WHY DO KIDS WITH DYSLEXIA STRUGGLE TO LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE?
Learning a foreign language is a challenge for anyone. However, if you have dyslexia it is almost impossible! It is difficult enough for a dyslexic kid to learn to read and write in their native language, let alone a foreign language. We face the same uphill battle that we had when learning to read and write in English, with the added Herculean obstacle of not being familiar with the language we are learning.
Dyslexia is a processing “difference” that is often characterised by difficulties in learning to read, write and spell. Dyslexia affects many areas that are critical to learning a foreign language. It impacts our ability to distinguish subtle differences in sounds, accurately perceive what we see, the speed in which we store and retrieve language and our short-term and working memory. All of these deficits conspire to make it very difficult for kids with dyslexia to learn a foreign language.
Auditory Processing – Being able to hear language correctly has a huge impact on our ability to read, write, spell and speak. Most kids with dyslexia have difficulty deciphering spoken language, because we are slower at perceiving the sounds within a syllable. We also struggle to identify, segment and manipulate the sounds that combine to make a word. If you are unable to distinguish subtle differences in sounds, it is difficult to sound out words (a skill that is crucial to learning to read and spell). It also makes it difficult to reproduce the sounds of a language. When I was younger, I struggled with the word “hospital,” instead I said “hopsital.” Although I was frequently corrected, it took years before I was able to distinguish between the “sp” sound and the “ps” sound.
If you are unable to distinguish subtle differences in sounds, you will have the same problem when trying to learn a foreign language. As a consequences, you are much more likely to mishear foreign words, misspell foreign words and mispronounce foreign words.
Visual Processing – Being able to process accurately what we see also has a huge impact on our ability to read, write and spell. Most kids with dyslexia have difficulties with their visual perception. For example, we often reverse our letters and numbers (I still reverse the letter “j” and the number “6”). When reading, especially when reading aloud, we tend to skip words and skip lines. Although this can affect our reading comprehension, we are able to make some sense of what we are reading because we have the benefit of knowing the language. When learning a foreign language, we cannot use context or rely on our comprehension skills to fill in the gaps.
Processing Speed – The speed in which we store and retrieve language has an impact on how fluidly we speak. Kids with dyslexia often struggle to recall the right word. This explains why some of us may not finish our sentences or may start a sentence again half way through in the hope that it will buy us enough time to retrieve the word we are struggling to recall. Our recall deficit is much more pronounced when storing and retrieving words in a foreign language. This is to be expected because we are unfamiliar and inexperienced in the language and as such, recalling foreign words is much more demanding.
Working Memory and Short-term Memory – Dyslexic kids tend to have deficits in their working memory and short-term memory. Working memory involves keeping information in mind for a short period of time, while using this information for the task at hand. For example, kids with weak working memories often struggle to remember instructions because they find it difficult to remember the information long enough to carry out what they were instructed to do. On the other hand, short-term memory involves the short-term storage of information. It involves remembering information for a short period of time. Both working memory and short-term memory play a critical role in learning a foreign language. As such, deficits in working memory and short-term memory make it much more challenging to succeed in learning to foreign language.
Which language is easiest for a dyslexic to learn?
You are more likely to succeed in learning a foreign language if you choose to learn a language that is phonologically similar to English. I have tried learning French, Mandarin, Latin and Spanish. I found Mandarin impossible to learn. French was a close second. Unfortunately, some schools only offer French, especially in primary school. French is very difficult for a dyslexic to learn, because it is not phonetic. It does not have a clear corresponding sound to each letter. Furthermore, it has a lot of irregularities. If possible, I would avoid Mandarin and French.
Spanish – I recommend choosing Spanish because it is more predictable than other languages. Spanish is considered a transparent language because it is phonetic (it has a clear corresponding sound to each letter). Furthermore, Spanish has fewer rules and exceptions, only has five vowel sounds and shares many of the same root words as the English language.
Latin – If Latin is an option, it may be a good choice (especially if you have trouble learning to speak a new language). When learning Latin the focus tends to be on reading rather than speaking. The advantage of learning Latin is that the pronunciation is consistent and the meaning of the words can be deconstructed into morphemes (the smallest units of meaning). This makes it easier to analyse the meaning of words.
Another advantage of learning Latin is that the skills that you develop when learning Latin are transferable and can be applied to English. For example, learning Latin can improve your English reading comprehension skills and vocabulary. Furthermore, Latin has a fairly small vocabulary and many words may already be familiar because a significant number of scientific, technical and abstract words are derived from Latin. I also really enjoyed learning about Roman history and culture. I was even fortunate enough to go on a school trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum!
If you are deciding whether to learn Spanish or Latin, it is important to find out whether you will be required to take a modern language for your GCSEs or IGCSEs. Although I loved Latin, I had to drop it when I discovered that I was required to take a modern language for my IGCSE. I did so because I knew that I would be overextending myself and would not be able to devote the extra time and effort that will be required for me to learn Spanish.
Do you have to learn a foreign language?
Both England and the United States recognize that not all kids with dyslexia can learn a foreign language. As such, both countries offer an exemption.
England – Although learning a foreign language is part of the National Curriculum, it is possible to “disapply” from this requirement if you have significant dyslexic difficulties. If you are allowed to disapply, you will not have to take classes or exams in a foreign language. Disapplication usually becomes relevant in Years 10 and 11 (Key Stage 4), the two years leading up to the GCSE / IGCSE exams.
United States – If you are a dyslexic kid that who in the United States, you have two alternatives: (1) you can apply for a foreign language “waiver” or (2) take a course substitute. Some school districts will waive the foreign language for kids with dyslexia. Some school districts may allow you to satisfy the language requirement by taking an alternative class. For example, a Spanish culture class or a Russian literature class.
Furthermore, some American high schools recognize American Sign Language (ASL) as a distinct language. Since learning ASL does not involve spelling or learning foreign words and grammar, it is easier for dyslexic kids to learn and so might be a better option than learning a foreign language. If your school does not offer ASL classes, your school may allow you to take an ASL online course or a course at a community college. It never hurts to ask.
Tips for Learning a foreign language
Flash Cards – I use flash cards to help me memorise vocabulary. A lot of kids find it easier to remember a word if they associate it with a visual image or picture. Sometimes I use pictures or drawings to help me associate the word with the object or verb. Since I have a visual memory, I can recall the picture faster than I can recall the actual word. I also find that color-coding my flash cards is very helpful. I use red for feminine, blue for masculine and green for neutral.
If you prefer to work online, there are numerous sites that offer foreign language flash cards. I like to use Quizlet. You may also want to try Anki, Memrise and Cram.
Apps – Using foreign language learning apps is a great way to practice and reinforce the foreign language you are learning at school. Many of the apps are free and make learning a foreign language a bit more fun and interactive.
Below are some apps that may work for you.
Cat Spanish – Cat Spanish focuses on commonly used Spanish phrases. Most of the lessons show a cat-themed photo, along with a Spanish phrase and its English translation. The cat in the photo portrays the Spanish phrase. If you are a cat lover this is the app for you.
Duolingo – Duolingo is widely considered one of the best free foreign language-learning programs. The lessons are set up so that you progress through a series of lessons in your “skill tree”. Duolingo is very user friendly and comprehensive.
FluentU – FluentU takes real-world videos like music videos, commercials, news, and inspiring talks and turns them into language learning experiences. FluentU is ideal for kids who are audio-visual learners and want to learn more about the Spanish culture.
MindSnacks – MindSnacks makes learning Spanish a game. Each game is based on content that focuses on a theme. For example, school, home and food.
Memrise – Memrise focuses on memorization. However, it does so with humor making it much less tedious.
Rosetta Stone – Unlike the other apps, Rosetta Stone is designed to be an immersive experience. Instead of learning Spanish through English, it teaches Spanish through Spanish.
TV and Movies – Watching TV and movies in Spanish is a great way to improve your understanding of the language. Initially, choose a TV episode or movie that you have watched before in English so that you have a better understanding of what is being said. I have watched the Harry Potter movies so many times that I have memorised a lot of the dialogue. I have started watching them in Spanish so that I get better at understanding spoken Spanish and expand my vocabulary.
Tutoring – If you are really struggling to learn a foreign language, you may need to take extra lessons outside of school. I am not embarrassed to admit that I have a Spanish tutor. Since I really struggle with foreign languages, I struggle to keep up with the pace at which Spanish is taught at my school. The extra lessons outside of school give me another chance to learn the material, especially because the teaching is targeted specifically to the areas I am finding difficult. This would not be possible in a classroom setting where the teacher is required to move at a certain pace. I also feel more at ease and find that I am less anxious about practicing my spoken Spanish because I don’t have to worry about making a fool of myself in front of my whole class. I mispronounce words when reading aloud in English so I cannot imagine how I sound in Spanish.
Language School – A good way to boost your Spanish is to go on a language course. Since I am struggling to learn Spanish, I was fortunate enough that my parents agreed to enrol me in a five-day Spanish course in Granada, Spain. In total, I had 30 hours of one-on-one Spanish lessons in five days (the equivalent of 10 weeks of Spanish lessons at my school). In the afternoons, my Spanish teachers reinforced the material they were teaching me in the classroom by taking me on excursions where I got to practice my Spanish. I went to a supermarket and a department store where I was asked to find items of food and clothing. I was also taken to a restaurant where I had to order food in Spanish. Although I have a long way to go before I am fluent, I feel more confident in my abilities because I now have a foundation on which I can build.
Is it possible for a dyslexic kid to learn a foreign language?
Dyslexic kids can learn a foreign language. However, it will take a lot of time, effort, dedication and patience. Be prepared to have to work much harder than your non-dyslexic classmates. Being dyslexic is a huge disadvantage when learning a foreign language and so do not expect to absorb and learn the language at the same pace as your peers.
An important factor to succeeding in learning a foreign language is your attitude. Although difficult not to do so, try not to get too demotivated, demoralized or frustrated. Don’t be too hard on yourself. As long as you are trying your hardest, take comfort in the knowledge that you are doing your best. The more anxious and stressed you become, the harder it is to make progress.