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Foreign Language Learning and Learning Disabilities

By: Sally S. Scott and Elaine Manglitz

Making the college transition

Their World

Many individuals with learning disabilities experience difficulty in learning a foreign language. Is it any wonder? Learning disabilities (LD) often affect language-based tasks such as reading, spelling, writing, or listening. Problems in the native language will still be present, if not magnified, in the process of learning a second language system.

Research since the 1980's has supported the logical conclusion that there is indeed a link between native and foreign language learning. Results have shown that phonological difficulties (problems with tasks involving putting sounds together and pulling sounds apart in spoken and written language) and orthographic difficulties (problems with sound-symbol tasks in language) have the most immediate and severe impact on foreign language learning. These types of abilities are called on for such fundamental tasks as learning a new alphabet (e.g., Hebrew), a new sound-symbol system (e.g., spelling the nasal sounds in French) or the beginning vocabulary words of any new language. Other areas that have been found to affect foreign language learning include syntactic abilities (use and understanding of the grammatical rules of language), semantics (understanding word meaning and concepts), and short-term memory needed to acquire and practice new language demands.

Researchers have also identified patterns in developmental history and academic learning that may correlate with later foreign language learning problems. Individuals with learning disabilities who have difficulty learning a foreign language often experienced difficulty or delay in learning to speak, received speech therapy early in their lives, or had a family history of language and learning problems. Academically, they may have had difficulty in learning to read, especially with learning phonics. Early difficulties with spelling and inconsistent use of grammar and mechanics are often part of the individual's learning history and frequently persist into adolescence and adulthood.

At the same time that research has been affirming the difficulties in foreign language learning of many students with learning disabilities, an increasing number of individuals with LD are attending college. Recent national figures show that 3-4 percent of all college freshmen identify themselves as having learning disabilities. How students with LD are meeting college foreign language requirements and what accommodations and services are available to them are still relative unknowns.

College accommodations and services

With the increased focus in high schools and colleges on preparing students for life and work in a global society, students can expect that more colleges and universities will require the completion of foreign language courses for their degrees. Students with learning disabilities who attend college will find a continuum of services and choices related to foreign languages. Supports and services vary widely ranging from basic classroom and testing accommodations, to special sections of a language, to course substitutions. Although federal law requires colleges and universities to provide reasonable accommodations for students who have documented learning disabilities, the range of accommodations and modifications are determined by individual campuses.

A survey done in the late 1980's showed that tutoring was the most frequently reported college service for foreign language support. A smaller number of institutions offered an individualized learning pace, and a few colleges had special sections of classes for students who have difficulties completing the foreign language requirements. Almost three-fourths of the colleges and universities were offering course substitutions, although not all of the institutions had a formal, written policy. Colleges and universities that offer course substitutions typically have specific requirements for documentation of the LD. Some also require additional information, such as: a history of difficulty with foreign languages in high school, letters from instructors or tutors, or records of an attempt to complete a foreign language in college.

Over time, colleges have continued to expand their support of students with LD. Though some campuses provide minimal services in foreign language learning, many have devised creative learning accommodations in order to provide greater access for students with LD. Options and supports include both formal accommodations (specific to the needs of students with LD) and informal supports available to all students in foreign language learning.

Many programs offer selective advisement to guide students with LD to take a foreign language or programmatic option (such -as study abroad or immersion) that fits their strengths. Supports open to all students such as participating in a conversational lunch group or pairing with a student from a specific country to study and learn the language are also encouraged.

Administrative alternatives are frequently used including the option to audit the class before taking it for credit, take a class under a pass/fail condition, or have an extended drop/add date that would not penalize the students. At some institutions, foreign language instructors are willing to provide increased support for students with learning disabilities, including creative multisensory teaching methods and accommodations more specific to foreign language learning (e.g., permission to write dictated questions before composing responses or extended time to formulate replies on oral exams). Some colleges have created additional programmatic options for students with LD, such as: providing one semester of coursework over a two-semester time period, creating a reading or writing "track" of a language, or providing a special section of a language that is structured and paced to meet the needs of students with LD.

It is clear that with the various requirements, instructional options, accommodations, and modifications related to foreign languages at colleges and universities, it is important for students to be informed consumers when preparing for and choosing a college. Students should start early considering questions similar to the following:

  • What can I do in high school to prepare for and anticipate problems related to learning a foreign language in college?
  • What questions do I need to ask when visiting campuses?

Recommendations

If your learning disability has an impact on your foreign language learning and you know you want to attend college, there are ways you can be better prepared to meet college requirements. We recommend two main strategies: get a head start in high school and choose your college carefully.

Get a head start in high school: Thinking about the college foreign language requirement requires advanced preparation on your part. High school is a good time to learn more about yourself as a foreign language learner. Talc& a foreign language early in high school. Depending on the courses offered at your high school, you may be able to select which language you want to attempt. If your listening/speaking skills are strong, you may want to try Spanish since the regularity of the sound system in Spanish sometimes helps. If you are stronger at reading, you may want to try Latin, which typically does not involve as much oral communication and often helps build vocabulary in English.

If you run into difficulty in your foreign language learning, talk with your LD teacher about what is difficult and easy in your foreign language class. Work with this person to generate ideas for you to try, and talk with the foreign language teacher about strategies and accommodations that may assist you. Be sure to keep these teachers informed of your progress.

If you continue to have significant difficulty, some high schools now grant foreign language course waivers for students with LD. This means that you may be able to be excused from meeting the high school foreign language requirement. Waivers are a matter of school policy and are not available everywhere, so check with your local school system. Also, be aware that the waiver process has its pros and cons. Though a waiver does prevent the frustration and hardship of trying to learn a foreign language in high school, not all college admissions offices are familiar with this policy and you may be considered "deficient" in meeting admission requirements. Be sure to check with your school system and state education agency about how they are coordinating this potential policy gap with colleges and universities. Another factor to consider is that, when you enter college, you may still be required to take a foreign language. Many students with LD report that by working through high school foreign language courses and taking the same language in college (though perhaps starting over at the beginning level course) they are more successful in adjusting to the fast pace of college language instruction.

Does this mean you should not have a foreign language waiver if this is available at your high school? No, for some students with LD this is the most appropriate accommodation and is absolutely necessary. But it is important for you to be aware of the later implications and possible planning needs involved. Some colleges may ask for information on how this decision was reached in high school so they can determine what accommodations are most appropriate for you in the college setting. It will be helpful for you to gather information on what supports you used and the strategies you tried when you attempted a foreign language in high school. A letter from your foreign language teacher documenting your effort in class and the difficulties you experienced would also be useful.

Your college search: As you begin your college search, be sure to consider your foreign language learning needs. As you investigate other supports and services available to college students with learning disabilities, ask specifically about the foreign language requirements and policies in place. Not all colleges require a foreign language. Within a college or university, not all programs of study require foreign language learning. Actively investigate what options are available to any college student attending the institution.

If the college or program of study that looks best for you does require a foreign language, ask specifically about the kinds of accommodations available and whether the university permits substitutions. Do not assume that the college will provide the same services you received in high school. At the college level, waivers are typically not provided. Instead, many colleges offer a broader range of learning options and may possibly include a course substitution (such as taking classes in culture or literature in translation instead of a language).

Ask whether the university has specific criteria you need to meet to qualify for foreign language accommodations and services. This is particularly important if you believe that you may need a substitution of the foreign language requirement. Typically, colleges request thorough documentation of your LD. In addition, some campuses will ask for any supporting documentation of your prior foreign language learning experiences in high school. Some service providers at campus disability support offices may not be able to tell you with certainty prior to admission whether a course substitution will be an approved accommodation for you. You are not getting the run around! Final decisions about whether a course substitution can be approved are often the decision of an academic committee. The service provider can tell you whether you are a good candidate for the substitution, general attitudes of foreign language faculty on campus, and what other accommodations and supports would be available to you.

If your LD impacts your foreign language learning, be an informed consumer. There is a wide range of services and supports at the college level. It is important that you prepare in high school and investigate programs that meet your specific needs in college. College access to foreign language learning is not "one size fits all!" Look at your performance and grades in foreign language classes in high school. Think about your interests and goals in attending college. Actively investigate the learning options available to you and weigh all the options based on your individual needs and learning profile.

Editor's Note: Sally S. Scott, Ph.D., is Head of Services at the University of Georgia Learning Disabilities Center and adjunct faculty in the Department of Special Education. Elaine Manglitz is a Learning Disabilities Specialist at the University of Georgia Learning Disabilities Center She is currently working on her doctoral degree in Adult Education.

Sally S. Scott, Ph.D. and Elaine Manglitz e-printed by permission from Their World National Center for Learning Disabilities