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Why You Can Learn a Foreign Language With ADHD

I was never really into school, but I’d like to think that I’ve made up for it with my enthusiasm for learning things on my own. One of my latest, and largest, self-education projects is trying to break out of the monolingual American stereotype and teach myself a second language.

I’m not there yet. You couldn’t parachute me into a non-English-speaking country and have me function like a native. But I’m having little successes. I can read the headlines and know what most of them are saying. Increasingly, I can get my point across when talking to a native speaker, even if some of the words I use are a little messed up. I’m hopeful that I’ll get there eventually.

One thing I do know, though, is that if you have ADHD, you absolutely can learn a new language.

LanguagesLearning a language is a gargantuan project. It takes years, and hundreds if not thousands of hours. It’s exactly the kind of thing an ADHDer would start and not finish.

Here’s the thing, though. Learning a language, based on my experience so far and what I’ve heard from others, doesn’t necessarily require any great skill. More than anything, it just requires persistence, and putting in the time.

For people with ADHD, persistence is inextricably tied to enthusiasm. Which means that if you’re lukewarm about the prospect of learning a new language, it’ll be hard to persist. On the other hand, if you’re genuinely enthusiastic about the language and culture you’re learning about, if you get a sense of reward from feeling yourself inch a little bit closer to fluency every day, if you get excited every time you’re able to understand something a little better, then there’s a good chance you’ll be able to persist.

Hence the importance of choosing a language you’re really interested in, and a culture you want to discover more about. Learning a new language is kind of like getting married. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with that language, so it’s best to go with one you’re really into.

Learning a language seems to get both harder and easier as you progress. It gets harder because once you reach a certain level, there aren’t any textbooks to tell you what to do, and the words you need to learn are still important but increasingly rare. However, it gets easier because more and more you’re able to learn by engaging with interesting content like books and films, which helps keep motivation up.

In this sense, the first stage of learning the basics is the danger zone, especially for ADHDers. It’s dry, and you’re not really ready to start consuming media. If you’ve chosen a language that’s interesting and a culture that you’re really eager to learn more about, though, ideally that excitement combined with the novelty of beginning your studies is enough to push through the initial hurdles.

I haven’t said a lot about the how of learning a language with ADHD. That’s because the how is more or less the same as learning a language without ADHD. Textbooks for the basics. Flashcards for vocab. Various apps. Books, movies, finding native speakers to talk to. And looking for the right balance of study techniques that works for you.

My point is that if it’s something you want to do, ADHD doesn’t have to stop you. True, it takes a lot of time, which means a lot of persistence – and with ADHD, persistence is a wildcard. But set yourself a long-term goal, let your enthusiasm carry you, and you have a good shot of making it happen.

Image: Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski

Why You Can Learn a Foreign Language With ADHD

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2019). Why You Can Learn a Foreign Language With ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 18, 2019, from


Last updated: 29 May 2019
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