One of the risks of tackling any prolonged and difficult task is burn-out. The most frequently documented examples of this are in highly stressed professionals such as firefighters, policemen, air traffic controllers, physicians and lawyers to name a few. These are of course very demanding and stressful careers and I would assume that most people that engage in these professions understand the risks of “burn out” . However, is it possible for someone burn out on something that they started doing for fun? I asked myself this question when I realized that I had burned out on Chinese. … That’s right.
I needed to take a break from Chinese. I was no longer looking forward to my daily lessons, no longer enjoying learning the new characters, no longer enjoying hearing it spoken, no longer looking forward to planning an imaginary trip to Taiwan… just plain done with it. So what was it about this experience that could have caused this?
Most of the research on burnout involves organizations and professionals. The simplest definition of burnout is: a condition characterized by reduced energy, involvement and efficacy towards a job or task resulting in emotional exhaustion and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. Some common risk factors which have been identified for developing a professional burnout syndrome are:
- Being a highly ambitious and determined individual,
- Having high and perhaps unrealistic expectations leading to assuming more work than is appropriate,
- Lack of control over workload,
- Limited rewards / a low concept of “fairness” / perceived inequity,
- Neglect of activities outside of work,
- Isolation and withdrawal at and away from work / lack of community
Over time, if these factors are not addressed and /or coping strategies are implemented, the individual runs a very high risk of developing the burnout syndrome.
Looking back on my foray into Chinese I may have been guilty of a few of these. Certainly anyone who makes a serious attempt to tackle a language like Chinese is guilty of risk factor #1. I would argue that anyone who attempts to learn ANY language on their own would be classified as a motivated and determined individual.
As for #2, I’m also guilty as charged. My bar for Chinese was set WAY too high. Thinking that I could become professionally competent in a “Level IV” Language like Chinese in six months; while maintaining a full time job, a regular exercise schedule and being available for family commitments was pure folly. I set this goal in comparison to my experiences reaching a similar fluency level in Portuguese in 3 months, Italian in 3 months and Turkish in 6 months. What I had not factored in was that these languages could not hold a candle to Chinese in terms of the difficulty and the time commitment required. This was a set up for frustration and I’m sure it contributed to my Mandarin burn out.
#3 through #6 don’t really apply to pursuits taken on voluntarily so I don’t think they apply to my circumstances … or do they?
The advantage of self-study is that the workload is theoretically self directed and should always be manageable. But then again, there is always that nagging subconscious voice questioning whether or not one should cram in just a little more Mandarin before bed! As for as the limited rewards / low concept of “fairness” / perceived inequity, this may perfectly describe what it feels like to try and study a tough language like Chinese! After studying “easy” languages like Italian, Spanish and Portuguese where progress is steady and easily validated, Chinese comes across as unrewarding, unfair and just plain “hard”!
#6 may actually be the biggest factor in putting Mandarin on hold; not so much the isolation factor but the “lack of community” factor. I love learning languages to get out and speak with people; not over Skype, not on the phone but face to face. I thought that with Mandarin I would be able to find tons of native Mandarin speakers in the community to converse with. Strangely, that was not the case! Aside from Josh at J-tea, all the Chinese speakers that I was able to find in my community were not Mandarin speakers, but Cantonese speakers! Crazy! (I may actually have to learn Cantonese someday, it is a really fun and colorful language – despite the fact that it sounds a bit like you are choking when you speak it 🙂 ). I had no Mandarin community to fall back on. I was having such a hard time finding opportunities to get out and speak the language that I was putting so much effort into studying…. express train to Burn-out-ville…
It may be surprising what I have “replaced” Mandarin with in my current language study. I have resumed my study of Korean.
Am I insane?!!??
Replacing one of the most difficult languages in the world with an even MORE difficult one?? Have I learned nothing?!
Well, I think I have learned a thing or two from my Chinese experience. I have been “re-studying” Korean for about a month now and I am really, really enjoying it despite its reputation for being “absolutely impossible” for any English speaker to reach basic fluency. Why? What is different about my experience with Korean?
1. Community. There are hundreds of native Korean speakers in our town and they are very visible in the community. There are 2 Korean churches that offer language classes, 7 or 8 Korean restaurants, 6 or 7 sushi bars owned by Koreans and several Korean food markets. There is a Korean program at the University in town with several outreach programs. They are always pleasantly surprised when I come in and butcher their native tongue and are eager to help me learn more about their language. I’m still waiting for those complimentary plates of Korean food by the surprised chefs though… Have I mentioned I love Korean food??
2. Script. Call me impatient, but it drove me nuts that I couldn’t read Chinese right away. Even though I could recognize a few hundred characters – this was not reading. Even with intensive study, it would take years before I could comfortably read a newspaper in Chinese. The Korean script ,on the other hand, is brilliant! After less than a week of study I was READING KOREAN!! ( I had no idea what the heck any of it meant, but still, I was able to read it!) Aside from being able to read printed Korean, knowing the script opens up the option of being able to type in Korean chat rooms and forums. This would not have been possible for me for eons with Chinese. While it is true that Korean also uses Chinese derived characters called Hanja, they are not used on the internet and appear to be used less and less in general. In fact, in North Korea their use has been banned for decades. When the time comes to learn Hanja I will have the advantage of already knowing several dozen since many of them are exactly the same as Chinese!
3. No goals/no stress. I haven’t set any goals or deadlines for Korean. I’m just enjoying the journey. I have been spending the last 2 weeks on the FSI Course Unit 5. Why 2 weeks? Because it’s friggin’ hard, that’s why! But, I don’t care. When I feel like I have mastered it, I’ll move on. I feel much less pressured and thus the process is a lot more fun.
I’m sure at some point I will resume me study of Chinese as my study of languages tend to be cyclical in nature. Certainly when I do, I will heed the lessons that I have learned from my most recent experience!