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 🙂


2014-09-07 18.20.59

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.


2014-08-26 08.52.15

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.


  • How much time do I realistically need off?
  • What little bit of study can I do everyday, just as maintenance?

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

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  • Chris Broholm

    I soaked this up, Olly as I could see so many similarities with myself. Great that you include a lot of pictures in your updates. Looking forward to next installment!

    • Hey Chris, thanks for the comment. Egypt is stunning, I’m really tempted to do a photo essay or something… just got to think of how to link it with learning Arabic!! 🙂

  • Kevin Richardson

    Absoultely! Having been in Japan for little over a week, I’ve been having some great conversations (a lot of which were just to get things done) but with starting a new job and settling into a new country, the amount of studying has dived to bare minimum that I can fit in. That said, just being on the commute from Chiba to Shinjuku the last few days has been awesome for my listening skills 🙂

    • Hey Kevin – we’re in the same boat, my friend! New country, new life… it’s hard work isn’t it!! Actually, I learnt katakana basically just by reading adverts on the train in Japan… it’s fun to play “spot the English loan words!”

  • Brad Stokes

    Thought life might have been a little hectic. Really glad to see you are riding the wave and knowing your limits. I’m looking forward to seeing the updates once you get settled. Hope all continues well for you. I think the slow down as opposed to the burn out is definitely the healthier way to go. And those 5 minutes consistently really do add up.

    • Thanks man… that’s what it’s all about: progress not perfection! 🙂

  • Shawn Mac

    This is what I look for, someone showing struggle for whatever reason and displaying how to overcome it. We all have jobs and families and obstacles to overcome, and often those become the roadblocks to learning, but it’s all about balance and priorities. What’s good is that you have prediction, you know when things will end and normalcy can return. Good post.

  • Eleni

    A great article, thank you Ollie! I’m quite lucky to have read this today as I’ve had to take time off from my Italian studies while I’m moving house (same country but still a move). I was feeling pretty slack and doing a little too much study (although still not as much as usual) while trying to pack,unpack and i noticed it was much harder (it wasn’t sticking as it usually would) , tiring and I started to resent it. So, after getting cranky an innocent Italian story book and reading this article I have decided on a couple of weeks of just whatever anki and audio stories I can easily fit in and no more until i’m settled. Phew:) & thanks:)

    • Thanks Eleni! Going easy on yourself from time to time… feels good, doesn’t it? 🙂 Moving house really isn’t something to be underestimated – your whole routine is turned upside down, and I for one rely 100% on my routine to get stuff done!

      • Eleni

        Yes definitely, going easy & taking a good break is the best & fastest way back to a good and effective routine sometimes! Routine and what it allows us to achieve, is definitely one of those things that we can take for granted until there is an upheaval it is turned upside down. The lines (from this article) that were the biggest help for me and I’m going to stick up somewhere till there ingrained is some common sense but easily forgotten ‘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.
        Thanks again!

  • Cedric

    Very useful article, especially since we all get there at some point. The “learning daily routine” is a very powerful habit to install, but it’s also good to allow ourselves to reduce it to the minimum when the circumstances ask for it. Now watch out, because we’ll be waiting for an update on your Arabic project in the weeks to come, and there won’t be any rain check this time! 😀

    • Hehe… don’t worry, luckily I’m now very much back on the case and riding a hot streak! Updates on their way!

      PS/ I appreciate the nudge! 🙂

  • Asma Zada

    Hey, i really loved your article here about Egypt and it’s my homeland _< .
    BUT learning Arabic is not that hard specially Egyptian Arabic which some people refer to it as " Modern or Common Arabic " .you'll find it difficult if you were trying to learn " CLASSIC ARABIC" because of it's use in FORMAL meetings such as : ( Political meetings , Summits, University Lectures sometimes and in press …etc) other than that , no one here speaks it. But it's very rich language and full of great literature and you'll find it romantic even ^_^ .

    All you could do and it might help you out in learning it : just find a children's book on alphabets or you could find that online and you'll find many resources on that 😀
    2 – forget about ZAMALIK i know how it feels there , and simply ask some one you know here from the native speakers and they will help you out .
    Finally, i hope you find your way through it and to speak Arabic fluently like a native . and keep going Olly, learning is much more fun .
    Good Luck 🙂

  • I had a very similar experience when I visited Tokyo. I would ask directions in Japanese and people would respond in English haha. It was a bit odd to passerbys, but it’s all part of the experience! In Tokyo, oddly enough, I’d never spoken more Japanese AND I’d never spoken less Japanese in my life. Anyway, thanks for posting this. 🙂