Published for Polygloth Life on March 7, 2022.
(The client could have modified the articles since, without my knowing.)

Learning disabilities affect one in five people in our modern societies. This article will briefly examine how a learning disability such as ADHD affects how one can learn a foreign language. I’ll provide a few simple techniques to help guide your learning journey.

If you are interested in this topic and understand French, I also invite you to listen to my podcast episodes on the subject: about neurotypical/atypical brains and how to learn French with ADHD or other common learning difficulties (both episodes in French with transcript).

People with a learning disability are often unsatisfied with traditional classroom settings because it can’t fulfil their needs. In this case, individual Neurolanguage coaching® is often the most efficient way to make progress.

With a compassionate, learner-centered approach, the learner and coach co-create the ideal conditions to learn the foreign language, respectful of the needs of learners with ADHD and/or another disability.

Let’s dive deeper into the specificities of what it’s like to learn a foreign language with ADHD or other learning challenges!

What’s special about trying to learn a foreign language with a learning disability?

Let’s start by defining “learning disabilities” by what they are not:

  • they are NOT diseases,
  • they are NOT a sign of a lack of intelligence,
  • and in fact, I don’t even think they are a “disability”.

What is it then? ”Learning disability” is another way of defining brain biochemistry or a neurological functioning different from what is understood to be the norm in a given context.

People with a learning disability (and everyone else too!) need to stop trying to find THE right method to succeed or even learn a new language.

Essentially, what you need is a combination of approaches that work for you, even if you’re the only person in the world who has that exact recipe.

And a good second language teacher or coach will help you find that magic recipe!

How the process to learn a foreign language may be affected by ADHD and learning disabilities

We now know that there are 8 to 9 types of intelligence. Knowing one’s strengths and most developed intelligence can further enhance learning by boosting self-esteem and strategically directing learning activities.

In the past decades, we have developed new pedagogical approaches. But when we learn languages in school, the lessons are formatted with a single, linear and monochrome model. This model does not articulate well with how some people construct language, arrange their thoughts, etc.

For example, ADHD affects your attention span of course. But did you know it may also affect other executive functions like planning, understanding instructions given to complete a task, time perception and management, reactions to sensory stimulations, social interactions?

That is why learning cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. Every brain is different and people with ADHD each have their own chemistry and learning process. This is why I prefer to teach grammar as a set of Legos.

I give my students the necessary pieces and the basic rules for putting them together, but I encourage them to experiment and look at how others produce language. In the end, each construction is unique, but the strategies used to build them can be shared.

Would you like to see some brain-friendly visual grammar lessons? Check out my French grammar videos on YouTube.

How can someone with a learning disability learn best?

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, every brain is different. As a consequence, every “magic recipe” will be different. Each learner has to experiment and find their own ideal mix.

However, I feel that finding one’s own way comes down to one holistic strategy:

Language learning must be adapted to symptoms that are found in atypical profiles. I’d like to point out the three underlying principles to guide this process.

You are enough

1. Self-knowledge and acceptance of our individual characteristics. I am not talking about recognizing our strengths and weaknesses, but rather understanding who we are, how we learn, what makes us happy, and how to make learning not necessarily easy, but fun.

2. Kindness is accepting ourselves and bringing out our true strengths. Behavioural traits that are often labelled as flaws are often unique qualities. And when we focus on the positive, we save a lot of energy that can be devoted to our loved ones… or to learning a language!

3. And finally, adaptation. In nature itself, molecules have various shapes that combine and fit together. To create a coherent and harmonious whole, each atom (each person) has a unique function and its individuality feeds a structure beyond us. Keep in mind that you have a function and a role in the grand scheme of humanity and in your closer social circle.

I’d like to clarify that I don’t mean you should forcefully adapt to your environment. On the contrary, adapt your learning activities and what you do in the foreign language to further enhance what makes you happy.

You matter, you are enough, you can do great things with this wonderfully special brain of yours!

Armed with these three indispensable tools, we can now look at some small techniques that will help, I am sure, people who experience significant variations in concentration (deficit or hyperfocus).

How can mindfulness improve the learning process?

Yes, I know, it’s fashionable. But mindfulness does not stop at putting on yoga pants to meditate for hours. There are many ways to practice mindfulness. It’s beneficial to everyone but particularly to people who suffer from a “jumpy brain”, from negative judgemental tendencies or trauma-induced interferences (although in this case, I invite you to first consult with a mental health professional familiar with meditation).

The picture below shows the areas of your brain active before and after meditation. The more blue you can see, the more relaxed state it shows.

The more relaxed we are, the more connections per second happen between our neurons, the more we can durably learn.

In this state, it also becomes easier to retrieve information (for example words and conjugations when you’re in the middle of a conversation in a foreign language).

Stop for 5 minutes to take deep breaths, or try a cardiac coherence video on YouTube: these are all mindfulness-related exercises that can help you physically and mentally. It will bring more focus.

There is also mindfulness-in-motion techniques for those who need to move, such as tai chi, qi gong, and mindful walking. Mindfulness helps to break the vicious circle that the brain imposes to manage better the stress associated with learning a second language.

Forget the “shoulds” and focus on what you enjoy!

Brains affected by ADHD or a another learning disability often experience extreme states: extreme highs and extreme lows. This also affects motivation.

The highs and lows of ADHD brains

People with ADHD, Autisme Spectrum Disorder and/or High Potential People often experience periods of hyperfocus. In those moments, they almost disconnect from reality: perception of time is affected, they’re fully absorbed in their task or topic. They’re in the flow.

It’s a state of bliss than can be explained by the release of dopamine. ADHD brain do not synthetise dopamine the same way a typical brain does. Being in the flow provides an exhilarating shot of dopamine. It’s like getting high without drugs!

Conversely, people who know the “bliss state” of hyperfocusing often have difficulty with subjects they find uninteresting. The reward circuit in the brain doesn’t kick in and motivation remains low, even though the conscious brain might be aware of the necessity to do such or such thing.

When the person is motivated, they may learn a tremendous amount of information in a short time. On the other hand, if they have no motivation, nothing sticks and they may seem lazy in the eyes of other people.

How to use hyperfocus to induce faster learning

When learning a foreign language, there is nothing wrong with focusing on a highly specialized area. You might have gaps in your vocabulary but you can catch up later. To enhance fluency and confidence, any subject will do to acquire the mechanics and fundamentals of the language.

Instead of persisting in engaging in a boring task, why not try and find strategies to make it more fun? Or set it aside for a while to focus on things that work to replenish your motivation and advance your overall skills?

The more you find the topic interesting, the faster you’ll progress.

  • You can practice for hours without getting bored, thereby absorbing a lot of information subconsciously.
  • You’ve created a need to improve in the foreign language so you can understand more, speak more, express yourself with finer nuances.
  • The more complex it becomes, the more you’ll be able to practice a variety of sentence structures and vocabulary.

By focusing, you improve your overall skills and build strong foundations. Then, when you’re ready, you can expand to another topic you fancy.

Strategies to learn a foreign language with ADHD

A few of my strategies

Adaptation of the process to my needs and wants. For example, when I learn a language, I often use television. But as I was learning Japanese, I could not find any movies or series that I loved and were accessible to my low level. I was losing interest and couldn’t get enough exposure to the language. I then decided to watch American or Korean series instead, but dubbed in Japanese! Since it was a translation, I found it much easier to understand.

To avoid losing track of time, I also use a timer, or I’ll just unplug my computer (the battery tells me when I’ve worked too much!) This way, I regain awareness of time and control my concentration. The time constraint allows the brain to go into hyperfocus mode and fight procrastination.

To avoid overwhelm, first I calm my brain with a guided or walking meditation. I try to connect with my vision and “big picture”. Then I break it down into small manageable chunks and get to work, one step after another! Check out this post on goal setting to learn a foreign language.

Embrace learning online and technology

People who live with attention issues, are on the autism spectrum, or live with hyperesthesia (overstimulation of the senses) will tend to find online learning much more suited to their needs than traditional classroom learning. Platforms such as Zoom allow to take classes from the comfort of your home where you can control the sensory input and distractions. It also allows teachers to better deliver the instructions (writing them in the chat room or send them by email instead of just verbally explaining, with multiple instructions an ADHD brain may not be able to follow).

Finally, I want to mention some techniques that I have implemented to help my clients with dyslexia (and other “dys”). I have found that sometimes changing the font or font size, the line spacing or even the colour can help a person better understand certain instructions. I also try to keep a constant open dialogue.

Often, the secret to a more fulfulling life for a person with a learning disability is to learn to delegate certain tasks. It is OK to ask for help. For example, do your best to improve your spelling but keep in mind that you’re allowed to use an app like Antidote or the services of a revisor. It’s not cheating, many natives do it, why not you? Just be aware than you might need to plan your budget accordingly but this could save you energy and time.

Things to keep in mind

  • Since childhood, people with a learning disability have been encouraged to navigate the world creatively. Trust that your brain will find solutions!
  • Don’t be discouraged and find a coach who will help you create the perfect recipe to learn a second language.
  • Remember: concentration cannot be forced back when the focus is gone. Take a break, clear your head, make lists, break down tasks into subtasks, take notes and give yourself flexible goals.
  • Focus on pleasure: a bored or stressed brain doesn’t learn.