When is taking a break from language learning a good thing?

2014-08-25 08.15.58I had it all planned out.

I would start learning Arabic in August. I would study for a month. I would be able to speak a little by the time I arrived in Cairo in September.

I would take Cairo by storm, go out every night, chat with the locals over shisha and strong coffee, I'd be fluent in no time!

Well, it hasn't exactly worked out like that.

This post is all about why it hasn't… and why that's OK!

It's about why, whatever difficulties you're currently having in your own language learning, you shouldn't beat yourself up too much.

My first month of Arabic

I had set aside the month of August for Arabic. The idea was that I'd do as much intensive study as I had time for, so that I wouldn't have to default into English when I arrived in Cairo.

That part went ok!

I documented how I was studying in blog posts – week 1, week 2 and week 3.

As I entered my last couple of weeks in Qatar, before moving to Egypt, things started getting hectic.

In my penultimate week, I actually went to Cairo for a handover visit for my new job. It was a really intense week that really wore me out. I headed back to Qatar and spent my final week in the Gulf recovering from that trip, finishing up things at work, and dismantling my entire flat for the relocation company to come round and box it up.

Needless to say, not much Arabic study was done during this time. 🙂

Luckily, the few weeks before that had been quite productive, and I felt like I'd broken the back of Arabic during that time. It was no longer completely unfamiliar. I couldn't say much, but the stuff that I could say made sense – to me at least! 🙂

I'd found the Pimsleur Egyptian Arabic course that I'd been following to be quite effective; you cover a small number of language items, but you cover them thoroughly and can start using them quite quickly.

2014-08-24 17.12.18

A view of the Nile. Nice, isn't it?

Arriving in Cairo

So when I finally left Qatar and arrived in Cairo, I felt like I was in quite a good place, language-wise.

You could call it the “enthusiastic beginner” stage. It was all very familiar.

(One of the benefits of learning multiple languages, is that the whole learning process starts to become familiar to you. This is comforting, and gives you a sense of confidence – “I know I'm on the right track because I've been here before with another language.” This, in turn, helps with motivation and focus, because you don't keep constantly doubting what you're doing and how you're learning.)

I was full of enthusiasm, chatting to the taxi driver on the way to the hotel from Cairo airport, in a broken mix of English and Arabic, “how do you say this and that…”.

I arrived a the hotel in early afternoon, unusually alert and awake such a big travel day, ready to head out to the street, soak up the Cairo atmosphere, practise a bit of Arabic.

Then reality hit.

Speaking Arabic in Cairo

2014-08-25 07.37.51I was put up in a pretty fancy hotel. A lot fancier than I'm used to, and certainly not something I would pick if I was paying!

It was nice, without a doubt.

Grandiose, with a nice colonial feel. The Marriott, apparently, is the most popular place for rich foreign visitors, businessmen and dignitaries to stay. Nice rooms, landscaped gardens, a big pool right in the middle of the grounds…

…it's an impressive place, but not exactly mixing with the locals!

Anyway, the first thing I notice is all staff speak very good English. Shouldn't complain. What was I expecting from a fancy hotel?

“No problem,” I was thinking. “I don't need to stay here all the time, I'll just head out into the streets, where all the action is!”

So, after a quick shower, out into the streets I go.

The area around the hotel is called Zamalek. It's a big island right in the middle of the Nile, dividing East and West Cairo.

I started to wander around and get a feel for the place. (I have a habit of always starting my city explorations with the smallest streets. They often hold the most surprises.)

It's a beautiful area. Leafy streets, Nile views, little cafes and restaurants. You have to watch out for the traffic, which has to be seen to be believed, but on the whole it's really nice.

I go into a few shops and cafes to look around.

In my mind, I prepare a few words to say in Arabic before going inside.

I psyche myself up each time – it's time to put all this learning into action!!!

I walk in… get ready to say my polished Arabic phrases…

Staff: “Good afternoon, sir. Come in, please. How can I help you?”

(That's in perfect English, by the way)

In each shop, each cafe, same thing!

Zamalek, it turns out, is an expat haven. It's where all the foreigners and rich Egyptians come to escape from the hustle and bustle of the real Cairo.

Learning Arabic in Zamalek is a non-starter.

Back at the hotel, feeling a little disappointed, I took a seat in the pretty Egyptian restaurant that I'd seen earlier. The food looked great! I went through the menu, called the waiter over and ordered a selection of mezes, grilled meat, fresh strawberry juice…

…all in English 🙂


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The Zamalek area in central Cairo

Starting work

I had a pretty quick turnaround and started work the next day.

New job, new colleagues, new office… it was tiring! To cut a long story short, for the last two weeks I've been coming and going from the hotel to work, sleeping as much as I can manage, and grabbing bits and pieces to eat in the evening as quickly as painlessly as possible.

Arabic? Pfff.

I've been too exhausted to do anything other than keep revising the flahcards that I had made in my last few weeks in Doha.

No new studying, no sessions on iTalki with my tutor, no nothing.

Why your environment defines your success

A younger me would have beat myself up about this lack of action.

“What's wrong with you Olly? Are you really so lazy? What a fraud!”

But, you know what I think now?

It's OK. It's fine.

You have to pick your battles.

As I really discovered when I learnt Cantonese last year, in language learning, time does much of the work for you.

You just need to keep going.

Moving country is tough, psychologically more than physically, I find. The strain of being in a totally new environment and having to get used to the way the little things work (oh, and remembering to get to work on time) leave you very little head space at the end of the day.

So if you need to take a few weeks off language learning in order to get your life together, it's important that you do so.

In language learning, you're playing the long game.

If those few weeks allow you to get your life together and create a better, happier environment for yourself, then you should allow yourself the luxury of taking time off.

Better that, than forcing it and ending up resenting it. That's what leads to burnout. And in the long game, burnout is what you need to avoid at all costs.


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Another view of Zamalek

Don't take your eye off the ball

There are a couple of caveats, though.

Firstly, the time you take off needs to be defined. For me, I've decided that my “break” will last until I move into my new flat next week. Then it's back to business as usual. There's certainly a danger of “mission creep” when you take time off – i.e. you start to invent new reasons why you can't get back to studying your target language regularly just yet.

Secondly, some kind of maintenance is important during your break periods. I've discovered many times over that there's a world of difference between 3 weeks spent doing nothing, and 3 weeks spent doing 5 minutes every day…just to keep things ticking over. I've been doing my trusty Arabic flashcard decks that I made back in August – 5 minutes every day, without fail.

And of course 5 minutes often turns into 45… 🙂

(Note: if you're interested, you can follow how I track my study routines using Lift.)


The last month has been hectic.

I've finished one job, started another, moved to another country, and found a new place to live… all without a single day off.

My Arabic study has been put on hold, but it will resume again next week – with a vengeance!

And it will be all the better for having taken a bit of time off. I miss it, and I can't wait to get back to it. If I hadn't taken the time off, I might be saying to myself: “I'm fed up of trying to cram this ***** Arabic into my life… I don't have time and it's wearing me down.”

So, if you find yourself going through a tough time right now, one in which your language learning is taking a hit, why not allow yourself the luxury of a break without beating yourself up?

Remember you're playing the long game.


I'd love to hear your thoughts below – please leave me a comment!

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