! It’s all a question of mental self-awareness and self-care, and there is a ton of advice online about that. For starters, here are some excellent reasons to shun the guilt when building in time off. Athletes pace themselves; learners must too.

Schedule it

Moreover, a short break doesn’t need to be an unstructured, indeterminate halt to learning. Being proactive about building in pace and pause means planning it constructively. Done constructively, a learning break is less about downing tools, and more about taking a short breather.

Define your break period clearly; give yourself a week or two in the calendar, deciding a clear return / resume date. That way, you can also keep teachers, learning partners and language buddies up-to-date on when to expect you back.

Planning a period of pause can also help you administer apps and services you use to learn. At this link, for example, learners discuss how to pause (or ‘suspend’) Anki flashcard decks during a period of downtime. Personally, I’ve also found it useful to move ‘sleeping’ languages into a separate Anki deck I’ve named “Archived“, with a daily card limit of zero. Whatever learning platforms you use, explore settings and features that can help you organise your rest space.

Try something new

Sometimes, a change is as good as a rest. While you’re resting your language brain, why not try something totally different? As long as it’s not too mentally taxing, going off on a tangent could leave you feeling refreshed. I’ve been following this Udemy course on creating digital art as a distraction lately, and it’s been a great diversion.

It can sometimes seem like one lifetime isn’t enough to cram in all the learning we want to do. But one lifetime is all we have. And making the most of it means respecting pace, and building in pause. Keep that in mind, and you’ll be a better language learner for it!