Language Learning Hurts my Head

Usually when people have a “no pain, no gain” attitude, I tend to be pretty dismissive. People assume that really learning language necessarily has to involve “pain.” And when they say “pain” they usually mean boredom, or frustration, or disappointment, or embarrassment, or a feeling of failure or hopelessness, but very rarely do they mean actual physical biological pain. For a lot of these people, they’re trying to hit it hard, get angry, knuckle down on language learning and what they’re feeling is tension. I don’t like that kind of language learning pain; life is hard enough as it is.

However, there is a kind of pain involved with language learning that I heartily endorse. It’s the throbbing headache you get when you have to start speaking the target-language more than you’re comfortable with. I usually associate this target-language headache with immersion situations, but a good language class where you only speak the target language–and you speak it a lot–can bring on the throbbing as well.

I noticed this throbbing when I first arrived in Paris 21 years ago for my semester abroad. It lasted about two weeks and usually came on around long conversations at the dinner table. I felt the same headache when I went to study in Rome, and it also involved long conversations in Italian at the dinner table. I have similar experiences in Spanish and Chinese immersion situations; when I first arrive and have to speak a lot, I will start to get a headache and it lasts for two weeks.

Here is an article that explains that people’s brains physically change during language learning. Your brain’s wiring (neurons, dendrites, axons, and synapses, etc) physically develops: new pathways are forged and get reinforced; maybe something gets rerouted or duplicated for the sake of speed and redundancy. The result is that the target language, which was once a costly, tedious task for your brain to preform, becomes fast, convenient, and automatic.

When you start learning language, it’s like you’re hacking a new path through the jungle with a machete. Maybe you’ll get lost, maybe the path will get overgrown the second time around, who knows. It’s hard. By the time you’re fluent in the target language, that path that that you were once hacking with a machete is now a grade separated, super-high capacity maglev super express bullet train with 20 departures per second.

In the real world we build infrastructure like that with concrete, steel, and elbow grease. In your brain, that kind of infrastructure is built with oxygen and good nutrition. Your brain does the physical labor automatically, but the fuel needs to travel there through the blood stream. The throbbing headache you feel when you dive into an immersion situation is blood flow; your brain has started construction and is demanding oxygen.

It’s my understanding that the brain likes to rewire itself at night, and that’s why we all need sleep. However, in a target language immersion situation, the brain can’t wait for sleepy time; it needs to create that infrastructure now, now, now…. which is why you feel like you may want to lie down.

I get this headache every time I go back to France; it doesn’t matter that I became a French speaker 20 years ago. Usually it lasts about two weeks, and then it goes away. Also, it takes me about two weeks to give up on trying to sound perfect, and just let my hair down and make whatever mistakes I want to make. Two weeks.

I speak Spanish every day in Seattle, either at work or out in public, and there’s no headache. But if I get in a rare situation where I’m having extended conversations, then I get the headache. It doesn’t matter if the conversations are deep or not. In fact, I think I get more of a headache when I’m being around extended conversations that are spontaneous and clowny… I think wit is more taxing than philosophy.

I felt the headache today, after four hours of talking my face off in Chinese class today. I’m actually learning more vocabulary now than I can manage in my notes, and I’ve been surprised by the sentences that seem to be falling out of my mouth sometimes. Maybe that’s why I took such a long, sweet nap after class; my brain is rewiring itself for Chinese.

Or maybe it was my new pillow.

In any case, there are things you can do to make sure you’re getting good blood flow to your brain: eat nutritious foods, improve your circulation through easy exercise like walking; or rigorous exercise like going to the gym. I imagine flute players and tuba players probably walk around with super oxygenated blood all the time; those horns in particular require liters and liters of air per minute.

In conclusion, if you’re speaking a lot of target language and your brain is throbbing, congratulations, that’s the feeling of learning. Infrastructure is being built in your brain so that the target language can become automatic. Don’t fear that pain, you’re not sick. If it really bothers you, you can sleep it off, but if you have a lot to learn, it will be back the next day. Around two weeks, you’ll feel like you can manage, no matter what level you are, and I think around that time the brain goes back to a night-time construction schedule.

13 thoughts on “Language Learning Hurts my Head

  1. Pingback: Language Learning: Horrible Adult Choices | you don't have to read v2.0

  2. Pingback: Using Advanced Spanish Vocabulary to Say Exactly What You Want to Say

  3. This is totally true for me too. Finally I found people with the same experience. I was suspecting this but.. Did you came up with that conclusion or it has some kind of scientific background?
    Thanks,
    Adolfo

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    • Hi Adolfo, thanks for reading! As I said above, I feel the dull throbbing every time. However, I always associated it with jet lag. I don’t remember exactly who, when, or where, but someone mentioned to me that the throbbing was blood flow due to brain building. The article above cinched it for me! I didn’t do any original neuroscience myself 😉

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  4. Hi John,
    I wanted to write a quick reply and thank you for your post. I studied a semester of Japanese in college, and I had some high school Spanish for a few years with neither continuing into the deep -learning multi-tense usage stages. Now I’m studying Italian and have gone further with that language than with any other foreign language I’ve studied. I Googled and found your post because I kept feeling some headache tension when I was practicing, speaking and thinking in Italian. I really appreciate your sharing these insights and experiences. Best of luck in your adventures!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, this is exactly what happened to me! I was in Germany for a week to meet my boyfriend’s family. I had a headache nearly the whole time, but especially while sitting at the dinner table. I attributed it to jetlag, or maybe the elevation, until I spoke on the phone with them a few weeks after coming home and had the exact same headache again. Maybe next time we’ll start speaking German at home for two weeks before traveling!

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  6. Pingback: Learning Korean gives me headache | TSCHENNIE

  7. I notice the 2 weeks when I first started living in english. It passed, but recenly I’m experiencing those headaches again, and for a few month now. The chatychat seems to bring it more than college. I have been fully immerse (85-90% of my life is now in english)for the last 3 years.
    I know it is cause by the languaje because when I use (or read or listen to) Spanish I feel a relive. Of course you never stop learning, I still have lots to learn. Maybe I am learning something now that my brains find particulary hard.
    Nice to see an article about this 🙂

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  8. Exactly what i feel. I was furiously frustrated for what was happening to me, and nobody else felt this. Finaly I found someone who feels similar.
    Usually when i overspeed my vocabulary learning I end up feeling terribly inexorable running mind and end up sleeping.
    Does anyone has some solution? Pls let me know.
    Regards,
    Om

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    • Dave, thanks for reading and commenting. The headache and need for sleep that you get from interaction in a new language is a good thing! It goes away in two weeks (maybe sooner if you’re not jet lagged) and at the other end of it, you’ll have a bunch of language knowledge.

      Solution A) Power through it. Plan to get a drink a lot of water, eat well, and get a your 7 to 8 hours of sleep. It will be over soon.

      Solution B) You could (as most people do I think) give up on language learning because it hurts.

      I think the difference between the headache stage and the post-headache stage for me is that during the headache stage, I’m struggling to communicate and not make mistakes. Post-headache, I still keep up on communication but I accept the fact that I will make mistakes and enjoy my life. Also, I love to notice all the new words and expressions that sneak into my vocabulary, words I didn’t know I knew. I love that about the language acquisition instinct, it’s way better than studying!!!!

      Good luck!

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