Welcome to another week of Dear Duolingo, an advice column just for language learners. Catch up on past installments here.

Hello, learners! I’m Estelle Tian, a Duolingo curriculum designer. A little about me: I majored in Chinese Studies, with a side of German Studies and Linguistics. I fell in love with languages as a middle-schooler thanks to foreign dubs of Disney songs. Since then, I’ve taken classes in Arabic, Japanese, American Sign Language, and more! After graduating, I taught English as a Second Language, then worked for 3 years as a Duolingo freelancer making content. Now I’m a full-timer!

I’m subbing in this week for Dr. Cindy Blanco on Dear Duolingo because we had a few learner questions about something I’ve always wanted to answer.

Here’s the question for this week:

Dear Duolingo,

I have ADHD, which makes it very hard to want to practice my language skills, even though I really do want to learn. Do you have any tips on getting into a routine, or ideas to help focus?

Driven to Distraction

Thanks for this question! This is such an important topic for language learners, because those with ADHD can have trouble with priorities, motivation, time management, the list goes on! In the past, I’ve personally had a hard time with either trying to do too much (making unrealistic schedules to study multiple languages) or nothing at all (endless procrastination). So… how do you make learning a language easier?

Disclaimer: I’m a neurodivergent language lover, but not a medical professional. I’m here to present you with tips that work for me, and hopefully something will resonate with you! Always check in with a licensed professional for medical advice and official diagnoses.

Okay, Driven to Distraction. Here are a few things you might try:

Free your mind

Folks with ADHD tend to have fewer resources when it comes to working memory (the part of your brain that helps process and focus on new information.) On top of that, we’re often spending some of those resources on hiding our ADHD characteristics, like trying not to be too loud, or bounce our legs, or sit “weird” in chairs.

Find a study space where you can be yourself, relax, and free up those resources. And make it a happy space! Maybe you need some motivational posters, aesthetically-pleasing organizers, or cozy candles. Create the vibe you want to see in the world! My desk, for example, is a wonderland of colorful desk drawers, plus stuffed animals that keep me company. (Shout out to Naomi Romero’s ADHD Puppy.)

Free up even more working memory by getting rid of distractions. Sometimes this means not being around people while you study, playing white noise to help you drown out your neighbors, or not having a TV in the room to tempt you!

But my phone…!

Phones are so distracting. But also, Duolingo is on your phone. Now what?! Well, consider cutting down on other apps with “Focus Mode” or uninstalling them. Putting obstacles between yourself and the distractions can make your higher priorities more appealing.

Or, here’s an idea: pop your phone in a drawer and use Duolingo on your computer! That can work for those who aren’t as prone to endless scrolling on the computer. Plus, in my experience, desktop website blockers are much more useful than mobile ones.


Get physical

Researchers believe a big factor of ADHD is not having enough dopamine. It makes us very prone to distraction, or biting off more than we can chew! Checking for notifications, snacking on sugar, unreasonable multitasking–these are just some ways we try to get that sweet, sweet hormone.

But physical movement can get you more stimulated, and you can study while you move! Get a sit-stand desk or a treadmill desk if that’s an option. And for French, Spanish, or English learners, try Duolingo’s podcasts while you’re on a walk! You can even get some fidgets to play with while you think.

If you can’t move and study at the same time, take regular breaks to move around or dance (bonus points for music in the language you’re learning!) so that you focus better during lessons.

Stay accountable

Accountability can be just the thing to get you to Motivation Station. How do you add accountability? This is especially challenging when you’re self-studying. I definitely did my best learning when I was obligated to turn in homework or go to class regularly.

Make use of lots of smaller deadlines (rather than one big one!). For example, Duolingo has daily, weekly, and monthly goals to give you a light sense of urgency. You have a streak and a leaderboard to keep you on track.

Create challenges and competitions between you and your friends. If they join Duolingo, you can cheer each other on as you ascend the Leaderboard, and hold each other accountable for keeping up the streak!

Lots of people in the ADHD community also recommend “body doubling.” It means having another person (another “body”) in the room to ground you in reality. They could be working on the same task as you, or tackling their own project, or just chilling in the same space! Just the awareness that someone is there can help you focus.

Good luck out there!

I wish you the best on your language learning adventures. And hey, if you have recommendations, hit me up because my brain could always use a little extra help!