Is it time to quit learning that language?

Meet Gregory, a writer and the brains behind Face Dragons. He's the go-to guy for getting things done. Gregory's been living the digital nomad life in Asia for as long as anyone can remember, helping clients smash their goals. He writes on topics like software, personal knowledge management (PKM), and personal development. When he's not writing, you'll catch him at the local MMA gym, nose buried in a book, or just chilling with the family.

Language learning is hard. It’s a time-consuming, demoralizing process that often seems to have no end. So how do you know if it’s time to put in more hours, hunker down and try harder, and how do you know if it’s just time to quit? The reasons below will help you make that decision and let you know when it’s time to stop learning that language.

Do you feel guilty about quitting?

Language learning brings with it a whole load of baggage. First is the time you spend learning and the money you invest in books, courses, and teachers. There is also the guilt when you haven’t been studying or making progress. But, most of all, learning a language is time you could spend on something else.

I decided to write this article because it’s an article I searched for a few years ago when I was deciding whether or not to quit learning Tibetan. At that time, I had been learning for about five years and wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue.

After searching and searching, the articles all told me why I shouldn’t quit and how to continue when I feel like quitting. I soon realized that language sites have an interest in keeping you studying which is why there weren’t any articles discussing when to quit.

If learning a language makes you feel guilty, is it time to quit?

You don’t need it

Do you really need that language? Are you learning that clicky African language because you thought it would be cool, but you aren’t ever planning to go anywhere you could use it, and you know it’s not going to help you in your personal or work life?

If you live in a country where your chosen language is spoken or if you have plans to go there, you have an obvious need for the language. Or, if you enjoy Japanese anime and are learning Japanese, you have a need for the language. If your partner is from Brazil and you’re learning Portuguese, you have a need for the language.

Do you have a need for your language?

When you have something better to do than learning a language

Languages take time! It took me five years before I had fluent Chinese. I’ve been learning Tibetan longer than that now, and I’m still not where I want to be fluency-wise. All the time you are spending learning your language is time you could be using for something else.

If you want to move into web design but don’t have your HTML chops down yet, you probably don’t have the time or energy to study Chinese for a few hours a day. If you’re falling behind at work because everyone else knows how to make excel macros and you don’t, do you really have the time to learn French in your evenings? Maybe not.

Let’s face it. To achieve fluency, you need to put in the hours daily. Is there something better you could be doing with your time?

When you say you should study, but you don’t

Quit learning the language

This is a red flag. You say, “I really should be learning my Kanji,” But you never actually do it. Or you plan to listen to those Japanese-Pod episodes, but their play count is still at zero. You download that new app, but you never get passed the first lesson.

We all like the idea of being able to do amazing new things like speaking languages, but sometimes the idea is the only thing you like about it, and so the work remains undone.

When you move away

Learning Chinese was essential and useful when you lived in China. It literally allowed you to get around and feed your family. But since you moved to Korea 6 months ago, learning Chinese has become a burden, taking up your time and stopping you from progressing with a language that would be more helpful, i.e., Korean.

I get it, you put in all that work to learning Chinese, and you feel bad letting it go. But quitting Chinese doesn’t mean you wasted your time learning it. It was useful to you at the time, but just like an ex’s love letters, it’s time to throw it in the trash.

Instead of asking if you should quit your old language, ask yourself should I learn the new language?

When it’s ‘good enough’ to quit learning a language

This was my reason for quitting learning Chinese. My Chinese is near-native, meaning most of the time, Chinese people won’t know I’m a foreigner if I speak to them on the phone. I could spend a couple more years in an intensive Chinese class to get my accent perfect and learn those technical words that I’m never going to use, but for me, my Chinese is good enough.

I would rather spend the time doing something else like learning another language or just spending time with my family. I don’t need perfection.

When your priorities change

A prominent example of this is when you have children. Any parent will know that everything changes and all that time you have spent doing nothing is now full of a little person who needs constant attention.

You have to ask yourself if you can justify spending the time learning a language when you could be spending it with your child.

If you decide to focus on another part of your life, it could also cause a change in your priorities. For example, you choose to start a yoga class as a side business. At first, this might take up more of your time and energy than you have to dedicate to language learning. You will need to decide on what is the priority for you.

The culture doesn’t excite you.

Bored of the Language

As a child, I was obsessed with Chinese martial arts. I loved Bruce Lee movies, and later Jackie Chan and Jet Li. The clothes, the food, the architecture, and the philosophies of China all spoke to me.

It was almost inevitable that I would end up in China. Arriving here, I was utterly caught up in the whirlwind of learning the language, trying all the food, and working out how life worked here. It wasn’t really until a few years later that I stepped back and had a look for all the cultures I was interested in as a child.

The clothes, the philosophies, the Buddhist temples, and other Chinese architecture weren’t here anymore. It certainly wasn’t a part of daily life. However, the realization that the culture of China wasn’t how I thought it was did cause me to lose some motivation to learn the language. And it might be a reason for you to quit.

Have you stopped enjoying it?

This is perhaps the most important reason to quit a language. If you don’t enjoy learning it anymore, it might be time for the trash can.

I’m not saying you should quit anytime you’re not enjoying it, as there will always be highs and lows when language learning. Sometimes you need to persevere through the hard times. But if you aren’t enjoying it anymore and haven’t been enjoying it for a while, it might be time to think about throwing in the towel.

You don’t like your Teacher/Class/Textbook.

It might just be time to change courses, buy a new textbook, or find a new teacher, but if you’ve already jumped from one teacher to another and you still don’t like them, it might just mean it’s time to quit learning the language.

If you’ve tried a few courses or textbooks and none of them spoke to you, it probably isn’t the textbook. It’s the language.

Have you been learning for years but still never used it?

You’ve been practicing your alphabet, learning those verb conjugations, and diligently doing your Anki flashcards, but you’ve never actually used the language to talk to anyone.

This is a symptom of a language that you have no use for. It doesn’t mean you should quit; if you’re still enjoying learning it, go for it! But if you are considering quitting, this language is probably ripe for the picking.

Alternatives to quitting

Learning Tibetan Full Time
Instead of quitting Tibetan, I went to India to learn full-time for a month.

I don’t want you to think I am encouraging you to quit your language; I’m just saying there are good reasons to quit a language. In case you decide not to quit, here are some alternatives that could also solve your problem.

Dive in

This was the option I chose a few years ago when I was thinking about quitting Tibetan. Instead of quitting, I decided that I would go to India for a month to a full-time Tibetan language school. It had a significant effect on my motivation to learn the language. At last, I was in a Tibetan-speaking environment all day, giving me a need for the language as well as a better understanding of Tibetan culture.

You might think this is an extreme turn-around for someone deciding whether or not to quit the language. Here is my rationale: I knew it would be obvious once I got to India if I had lost my passion for learning Tibetan. I felt like I had to give it a real chance. I did, and it brought the passion back.


Give yourself a break! Plan a hiatus from your language for a set amount of time, say three months, for example, and see how you feel then. You’ll have your answer if you miss the language and want to continue studying. If, on the other hand, you enjoyed the extra time and didn’t miss it at all, maybe it’s time to quit for good.

Reading only

There’s a lot to learning a language: reading, writing, speaking, listening, etc. One easy way to reduce the amount of work is to limit your study to one or two areas.

One easy way to do this is to limit yourself to reading only. This relieves a tremendous amount of pressure as you no longer need to worry about listening and speaking but still gives you the benefit of being able to read the literature of the language you are studying.

Suppose you’re learning a language with a different writing system, such as Chinese or Japanese. In that case, it might be more accessible to learn to speak and listen only as this will hugely reduce the amount of time you normally need to dedicate to learning characters.

One day a week

One day a week is an obvious alternative to quitting your foreign language. It reduces the anxiety you can feel over not spending time in your language. In addition, you have more time for other things knowing that you will still do your language study on the planned day.

Whether or not you decide to quit your language, I hope this post has given you some help in making the decision.