Learning the Spanish Language: The Overload Phase

“I think it’s happening again. I’m having another Spanish overload….”

These words rolled off my tongue to many a friend over five years ago when I was learning Spanish in two upper-level classes at the same time. What exactly was this “Spanish overload,” you ask?

Well, I will elaborate on that in just a few sentences.

I was pretty ambitious back when I was starting out in college (okay, I still am…). In fact, my first and last semesters of college were the only times I took just one class taught in Spanish. The rest of the semesters I took an average of five to six classes per semester and two of those classes were always Spanish classes. By the end of my first year I had my minor in Spanish completed. But oh, I wasn’t done there. I had many more classes and an eventual major change ahead of me. And not to mention lots of self-imposed cultural immersion too. 馃檪

Having an overload in Spanish for me would consist of two things. Both of these things were not emotional or mental side effects. These things had a huge effect on me physically. The first thing that would happen, after I had been reading or listening to too much Spanish, was that I would get a headache. The closest thing that I relate it to is a tension headache. Except that the ache would primarily be in my temples and they usually throbbed. The second thing was this: I would feel like I was drowning. Or as if I hadn’t gone outside or spoken to anyone all day. Another way I could describe it would be a mix of hitting a brick wall, getting into a slump (think the middle of the day 2pm. slump) and a brain freeze. When I reached this point, the best thing for me to do was take a step back, breathe and…take a break. I knew that feeling overwhelmed with the language was a sign that I was moving in the right direction. Or at least it felt like I was even though I had no idea what I was doing half the time. (Especially when it came to interpreting Spanish literature, madre m铆a…)

I shared online one day a few weeks ago that I thought I was experiencing another one of my infamous overload headaches. To be honest, I hadn’t experienced one of those since 2010. My brother commented saying that he could relate. He also had some insight into what might be the underlying reason for ‘language-induced headaches.’ You see, the two of us are exploring two new languages this fall. He is taking a Beginning Arabic class as well as two required classes for his Spanish major. I’m delving into the wonderful and oftentimes confusing world of…Portuguese. Nathan has the benefit of having a structured class and a professor. I’m on my own, minus the lessons and activities I’ve been doing through Duolingo (an interactive language learning app) on my iPhone. I’ve yet to conjugate verbs or make verb sheets in Portuguese (like I did in good old HS Spanish classes), but I am trying to read a little bit of it every day, make a list of vocab words and practice saying what I’ve learned.

So, what causes the headaches? Well, Nathan’s theory went something along the lines of this: “You get overloaded and you get headaches from learning a new language because you are forming new connections in your brain.” It makes perfect sense to me. The headaches aren’t always from an “overload.” They could primarily be from your brain forming connections to this new language you’re learning. Connections to words and phrases that weren’t there before. Connections that will only be solidified through hours and hours of practice. Practice that is three-fold: hearing the language, speaking the language and seeing the language on a daily basis.I will elaborate a little bit more below on the “overload” and tips to get through it (if you’re currently experiencing one or had one recently). I’m sort of having one of those headaches myself right now. Listening to a couple of hours of music in Portuguese, talking to myself in Spanish….and oh yeah, writing this post in English will do that to ya! haha

*Updated*Now I will share a few tricks that have helped me get through many an overload headache. They may not all work for you but I hope you will at least give one of them a try.


Maybe you’ve been working on homework or writing pages upon pages in another language for a few hours. You might be proud of yourself for staying focused for so long but believe me your neurons will be screaming at you to STOP! For as many hours as you spend working on an activity in your foreign language, aim to spend half of that time doing something else. Years ago, one of my professors suggested to me that, when working on the rough draft of a large paper, I put it away and not look at it for at least 12 hours. He claimed that it was critical to have a fresh pair of eyes examine your paper, whether they were your own or someone else’s. Why? Well, when you take a step back and aren’t so focused on every little detail, you will spot errors more quickly than you would if you kept your nose to the grind and pounded out that paper in a matter of hours. That tactic was literally a lifesaver for me. So, when your head starts throbbing and you don’t think you can’t decipher another line of Cervantes, close the book! Put the pen down. Step away from that table. You will thank yourself later for doing that. 馃檪

~Speak or listen to your native tongue

Think of it this way, for every hour you spend speaking or listening to another language, spend the same amount of time being immersed in your native tongue. If you want to become fluent in another language, it is good to be around it as much as you possibly can. I wholeheartedly agree with that. However, sometimes your brain has had enough and you need to let it rest. So when you feel a headache coming on, take that as a sign to take a break and listen to a song in your native tongue. Or just go sit outside and breathe. Relish in the silence (or sounds) around you.

~Sleep on it!

Yes, when both of the above tricks didn’t work, I would throw my language woes out the window and take a nap. (Or go to bed early). While sleep can help clear and relax your mind, it won’t erase the difficulties you’re having with your homework or writing your paper for you. But it will hopefully refresh you and give you some much-needed energy to keep chugging along in your linguistic pursuits.

One of my goals to reach by the time I turn 30: be able to speak three languages fluently. Challenge Accepted! 馃檪

It’s strange that we can still experience ‘growing pains’ as adults. You would think our years of growth and development would stop in our early twenties but that’s not the case. Every day you are either growing or shrinking. There is no in-between when it comes to this topic. I’m embracing the growing pains I’m currently experiencing as I challenge myself with this new language. If you’ve made it to the end of this post, I have a feeling that you are doing the very same thing. Hang in there. I promise it gets better!

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