There are few more engaging yet challenging pursuits than learning a new language. It boosts our employability and has the potential to improve our brain functions. Perhaps more importantly, it opens us up to incredible conversations with people from cultures and backgrounds different from our own. Yet those who have difficulty accessing education may find themselves excluded from this possibility for enrichment.
Learning disabilities can make education in a native language difficult to overcome, let alone in an unfamiliar tongue. Educators, parents, and learners need to gain a practical understanding of how this combination adds extra obstacles to the learning process. Perhaps more importantly, we all need to explore how we can be creative and proactive in implementing techniques that can make multilingualism more accessible.
We’ll take a closer look at how best to approach learning a language while living with a learning disability. What are some tools, techniques, and ideas that can not just help make the process a little easier, but make for a fulfilling learning experience?
One of the most important things to remember about learning disabilities is there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Often these are on a spectrum or may present themselves with varying severity. This in many ways reflects learning in general, with students’ classroom abilities dependent upon their preferred mixture of learning styles. As such, whether you’re a teacher, parent, or student, it’s important to tailor the language learning experience to suit the challenges at hand.
One way to approach this is by using one of the five educational learning theories. There are some that are entirely focused upon the individual perspectives of each learner. The Humanistic approach seeks to understand the emotional and practical needs of the student and builds the learning program around them. Constructivism can also be well-suited to those with learning disabilities, as it molds the curriculum to the student’s personal experiences both in their prior learning and everyday life. These theories can be used as frameworks upon which to build a tailored program of study.
It can also be useful to know that it is not only the curriculum itself that should be tailored to the students’ individual learning needs. Think about the environment, and how this both affects the student and enhances the syllabus. Are there opportunities to support the theory with practical conversations outside of the classroom environment? Do the exercises capitalize on who the student is and give them opportunities to relate their interests to this new language?
For many students with learning disabilities, traditional education can be frustrating. The tension of learning, alongside navigating the challenges of their disability can also manifest into physical and psychological symptoms of stress. As a reduction in stress can result in performance improvement for students with special educational needs, it should form part of the language learning program to include methods that reduce pressure on the student.
Understanding where the challenges for each student lies can help to guide stress reduction practices in their curriculum. This can include:
- Phonemic Awareness. Those with dyslexia can often find understanding how words break down into sounds As this is one of the primary requirements of learning a foreign language, these students may find this stressful. Be sure to break up phonemic exercises such as learning a new alphabet or introducing vocabulary with other conversational and active exercises to prevent prolonged exposure to stress.
- Sensory Processing. Those on the autistic spectrum can often find different types of stimuli overwhelming. This can also be exacerbated by the social elements of having language learning conversations. Remember to vary the stimulus you’re subjecting the student to; include soft learning experiences such as watching movies in a foreign languageor listening to music.
- Focus. Students with ADHD tend to have trouble staying focused on repetitive or mundane tasks. As repetition often forms part of the language learning curriculum, the stress of maintaining this can be reduced by offering these exercises in a more varied range of stimulus — mix written exercises with verbal and auditory options.
The importance of taking breaks can also not be overstated. This doesn’t necessarily mean extended recess periods, but even varying the learning environment can be useful. Take some classes outside. Research with college students has found that even 10 minutes spent outside can have a positive impact on stress levels. Time outdoors can also be stimulating for creativity and help students to digest their lessons. Find reasons to take learning beyond the walls of the classroom, take field trips to relevant cultural events.
We are fortunate to be living at a time in which quite advanced technology is accessible to many of us. The eLearning industry in general has seen a boom, and language learning tools on mobile and desktop devices are free or low cost. Utilizing technology therefore can be a practical aid in helping those with learning difficulties to access language skills.
Mobile apps such as Duolingo and Memrise can make for useful supplementary learning materials. They provide a gamified approach to learning, using a mixture of written, auditory, and spoken exercises to improve retention. It also allows students to progress at their own pace, reducing the potential for performance anxiety that many learning disabled students experience. That said, it’s important to review these apps for suitability; see whether they are compatible with browser extensions such as Helperbird that alter the user interface to display a dyslexia-friendly font.
Remote tutoring can also be an option for those with learning disabilities, as this can give access to expert guidance while taking place in an environment that the student feels most comfortable in. There isn’t the chaos of other students or the classroom environment. That doesn’t mean to say that this should be isolating; learning a language remotely can include video chats with other learners, and provide opportunities for peer support.
Learning a new language has the potential to enrich our lives and connect us to new cultures. It’s important to ensure that those experiencing learning difficulties aren’t excluded from these opportunities. By tailoring the learning process to the individual student’s needs, keeping a stress free environment, and embracing technology, we can help make sure that global citizenship is accessible to all.
Beau Peters is a creative professional with a lifetime of experience in service and care. As a manager, he’s learned a slew of tricks of the trade that he enjoys sharing with others who have the same passion and dedication that he brings to his work. When he is not writing, he enjoys reading and trying new things.