How to learn a new language while you have a long term illness

I am now several several years into living with long term illness. I’ve come to accept it’s presence in my life, but this has come at the cost of losing a little bit of my independence and freedom. I tried not to be afraid of the pain, but it’s clear that it has affected my ability to live as normal a life as I once did.

My pain started to manifest itself in different ways, I grew more tired, and less able to concentrate and retain things in my short term memory.

As a result I became less sure of my ability to learn new things, I didn’t think I could do something new and complex, because the pain would get in the way, and tiredness would make it hard to focus, and how could I fit it around illness and inactivity and an already busy life.

An then I thought are those actually obstacles for my learning, or am I actually coming up with excuses for why I don’t get on with it? Haven’t I always had excuses for not trying something new? Was illness just a bigger, newer excuse?

So I started reading about learning Japanese, and before I knew it was I was starting to read and write Japanese, I surpassed my own expectations, because instead of wondering why I couldn’t do something, I looked harder at what I could still do.

Learning improves how you feel

Most of the information on learning something new (like a language) relies on the person being a) able to commit some time to learning b) being well enough to learn. Taking in new information is a very energy intensive resource, but crucially learning improves your mental wellbeing just like exercise improves your physical strength and fitness.

Most guides for learning languages assume you’re well, and have the energy and cognitive abilities to retain and learn new information. The thing is you still do, it’s just going to be a bit harder for you than most other people.

When I realised I was actually starting to remember sentences in a foreign language, it was a huge boost to my confidence. I started to realise my brain wasn’t as decrepit as I’d been thinking. I noticed the same thing when I learnt how to knit too, having another skill and set of goals to accomplish really pulls you through the hard days of living with illness.

Preparation work

I started out by listing out all the reasons why I hadn’t studied Japanese already, they were:

  • Japanese is hard
  • I’m ill, and finding the energy to do anything other than rest when I get home is really tough
  • I don’t have the time

My reasons might be the same as your reasons not for trying something new. Next, I did my best to calm these fears.

  • Japanese is taught to children, if I child can learn Kanji and Kana, so can I
  • I’ll just do the best I can with pain and fatigue, the same as I do at work and everywhere else
  • I can find the time if it’s something I really want to do

Next I made a list of my goals (realistic, achievable goals are very important).

  • To learn hiragana & katakana (kinda like the two Japanese alphabets)
  • Spend at least 30 minutes on Japanese a day
  • Keep a learning log (more on that later)
  • Start learning Kanji (more complicated symbols derived from Chinese)

Sorting stuff out like the above is really important because it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed when doing something new, especially when you’re ill. Having a little bit of structure to how you learn helps keep things manageable and allows you to properly pace your energy.

By the way, the first three targets in my goal list are done. The last one? Well that’s going to take years, but it takes anyone years to do so that’s okay. 🙂

It’s also important to have a reason to learn a language, a long term goal, something to be excited about. Mine is to speak with and understand Japanese more when I return there, maybe even play (and understand) a video game completely in Japanese.

Keeping a learning log to monitor your progress

Learning a language with a long term illness is a bit of a battle at times, a struggle against your tiredness, and sometimes it feels like you’re not making any progress at all. That’s where a learning log comes in. I take small amount of time to write down what I’ve learnt each day, how much I understood it, what I feel I need to improve on. I update this every day (as soon as I’ve worked on something). And every time I find myself thinking “I’m not doing well enough” I read back through my learning log and remind myself of just how far I’ve come.

The hardest thing about learning something new when you’re ill is not losing heart, and your learning log will prove a key part in keeping yourself motivated.

A snapshot of my learning log.

A snapshot of my learning log.

Using a spaced repetition system (SRS) to aid your learning

This is my biggest tip about learning with a chronic illness. Spaced repetition learning means you drill things to commit things to your memory like you would normally, but crucially you’re prompted to remember the things you’re struggling with, and you’re reminded less about the the things you find easy to commit to memory.

Download Anki (it’s free) it’s software that helps you make digital flashcards which you can write the foreign word on the front of the digital card and have the answer on the back of the card. After you’ve guessed at the answer you approximate how easy it was for you to recall and Anki works out the optimum time for you to be reminded of the word based on how easily it’s going into your long term memory.

A screenshot from my anki deck showing the Kanji for "to think".

A screenshot from my Anki deck showing the Kanji for “to think”.

I’ve previously done a Spanish GCSE, and I’ve learnt more about the vocab and grammar of Japanese in six months of personal study with Anki than I have with my four years of school study of Spanish, and what’s more is I can prove it by looking at my learning log and my stats in Anki.

Here they are if anyone is interested (I scored 81% on the 168 words/sentences I reviewed today and have a score of 93.3% on the older flash cards in my collection).

My anki stats so far.

Part of that is I’m using the right tools for the way I learn I’m sure, but also that I have something to be enthusiastic about. When you’re in pain all the time that’s an immensely powerful coping mechanism. I am no no means a language expert, prior to this experience I would have rated my ability with foreign languages as poor. The differences are I make time for it (as it’s something it really wants to do) and it makes feel better (empowered and excited).

If you download Anki and feel a bit bewildered by it, it might be worth checking out this guide to getting started.

I also really rate using this plugin for Anki to embed audio from google translate into your cards too, so you get a neat reminder of the pronunciation of sentences when you get stuck.

Find a method of learning that works for you

Anki is a fantastic tool, but you still need to find words and phases to put into it. There are plenty of shared decks that people have prepared for various different languages, but there is real merit to creating your own cards in Anki as it can really help sink things into your memory.

Learning words is great, but you’ll need a good grasp of a language’s grammar to start putting sentences together and creating your own phases.

You’ll probably have some idea of the methods of learning that work for you, but I personally use audio lessons for my speaking and grammar, and take the key vocab from each lesson and put this into Anki so that it goes into my review pile. I also use immersion techniques (such as watching Japanese TV ) and seeing how many words I can read, recognise and overhear.

I don’t get many opportunities to speak to Japanese people so I’m focusing on writing and reading Japanese, with listening and speaking taking a bit of backseat, but that doesn’t have to be the case for you.

The good news is that there’s never been a better time to learn. There are tons of resources online, and lots of free lessons and study materials. Phone apps are a great new resource, allowing you to learn on the go (something I never had when I was at school). One of my main grammar resources is a completely free website and app that explains the building blocks of Japanese in a better way than all of the textbooks I have.

I didn’t want to bore you with all of the Japanese resources I’ve found, but if you’re interested please leave a comment.

Keep your pacing up and try not to get frustrated

It’s important to realise that it is going to take you longer to remember things than you once did, that’s the reality of living with illness each day. What I’d suggest is you find a way to do a small amount of study each day and some calm time to reflect on what you’re trying to learn. There are days where you’ll get frustrated because you’re not going as fast as you’d like, or you can’t seem to progress. What’s most important with learning while you’re ill is that you mindful of when you’re tired and study is too much and take time to rest – just like you would with exercise.

Give it a go

If you’ve been itching to learn a new language or always wanted to give learning one a go, what’s actually stopping you? Because I don’t think chronic illness is a reason not to start, it might actually be a reason to keep going! Give it a go, you might surprise yourself. がんばって!(Good luck!).

6 responses to “How to learn a new language while you have a long term illness

  1. I also suffer from chronic pain due to endometriosis. I quit my job due to pain and now staying home with my child. I am trying to learn some additional skills in the hopes of returning to work but having trouble being on schedule. When the pain is too much I can’t do much so I stop until the pain is manageable but I am having difficult returning to the schedule. Thanks for this post and all the other posts. It has helped me a lot.

    • You’re very welcome. It’s possible to return to work and maintain a normal schedule with endometriosis, but as you can imagine it’t not easy, it’s not impossible though so don’t lose heart.

      It might be worth you taking a look through my help section as I have some information on working with endometriosis too, best of luck to you.

  2. Elizabeth Rengh

    I also suffer from Endo, as well as Fibromyalgia. Chronic pain has been a part of my life since I was 15 years old. I am currently 26 and attending Vet School. It was difficult enough to through my undergraduate studies and took me nearly double the time of the average person, but I accomplished it. Attending veterinary school is much like learning a new language, in fact I’m convinced half the words presented to me in lecture are made up! But I have been working hard at trying to move forward. As you said, living with chronic pain makes it extremely difficult to concentrate, as well as doing the simple things such as just getting out of bed in the morning. My short term memory fells like it is non-existent a majority of the time and getting all this information into my head often seems impossible. I have come to find out it is not impossible and my grades are starting to reflect that. Yes I have too work ten times harder than the person next to me, but it is getting done.

    Your blog has helped me understand that there are others out there living with similar problems and still functioning. It gives me hope that I can accomplish my goals, no matter how insane they seem. Thank you

    • I admire anyone that can learn or attempt anything new while feeling ill, especially when you have multiple conditions. I hope your veterinary career goes well for you, I’m sure you’re going to do a great job, especially so because of your illness.

  3. E. Brown

    Hi! I just came across your blog post now as I was trying to look up more information on how language learning benefits those with a chronic condition. Your post was very informative and inspirational. It is so nice to see someone else coming from a similar walk in life and seeing how this has benefit them. I have several chronic illnesses, including fibromyalgia (but not endo) and I too slowly began learning Japanese about 2 years ago. And while at first, I was upset with myself for not progressing as fast as I thought I should, I learned to let that go and measure myself in personal bests. If I can recognize a few more kanji this month than I did last month, or if something that I studied for months suddenly clicks and makes sense in my mind, I record it as a personal win that I can reflect on later when I’m in the middle of a flare and not feeling all that great. It’s a wonderful motivator!

    What mobile apps do you use? I use Japanese Pod 101, wanikani, dr moku along with anki. Since I have a looong commute to work I find using them helps me more than most of the other tools I come across. I download a few lessons on my tablet and phone and use the commute time to review (or nap…in between reviews).

    Thank you so much for making this blog post, it was a great read and very motivating!

    • おはようございます、ありがとうごさいました。お元気で、またいましょ。

      It’s great to see another fellow Japanese learner 🙂 I was hoping this post would encourage other learners, so I was very pleased to see your comment. I mainly use the same tools as you, with the exception of Dr Moku. In addition I have a few books also – I’ve gotten the most use out of Genki I and Japanese the Manga way. Anki and Wanikani are my favourite online sources. As for goals I’m working on studying for the N5 JLPT for next July.

      Another tool I really rate is Hinative – it’s a mobile app (and site) where you can ask questions to native speakers of the language you’re trying to learn (and help others in return). Really neat to get a Japanese person to check your grammar and help you find out if your sentences sound natural or not. I use Japanesepod101 too for listening and reading practice.


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My name is Michelle and I've been living and working with endometriosis since diagnosis in 2010.

I hope to provide some hope for this illness through practical advice and discussion of this awful disease.

My other sites

Pioneer Project - Video games, UX and sustainability