Learning a new language can be a joyful and rewarding experience, but if you have ADHD, you might encounter setbacks during the learning process. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a developmental disorder associated with inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Given the focus, consistency, and commitment necessary to learn a language, ADHD can pose a significant challenge for anyone who wants to acquire foreign language skills. Learning a language in and of itself is hard, and when ADHD is part of the mix, it can make it tougher to concentrate on your lessons and studies and create a true habit. But enough about all the burdens!
Learning a language with ADHD is achievable with the right attitude and appropriate techniques. In my 15 years (and counting!) as a linguist, as well as the founder of Diáfano, we’ve encountered many people who have ADHD. They, too, have learned a new language. Whether you have ADHD or are a parent of a child with ADHD, read on for methods to help concentration, improve attention, motivation, and play to your strengths. Language learning is for everyone, and learning a language with ADHD is possible.
Research shows that in 25% to 40% of instances, people with ADHD experience issues related to articulation, stuttering, and speech delays. This might affect complex learning skills or habits as people age. It can eventually lead to dyslexia, anxiety, or low self-esteem, affecting reading ability and confidence when it comes to conversing in a different language. In fact, up to 30-40% of people with ADHD have delays and gaps in learning the fundamental skills needed to learn to read and write. Additionally, ADHD can affect your grasp of phonetics in a language and connecting letters. The coexistence of ADHD and other learning difficulties is estimated to be slightly above 45% based on a study for dyslexia, the most prevalent particular learning impairment.
But do not despair. In a series of studies, researchers investigated the cognitive profile of people with ADHD and their aptitude for and success with language learning. They discovered that students with ADHD can achieve high scores in foreign language courses. Remember that ADHD isn’t always a negative. It can include having skills like creativity and the capacity to problem-solve unconventionally. According to Medical News Today, additional benefits include possible hyperfocus on one task for hours at a time, resilience in children, conversational skills, spontaneity, and courage, all qualities that can be extremely beneficial to learn a language. Now, let’s do a deep dive into how to learn a language with ADHD.
Have you always wanted to learn Spanish because there are Spanish speakers at your job or in your community? Have you always dreamt of taking a trip to Italy, and wouldn’t it be great if you could say more than just “pizza” and “gelato”? Find a language that you are passionate about. How do you know if you’re passionate about a language? It’s usually a language you’ve been wanting to learn or one that would fit into your lifestyle, profession, or hobbies. If this is a language that your child is taking in school, there are ways to make it enjoyable for them.
The easiest way to make something enjoyable is to incorporate it into your life. One way to do this is to add language to whatever already brings enjoyment. For example, you can watch TV and films in that language or even reinforce that day’s new vocabulary in your sleep. You don’t need to understand the language yet to watch foreign films. Learn about the culture behind that language. Plan a trip to visit the country or one of the countries that speak that language. If your child is learning a language, I’m sure there are cartoons and other culturally-relevant activities you can do with your child (taco night is sure to be a hit!). The important thing is not to let it feel like work.
For anyone learning a language, it might be less intimidating and much simpler to concentrate on one step at a time. So divide the language learning process into smaller, more manageable activities. For example, when working on language homework, break it down into sections and take reasonable breaks in between. It might also help to jot down notes, questions, and reminders to jog the memory when referring back to the work. Teaching children, as well as learning as adults, to break down the language into smaller chunks will make it more palatable.
Include a variety of senses in the learning process by viewing language videos, listening to audios and podcasts, watching movies and series, and participating in hands-on activities like reading, writing, or sketching. This improves recall and retention since using various techniques allows “the brain to respond to a variety of inputs, which results in better overall learning.” Children’s books are great not just for your child, but also for you! And if you want to get truly involved in your child’s language learning journey, a simple technique is you say the word in the target language, and your child sketches. Wouldn’t that be a fun game?
Create a dedicated study area that is clutter- and distraction-free. That means if you’re studying or helping your child retain some new information, the TV is off, there is no music in the background, and your other kids are not playing the piano in the next room. Maintaining attention and concentration is easier when the learning environment is free of distractions. Decluttering has other benefits too. According to Harvard Business Review’s “The Case for Finally Cleaning Your Desk,” “a cluttered environment triggers coping and avoidance strategies involving snacking on junk and watching TV.” Having a dedicated area to study will instill the right habits and help you avoid terrible ones.
Look at interactive activities and apps and turn language learning into a fun game by reviewing flashcards, setting reminders, using a habit tracker to help speed things up, and taking notes on your phone. I also love turning the language settings on my phone to the target language I am trying to learn. It will be fun to learn the words for “camera,” “photos,” “calendar,” “messages,” and all the other applications and options you have available on your phone in your new language. It also makes it applicable to your everyday life. One word of advice: be careful with languages like Mandarin or Japanese. You might not know how to turn it back to English!
Repetition is a good way to regularly review and practice your language skills. Repetition will also help make your language learning a habit. To create a habit, the best thing is that besides having a designated space for studying, you also study and practice your skills at the same time every week and every day, ideally ongoing. This may help reinforce learning and build neuronal connections. Of course, it goes without saying that to avoid mental fatigue and retain information during study sessions, it is important to take brief but distraction-free pauses. As important as it is to stay consistent, giving yourself a break to reset is just as important to make sure you’re not overloading yourself.
Speaking of habits, how about getting an accountability partner or two? Join an online language group, participate in a language exchange program, or look for a language study partner. Social involvement and interaction will boost motivation, offer support, and help you stay accountable. If all fails, can you be your child’s language partner? You might enjoy learning the same language they are learning. For children, joining a language pod with a group of other kids can be a lot of fun and help them build camaraderie with their peers, as well as positive associations to the language.
I love the concept of “language parent.” A language parent is like a regular parent, but they are specific to language. This means your language teacher, not a friend or buddy, but an actual teacher. Trying to learn a language on your own can only get you so far. Even if you join a language group or have a study partner. You still need a language teacher. This is someone who is a professional in the language learning field. Try to work with someone who is family and has experience working with people with ADHD. Also, some schools even offer “mommy and me” courses for parents and their children, so that’s also a possibility.
We talked about making it fun, and this is part of it. What other hobbies and interests can you include in your language-learning process? For example, if you love to cook, how about doing a very easy recipe and starting by learning the ingredients of that recipe in the language that you’re studying. Extra points if there is a supermarket that specializes in these foods and where you can go and say a few lines in your new language: I’m making X today; where can I find Y, nice weather today, right? This will bring your enjoyment and the relevance of your studies up a notch.
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No matter what language apps will tell you, learning a language is a challenging task. It requires love, consistency, effort, and dedication. As someone with ADHD, you or your child, can face some roadblocks along the way. But I’m here to tell you that the same way it can be challenging to learn a language with ADHD, it’s definitely quite doable. I hope the techniques mentioned above help you pave the way towards a long and enjoyable language journey, whether for you or your kids.
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Irma is a trained linguist, native Spanish speaker, and teacher. She is the founder and CEO of Diáfano.
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