Learning Disabilities and Foreign Language Learning

By: Robin L. Schwarz

Foreign language study is an increasingly prominent part of education everywhere. Not only are high school students nearly always required to study a foreign language, but many lower and middle schools have added foreign languages to their curricula, whether as an enrichment or a requirement. Foreign language "magnet" schools have been created in some school districts and seem to be very popular. And of course, it's more common than not that colleges and universities require foreign language study for graduation. 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 to 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. Teachers of ESL students have also recognized that there are 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 or second language and the teachers who teach them.

What causes this difficulty?

The field of second language acquisition has historically blamed language learning failure on a number of factors. Anxiety in the foreign language classroom (anxiety about making mistakes in grammar and pronunciation, about understanding the teacher, about remembering vocabulary) has been prominent as a purported cause of the failure. Among other causes cited in the literature have been lack of effort, lack of motivation, poor language learning habits and low "ability" in language learning. In the late 1960's, Dr. Kenneth Dinklage of Harvard University was compelled to find out why some of Harvard's brightest and best were not passing their language classes. He quickly dismissed lack of effort, seeing that most of these students were putting other courses and their degrees at major risk by devoting unusual amounts of time and effort to their language classes. Similarly, lack of motivation was not a cause, as these students could not graduate without completion of their language requirement. As for anxiety, he realized that the students were coming to see him because they were suffering from extreme anxiety as a result of not being able to pass their language classes. Since most of these students had never failed a class before, he felt that anxiety had not originally played a part in their failure.

When he interviewed these students, Dinklage found that a number of the failing language students had in fact been diagnosed as learning disabled and had overcome their disability through good tutoring and very hard work; still, the foreign language course had triggered the problems the students thought were behind them. Others in the group, Dinklage found after testing, had previously undiagnosed learning disabilities; again the problems had not shown up until foreign language classes were attempted. The third part of the group, he felt, had a "language learning disability," though Dinklage could not find the usual evidence of problems in testing. Clearly these students were unable to be successful in their foreign language study while at the same time they were excellent students in their other classes. He could find no other explanation. Then, in a kind of experiment years ahead of its time, he arranged for a graduate student who had a learning disabled sibling to teach Spanish to some of these struggling Harvard students using methods of instruction known to be helpful to those with learning disabilities. The students taught in this way were mostly able to pass the exams necessary to complete the foreign requirement.

Thus nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Dinklage pinpointed most of the basic ideas and principles relating to foreign languages and learning disabilities: The problem was related to being learning disabled, not to lack of motivation or effort or to anxiety by itself. Anxiety was the result of failure not the cause. Students not previously diagnosed as LD showed up as LD in the foreign language classroom. The learning disability had to be addressed in educational measures taken. Once the LD issues were addressed, the students could learn.

Leonore Ganschow of the University of Miami, Ohio, and Richard Sparks of Mt. St. Joseph's College, both college psychologists who had numerous students referred to them because of problems in foreign language classes, began in the 1980's to look more closely at Dinklage's observations. In their research, they formulated a theory which explained the problems and variations in foreign language acquisition. An extension of earlier research on foreign language acquisition in which language is described as having component parts or linguistic codes, (phonological, semantic and syntactic), Ganschow and Sparks' Linguistic Coding Deficit Hypothesis (LCDH), states that difficulties with foreign language acquisition stem from deficiencies in one or more of these linguistic codes in the student's native language system. These deficiencies result in mild to extreme problems with specific oral and written aspects of language. Their view is that 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. According to their theory, excellent language learners are strong in all three of the 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, the researchers say, spring from deficits in the native language. That these problems may be overt or so subtle as to have been ignored was observed by Dinklage many years ago, and this fact contributes to the difficulty many experts and non-experts have in believing that the problem is in fact based in first language. How can a student be competent, sometimes very competent, in his first language and have difficulties with a new language, difficulties that are supposedly based in the first language? It is hard to accept.

How can learning disabled students be taught foreign languages?

Once they had pinpointed what they felt was the root of the foreign language learning problem, Ganschow and Sparks began investigating ways that learning disabled students could 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 is a response to Ganschow and Spark's findings that many, if not most, students having trouble with foreign language acquisition have phonological deficits in their first language. Ganschow and Sparks theorized further that to help these students, the sound system of the target language must be very explicitly taught. In order to test this theory, Ganschow and Sparks collaborated with a high school Spanish teacher who had learned about the Orton-Gillingham method of teaching phonology, reading and spelling to very significantly learning disabled students. In this method, sounds are presented in a highly structured fashion with a great deal of visual, kinesthetic and tactile practice and input. The Spanish teacher, Karen Miller, has tested the effectiveness of teaching Spanish to learning disabled students using the Orton-Gillingham approach. The research on her students has shown quite conclusively that LD students taught Spanish in this way have been able to learn and retain it. Another collaborator, Elke Schneider, has had similar results teaching German to LD students.

In their studies on Karen Miller's students, Ganschow and Sparks found that by being taught phonological skills in one language, the students improved their phonological awareness in English also. This finding has led to a variation on the method of teaching phonology in the target language: teach the fundamentals of phonology in the student's native language before foreign language instruction begins. That is, students are taught to recognize phonemes, to decode, or read words, efficiently and to encode, or apply the sounds to the written language. Basically, they learn what language is and how its sounds and parts function. Application of this knowledge to the language they are trying to learn is the next step. This has proven an effective remediation as well. In fact, so strongly do Ganschow and Sparks believe this, they now recommend very strongly that such phonological skills be much more heavily stressed when children are learning to read. They feel students' reading and language skills will be much stronger, and future problems with foreign language acquisition will be headed off for many.

The second approach to language instruction which has been effective has been to adapt the 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. Many of these course adaptations were also responses to the specific complaints and requests of foreign language students having trouble in their classes. Furthermore, in some schools there are courses designed for the student strong in listening and speaking skills but weak in reading and writing, and vice versa. The University of Colorado at Boulder has shown this latter approach to be effective in Latin and Spanish courses adapted for LD students. A phonological component is part of this adapted curriculum.

What if these instructional conditions can't be met?

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 or school system itself to accommodate the student to the best of its ability and to the requirements of the law. 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, except to the degree the law requires.

As with any aspect of learning for any learning disabled student, 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. Students may become highly conversational with excellent accents and still be quite weak in grammar and in written language. Others may be very skilled readers of a foreign language and yet be virtually unable to converse in more than the most rudimentary phrases poorly pronounced. Still others may be fairly competent in all areas but never come close to attaining an accent that is close to "native" in the foreign language.

Consequently, when a learning disabled student faces foreign language learning, 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. A student able to do oral language may be in a situation where passing grammar and translation tests is really what is required. Similarly, someone who reads and translates proficiently may be up against a teacher for whom pronunciation and conversation are of great importance. In cases such as these, "reasonable accommodation" may indeed mean providing a waiver and/or requiring a substitution. Some colleges are very inventive on the substitution issue. Catholic University in Washington, DC requires literature or history courses in cultures that are not based in romance languages. For example, students can study Middle Eastern culture or African or Chinese history or literature. Sometimes sign language is permitted as a substitution, though there is debate about that as a viable alternative to a foreign language.

Policies on waivers from foreign language requirements vary enormously. Every school has its own set of requirements. Some require full documentation of a learning disability with findings pointing to the deficits which are associated with foreign language learning problems; others might require a score on the Modern Language Aptitude Test ( MLAT). Unfortunately for the LD student, many schools, especially colleges, may require evidence of having attempted a foreign language and failed.

The path of the LD student facing a foreign language requirement is made even rougher by the fact that many schools lack personnel who are versed in the problems of foreign language difficulties for learning disabled students. Even prominent universities who boast of their accommodation of learning disabled and other handicapped students may be ignorant of this problem. Certainly, the foreign language departments are even more unaware of its existence. Students and families asking schools for accommodation on this issue need to be well-versed themselves and prepared to provide literature or at least reference to literature that will inform the school of this problem. Even better, when possible, parents or adult students should discuss the problem with a school before enrolling, to be sure that the problem can be dealt with. In one case, an LD student known to have such poor phonological skills that any oral foreign language study was out of the question, worked out an agreement with his school that he would become proficient in the reading of French if the school would accept that for his language requirement. Since he was a European history major and a brilliant student with excellent reasoning and memory skills, this seemed possible. Indeed, in a short time he was reading French texts quite comfortably and was well on his way to a reasonable compromise with his school of choice.

Once again, 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.

Robin L. Schwarz, M.Sp.Ed. Learning Disabilities Language Specialist Learning Skills Program Coordinator The English Language Institute, American University Washington, DC October 1997