Foreign Language Learning for Learning Disabled Students


Foreign language study is an increasingly prominent part of education everywhere. Nearly all school students are required to study a foreign language. For the student unencumbered by a learning disability, foreign language study is indeed an enriching and rewarding experience. For the learning disabled student, however, it can be an unbelievably stressful and humiliating experience -the opposite of what is intended.

While it has long been recognized in the learning disabilities field that foreign language study would be a terrific challenge for learning disabled students, somehow this fact has been widely ignored in the field of foreign language instruction and in schools in general until very recently. More and more teachers have students who have great difficulty mastering English because of learning disabilities. This fact has added some urgency to the need for recognition of this problem. As more research is being done and more teachers are recognizing the problem, more solutions are being created for the student facing the challenge of learning a foreign language and the teachers who teach them.

Most learners experiencing difficulty with foreign language learning have problems with ‘phonological awareness’. That is, they have trouble with the basic sound units of language, phonemes, and do not recognize or otherwise manipulate these basic units of sound efficiently. As a result, the student may have difficulty with the actual perception and production of language necessary for basic comprehension, speaking and spelling, or with language comprehension, which may affect understanding and/or production of language on a broader scale. Excellent language learners are strong in all three linguistic codes, and conversely, very poor language learners are weak in all three.

In between, however, are students who may be quite glib and able to do conversational language, but who have great difficulty with grammar and writing in the new language, or the opposite kind of student who perhaps reads and writes fairly well, but cannot speak with a good accent in the foreign language or cannot understand very much of what is spoken to him or her. These difficulties may spring from deficits in the native language.
So how learning disabled students can be helped to learn a foreign language? At least two approaches to foreign language instruction different from ‘normal’ or traditional language instruction have emerged as being effective.

The first and most researched approach claims that many, if not most, students having trouble with foreign language acquisition have phonological deficits in their first language. If we follow this approach then the sound system of the target language must be very explicitly taught. Sounds in the target language must be presented in a highly structured fashion with a great deal of visual, kinesthetic and tactile practice and input.
The second approach to language instruction advocates the adaptation of foreign language courses according to principles of instruction known to be effective for LD students. This means making such changes as reducing the syllabus to the essential elements, slowing the pace of instruction quite considerably, reducing the vocabulary demand, providing constant review and incorporating as much visual/tactile/kinesthetic (i.e. multisensory) stimulation and support as possible.

While it is good news that the underlying cause of problems with foreign language learning has been tentatively identified and that ways have been found to teach LD students foreign language, two major problems remain. The first is that it is relatively rare that a school can, or more importantly, is willing to, devote an entire foreign language section or class to LD students. The second is that finding teachers trained to teach foreign language to LD students is even rarer. Most often in the real world, LD students find themselves in a classroom of so-called ‘normal’ language learners. In this case, the students must rely on the willingness of the teacher to be inventive and flexible and on the school to accommodate the student to the best of its ability. As any LD student and his or her family will tell you, this is rarely a smooth process. It is almost equally painful when a teacher recognizes the needs of a particular student, but does not have the time or resources or support to be able to adequately accommodate that student.

As with any aspect of learning no single solution is good for everybody. Stories abound of learning disabled students who have learned a foreign language one way or another. The question to be asked however, is what ‘learned’ means. Consequently, a realistic assessment of the student’s situation, problems and needs should be done. In other words, what the student may be able to do in a language and what the learning situation offers may not match at all.

Teachers should be aware that as with all things associated with learning disabilities, the answers are often complex and long-term, and everyone student’s problem and solution is likely to be different. What is most important is that the problem of foreign language learning for the learning disabled be recognized for what it is and that the student be fairly and reasonably accommodated. Hopefully, as learning disabilities personnel, foreign language professionals and others become more aware of the research and literature, the path for the LD student facing foreign language requirements will become smoother. •

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