Learning a second language is not out of reach for students with learning disabilities
By Valle Dwight
When Jacqueline Wellington, 15, was planning her freshman year at high school, she was determined to learn French. Her teachers and counselors said no. Wellington, now a sophomore, has dyslexia and her counselors felt that learning a second language would be difficult, if not impossible for her.
But Jacqueline was not to be deterred, and her mother, Laura Wellington, backed her up. “I understood their point,” said Wellington. “But I overruled them and I’m glad I did.”
Conventional wisdom says that kids with dyslexia are going to have a hard time learning a second language, and many are able to get a pass on school language requirements as part of their IEP.
There are many reasons why a person with LD could struggle in a second language, says Sheldon Horowitz, Director of LD Resources & Essential Information at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). Many have difficulty isolating sounds in words, differentiating between vowels, and mispronouncing similar sounding words. These issues would be exacerbated in a new language, says Horowitz.
“Students with language based learning disabilities may certainly struggle with learning another language because it taps many of their areas of difficulty in learning,” agrees Jana Echevarria, Professor Emerita of Education at California State University, Long Beach.
How much difficulty a student has learning a second language may depend on the extent of their struggles in their native language. Leonore Ganschow of the University of Miami, Ohio, and Richard Sparks of Mt. St. Joseph's College, have studied second-language learning in people with dyslexia and found that people who struggle with phonemic awareness in English will likely find it difficult to master the sounds of another language. If phonemic awareness is not a huge struggle for them, they may be able to converse in a second language, but be unable to master the grammar and writing parts. Or they may be able to read and write the language, but not speak it.