Learning a language opens up exciting new possibilities. A new way of seeing the world, a new way of interacting with people, a new cultural universe to enjoy.
Yet learning a language is also the quintessential hobby that people start but then drop.
Why? Probably because it takes so much time. The thing about learning to speak a new language is, well, there are a whole lot of words you have to learn.
That’s before we get into grammar, sentence structure, idioms, and internalizing the language to the point of being able to keep up with the pace of everyday speech.
Since people with ADHD are already notorious for not following through on the projects they start, you might sense a bad combination here. And it’s true that the regular, structured, years-long effort required to get comfortable with a foreign language can be a real challenge for people with ADHD.
That doesn’t mean, though, that ADHDers can’t meet their language learning goals. In fact, the desire to seek out new experiences that so often comes with ADHD can be useful on the long path toward fluency. Here are some tips for learning a foreign language with ADHD.
1. Pick a language you’re enthusiastic about
Staying motivated while learning a second language with ADHD means understanding how motivation works in ADHD.
In general, ADHDers’ ability to be focused and productive depends greatly on whether they find a task rewarding. With their deficits in top-down self-regulation, people with ADHD usually can’t “force” themselves to be motivated by something they find inherently uninteresting.
On the other hand, when people with ADHD are naturally inspired and engaged by an activity, they can pursue it energetically, even to the point of being “hyperfocused.”
For the purposes of language learning, then, you’ll be setting yourself up to stay motivated if you begin with a language you’re enthusiastic about.
Think about what your reasons are for learning this language.
Maybe you’re especially excited to learn more about the culture(s) that the language will give you access to. Maybe you have a personal connection to the language. The exact reason doesn’t matter as long as it’s meaningful to you and will be a source of inspiration for the hours put into practicing your language.
2. Know the two stages of language learning
Language learning is a marathon, except with the most difficult part at the beginning.
That’s because learning a language can be divided into two phases:
- Learning the foundations – basic grammar, need-to-know words, regular conjugations, etc.
- Filling out the details on top of that foundation – building more fluency, expanding vocabulary, and generally getting from knowing the basics to being more proficient in the language
In a way, the second phase takes the longest, but the beginning phase is the most difficult, especially with ADHD. Learning the basics is when you need to do the most rote studying, drilling new material, and adjusting your brain to the way your new language works.
In the grind of this early phase, motivation can flag. Fluency is so far off.
But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s earlier than fluency. It’s when you get to the second stage of language learning.
Once you become comfortable with the basics, you reach the point where you can start learning by using the language. You can work through books (starting with simpler books, books you’ve read before in English, or dual-language books, for example). You can browse websites in your target language. You can listen to songs and look up the lyrics, start getting into some TV shows or movies.
These ways of learning provide more novelty and intrinsic reward than textbook exercises, so they work well for people with ADHD.
Getting to a level where you can learn the language more immersively is the goal in the first stage of language learning. Once you have the foundation for your language in place, learning starts to get more fun.
3. Immerse yourself in the culture
You might be sensing a pattern here: when you have ADHD, your language learning success will depend on whether you’re able to stay motivated and enthusiastic about picking up a new language. If the excitement is there, the focus and the productivity will follow.
Something that can help maintain motivation is to immerse yourself in the culture that goes with your new language as much as possible. Learning a language is a gateway to new cultural experiences, and taking advantage of that fact will boost your progress toward acquiring your target language.
Immersing yourself in the language’s culture might mean discovering new music, books and movies. It could mean reading the news or browsing Reddit in your language. The point is to actually use your language to unlock new experiences and build a connection to a new world.
4. Try a language exchange
On the topic of actually using the language, one of the most effective language learning techniques I’ve found is setting up a language exchange.
Basically, you find someone who speaks the language you want to learn and who wants to learn a language you speak. Then you talk to them, splitting time between your two languages to help each other learn.
The point of a language, after all, is to talk to people. And for those of us with ADHD, getting beyond self-study to a more interactive way of learning early on can be key to maintaining motivation and interest.
Language exchanges are great for being able to regularly practice the language in a conversational setting. It’s also nice to have an “insider” who you can ask random questions about the language as they come up, or who can help you discover more about the culture that goes with your language.
My go-to website for finding someone to do a language exchange with is italki, but a quick search will turn up plenty of other sites and apps as well.
5. Make use of flashcards
An unavoidable fact about learning a language is that there are a lot of words you have to memorize.
ADHD can throw a wrench into the vocab-building process in a couple ways.
People with ADHD sometimes struggle with remembering things, or their distractibility means they never really internalize the information to begin with. Plus, drilling a lot of vocabulary requires constant organization and planning – not exactly something that ADHDers are known for.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry about the organization and planning if you let a software program do it for you. That’s the idea behind flashcard programs – you make the flashcards on your computer or phone, and the program keeps track of when to show you which cards based on your progress.
Many popular programs rely on the idea that you will learn better if you’re shown a flashcard frequently when it’s new to you, then with increasingly long delays. This technique is called spaced repetition, and it’s the subject of research.
Personally, I use Anki for spaced repetition (as in the case of language exchanges sites, though, there are more options where that came from). I throw a flashcard in there when I come across a new word in a book or want to drill an irregular conjugation. No need to keep track of a chaotic sea of paper flashcards, and the program takes care of making me repeat the material at the right times until I have it down.
6. Create some structure
Setting up structure that you can follow is a way of sidestepping some of the planning deficits that come with ADHD. If you know you always do a certain language learning activity at a certain time, in a certain way, or for a certain length of time, that’s one less thing you have to plan out.
I have a language practice routine that looks something like the following: every night I review my flashcards and read some more of whatever book I’m working on in the language. Twice a week I have short conversations scheduled with a language exchange partner.
Then I supplement with other language learning activities as time allows. But the basic structure I’ve established ensures that I’m always doing something with my language everyday. That way I keep the language fresh and make constant incremental progress.
Of course, your preferred language learning structure might not look like mine. The point is to create some kind of routine, so language learning becomes an integrated part of your life and you don’t always have to worry about planning out your next study session.
Happy language learning! If you have other tips for learning a language with ADHD, please add them in a comment.