Don't force yourself to learn a language during lockdown

Etiene Dalcol, January 19, 2021

This is not a post about language learning. I’m not well… and I’m angry. I started writing this blog post on March 2020, at the beginning of the quarantine, because I knew it would be a problem in this community. Of course I was too overwhelmed to ever finish it. But given this subject keeps popping back up, I decided to give it another shot.

The most recent resurgence of this discussion as when a very authoritative member of the community and CEO of a language learning app called students of “pampered”. He quoted an article that was not talking about students bursting quarantine and partying, but about students struggling with life, failing to cope with the current state of affairs and falling into bad habits like less exercising, eating less and having an increased alcohol intake. All signs of poor mental health. Then he proceeded to say they should be studying languages like he does instead.

It may sound hypocritical of me, as I am still learning languages and I also make a language learning app. To begin with, my learning habits went down the drain a while ago and there’s myriad of other things that I’m struggling with right now that are not necessarily visible through social media. There are many people struggling with life at the moment, so naturally a lot of us got enraged. This is not the first time someone tries to convey this sort of message before. I caught the same sort of predatory discourse all over the internet, some even looked like specifically sponsored by other language companies. I find it awful.

various headlines suggesting language learning during lockdown

The message is clear, in the eyes of some folks, quarantine is an OPPORTUNITY to be more productive, to carry on self-improvement, to learn a new skill, to upgrade your skills, a lucky chance to do something useful with all that time you have left now. So, first, to them I say fuck you. Secondly, what time left?? Oh, do they mean the time that I am spending doomscrolling and freaking out, the time I can’t rest my head on the pillow, the time I was job hunting and interviewing, the time I am staring at the window and crying, or the time I’m doing more house chores because we are inside and cooking at home 100% of the time? These are not normal times, these are not business-as-usual times, and please for the love of God let’s stop pretending that business-as-usual was even ever healthy to begin with unless you come from some extremely privileged situation.


I work in the tech field where business-as-usual is hustle porn. It’s a pervasive awful mindset in the industry (and in many other industries) where all of your free time must be engaged in some career-improvement or other money-making activity, otherwise it is a time wasted. There’s a constant demand to be 100% productive, something that is not possible for any prolongued period of time, and people are always burning out. In my last two jobs in tech, all I had energy for was working and resting from work so I could work again. The industry preys on young people with lots of disposable energy and few family responsibilities, and then discards them when they are old enough and not enough “passionate about their job”. This is not sustainable or noble in any way. Being passionate about your job is the biggest bullshit ever. The other subproduct of this is that tech excludes people with disabilities, people with more caring responsibilities, and people with more interests or worries in life than just work. I firmly believe that this is a huge point hindering society because it leaves people too tired and ill for civic engagement.


Repeat with me: the time you are not producing something is not a time wasted.


Where does the idea that work is so noble come from anyway? I wrote a little bit about this topic on my personal blog, where I describe work as a fascist tool of control, but I would like to expand a little bit more on this topic today.

The origins of the words work or labor are already a hint that something is wrong. Work is all about creation, product and outcome (ignoring things like caring and maintenance) while labor is all about torture and suffering. David Graber, an american anthropologist who sadly passed away last year, questioned in his book “Bullshit Jobs” why so many humans reached the point where they accept that any work, including miserable and unnecessary work, is superior to no work at all? Why do we despise so much the idea of not being productive? He puts that this work-as-an-end-in-itself morality, as some sort of transformative purifying punishment, is entirely theological, and although specifically strong in the German-protestant-inflected culture of American midwest, is present everywhere. This morality is often accompanied by a view that poor people are lazy and would not be working on anything at all unless they were disciplined to do so, a belief that has over and over been proven false. Paradoxically, this same mindset is responsible for dignifying rich people as job creators, even if they do little work themselves.

There are more recent shifts in culture that abuse this morality in even more dangerous ways. When a factory owner exploits workers, that is very concrete and generates resistence. Decades ago when you were supposed to work very hard on your youth, you would collect the fruits by being the boss and delegating later. But the neoliberal domination pattern frequently no longer uses work as a repression tool, but as a seductive tool. If work is noble, it shouldn’t be rewarded, if work is noble, you shoud want to do it, and you are less if you don’t, and still less if you can’t. We work hard to work more, and the growth of less hierarchical organizations tend to be blind to these dynamics. Byung-Chul Han, Korean philosopher, warns us about the gig-economy and flexible workers. In a world where everyone is now encouraged to be an “entrepreneur”, a figure paraded as a symbol of victory, hand-in-hand with the illusion of freedom, we are free to overwork and develop mental health illnesses out of everything that could have been done but was limited by our fragile bodies. After all, if anything is possible, how come we can’t get our lives together? Within this morality, the systems of power extricate themselves from the equation, and only ourselves are left to blame.


How do we break this cycle? It is not easy as an individual. For example, I don’t know how to opt-out of the growing burden of survival.

I agree with this view above that being resilient is not noble either, because given the choice, of course I would prefer to suffer less. I am however still looking for ways to exist in this world in ways more sustainable for myself. And if there’s any definition of success that I would like to subscribe to, that’s it: having more time to enjoy myself. It can be scary and disorienting to shift this view-point, and try this change without high levels of guilt. It is particularly hard given external demands and the amount of bullshit being poured on us from all directions, close family and internet strangers alike. But also financially it might just not be possible! After all, not all of us have the privilege of having women to come clean and bring us food in Walden like Thoreau.

Because of that, I am in constant conflict between trying a rupture with modern society or pathologizing myself so I can try to obtain a less tormented experience of the world through medication. But it can also be a long cumulative process, that grows and solidifies. From the first day I noticed that “work-hard/party-hard” was a red-flag in interviewing processes, to wherever I will be next. And nothing stops me from asking help from traditional western medicine in the meantime. The search for the roots of feeling well doesn’t have to be immediate either. We don’t need to commodify that as well. I am now in a slow search for what is possible and what other possibilities can scale well for others beyond myself. Just the fact of informing myself about alternatives is enlightening. It gives me the knowledge of things I can try to incorporate or let go in life.

If you are supposed to study, work or be productive now, and are feeling terrible because you think you are failing or not keeping up, please stop. Take care of yourself and cut yourself some slack because in my experience nobody else will. 2020 was shit, and I have no idea what 2021 will be like. It already started with some pretty dystopic stuff and for all we know an alien invasion or WWIII might be coming. Certain expectations were already unrealistic before the pandemic, and now are just entirely absurd. In a world that constantly feels like impeding doom, living in the present is what we have.

Ailton Krenak, a Brazilian indigenous leader, when confronted about how indigenous populations are going to tackle a particular problem, reminds us they have been 500 years in resistance, 500 years surviving, and he worries instead about how white people are going to escape from this. In his book, “Ideas to delay the end of the world”, Krenak reverses the notion of western “civilizatory” forces by kindly throwing on our face that whole communities have long been painfully aware of how the proposals of this new world is a big mistake. Indeed, western society has a lot to learn from people a lot more experienced in dealing with world-ending events than we are. He calls for dreaming, experiencing life itself, tolerating pleasure, congregating with nature, celebrating simply being alive and circulating in this world, and other experiences that are growingly absent in our modern routine.



  • This short video from Emicida






Etiene is a Software Engineer who is passionate about languages. She recently finished her MSc. in Computer Science researching Computational Linguistics and Computer Assisted Language Learning.