Why I Struggle to Get Fluent in Languages
The challenges of language learning with ADHD (and some solutions)
I love languages, yet I’ve had a consistent struggle to get past the beginner stages into actual fluent speech with almost every language I’ve tried to learn. I’ve been studying various languages for over ten years at this point, but the best I can say is that I’m okay-ish at speaking Italian and can decode simple Spanish and French if you give me enough time. Part of what makes this so frustrating is that I desperately want to learn. I enjoy it, and yet my brain seems to sabotage me at every turn. Why?
Once I was diagnosed with ADD (or inattentive ADHD), it all made sense. Language learning takes commitment and consistency — two things I struggle with a lot thanks to the disordered way my mind works. Here are just a few of the symptoms sabotaging my success.
Being hyperfixated sounds, in theory, like it would actually help me to learn. After all, having all my attention focused on a single thing must make me really efficient and committed to it, right?
The problem with hyperfocusing on languages is that I can never stay fixated on a single language for long enough to reach fluency. I go from being fascinated by French to contemplating Korean for a few weeks. And those periods of focus and commitment only last around 3–4 months for me. Hardly enough time to become multilingual. After the period passes, most of what I learned during that time gets forgotten, and I’m back to square one.
And when my hyperfixation moves beyond languages to something else entirely, I can go months without speaking or even glancing at my phrasebooks.
The flip-side of this troubling coin is my issue with executive functioning, a common problem for those with ADHD and many people without it. Put simply, my brain has a lot of trouble organizing itself to approach and complete tasks. Knowing I need to study Italian or practice Portuguese isn’t the same as actually being able to make myself do it. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Larry Silver, describes executive dysfunction as “a brain-based impairment that causes problems with analyzing, planning, organizing, scheduling, and completing tasks at all.”
Knowing I need to study Italian or practice Portuguese isn’t the same as actually being able to make myself do it.
Some people will say, “I need to study Spanish,” and then proceed to do that. I’ll say, “I need to study Spanish.” Then I’ll get caught up in figuring out exactly how I want to study Spanish — textbook, Duolingo, one of those apps where you connect with native speakers — and become so overwhelmed with the options that by the time I’ve settled on anything plausible there’s no time left to actually study.
Needless to say, this doesn’t lend itself well to the kind of consistency required to learn a language. There’s a reason many language classes, especially beginner courses, schedule themselves 3–5 days a week at the same time every day. Daily language practice is one of the best ways to accelerate progress.
But try telling that to my brain.
Tools I use to overcome the struggle:
While I’m still working on active learning strategies that will help me overcome these challenges, I’ve found that incorporating as many passive strategies into my learning can help as well. Although these tools alone will not make anyone fluent, they can help to build and retain vocabulary when you’re not actively studying.
Toucan is a fun little browser extension that randomly translates certain words on your webpages into your target language. This is a great tool for building vocabulary as a new learner, but also for retaining it for those at a more intermediate level. I studied Italian in college but don’t often get to use it regularly. Toucan helps me keep my word bank updated.
I use the free version on Chrome and have been for several months.
When I’m in diligent student mode, I watch things in my target language with the occasional English subtitles. But when I don’t have the mental energy to listen that actively, I invert it. Keeping the audio in English, I turn on subtitles for my target language so I can pick up a few things here and there. It’s a decent way to get exposure to more complete uses of grammar and syntax as well.
I often need to listen to something when I’m doing most tasks — driving, exercising, cooking, etc. If my mind is not in a place to really absorb an audiobook or podcast, listening to music in my target language is always fun and helps me get accustomed to hearing native speech.
I’m not giving up.
Becoming a polyglot can sometimes feel like trying to hit a moving target, but when real progress is made it’s so encouraging. While I’m sure there will be many other roadblocks to overcome, I’m looking forward to the days when I can speak fluently and freely. Until then, my ADHD and I will be taking things one vocab word at a time.
What are your language learning struggles?