A great many of us wouldn’t consider language learning to be a stress management activity — even on the best of days. Learning might be rewarding, stimulating, and challenging in a good way, but it’s still work. There’s usually some amount of drudgery involved in studying, and in order to be good at anything, you often have to make yourself do it on the regular, even when you don’t really want to.
All that being said, there’s a case to be made for language learning as an undercover relaxation technique. It may not be the passive, “slumped in a beach chair with a margarita in hand” kind of relaxation you want, but it may just be the “productive way to engage with your mind that makes you less stressed in the long run” kind of relaxation you need.
Learning Is Relaxing, Scientifically Speaking
You could start by making the argument that learning anything will keep your mind occupied (which is great if you’ve been stressing over problems and need to take your mind off things for a little bit).
Additionally, there’s something kind of comforting and soothing about focusing on something with concrete steps and incremental achievement levels. You can busy your mind for 15 minutes at a time and rest easy in the satisfaction that you crossed one more lesson off your list.
But don’t just take our word for it. A team of Harvard researchers found evidence that active learning is actually a more effective stress management technique than passive relaxation. In one study, employees reported fewer negative emotions and engaged in less unethical behavior on days when they participated in learning activities. In another, one group of employees engaged in more learning activities at work than the other group and reported similar results. However, employees reported the same level of negative emotions and unethical behaviors when they engaged in pure relaxation.
As it turns out, not only does learning equip us with skills and knowledge that we can use to troubleshoot our way through stressful situations, but it also boosts our sense of competence, achievement, and ability to improve ourselves.
The Road To Zen Is Paved With Initial Discomfort
Language learning may not seem, on its face, like something one does to relax. You’re not exactly letting your mind wander — you’re actively engaging it and struggling through a challenging mental task.
It’s worth thinking about what it amounts to in the long game, too. Learning anything new is inherently uncomfortable at first. You’ll probably stumble around at it for a bit before you can go on autopilot, and to compound things, a lot of people suffer from foreign language anxiety when it’s actually time to put their new skills into practice.
But consider what it gets you when you take yourself out of your comfort zone. It’s almost like a form of exposure therapy to unfamiliar situations. By letting yourself flounder a bit initially, you’re showing yourself that it’s really not that bad to not completely know what you’re doing, and that you’re actually resourceful enough to figure it out. Give it enough time, and language learning can ultimately help you relax in foreign places and situations that might normally stress you out.
Smooth Sailing For Your, Well, Sails
Another slightly more obvious way that language learning counts as stress management? If you’re in the habit of leaving the country from time to time, it’ll either directly make your travels more relaxing because you’ve taken the time to learn the local language, or it will indirectly make your travels more relaxing because you’ve amassed some amount of experience communicating in your non-native language.
Exposure to foreign languages not only boosts your cultural competence — it also puts you generally more at ease in just about any foreign-language situation. And who doesn’t want to feel less stressed on vacation?