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Avez-vous dyslexie?

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.

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.

Comments from readers

"Yes, I agree"
"test test test "
"I teach English as a foreign Language and I taught dyslexic students for over 10 years. All of them have acquired the language successfully. They have learnt to compensate their weaknesses with their strenghts and have been able to sit for their exams at school. It takes determination and confidence and time but it pays off. What is necessary is to train all teachers on how to deal with students with learning disabilities and adapt activities and exams according to their needs."
"I have a dyslexic 3rd grader and we had to pull her out of Chinese immersion -- too much! But I'm happy to see that it may be possible for her to return to Chinese when she's a little older!"
"My sophomore dyslexic son just finished his first semester of Chinese with an A. It is a small class size with a dynamic teacher. It's been fun for him to learn something out of his comfort zone. "
"As parents, we can't sell our kids short. My son has dyslexia and is currently attending a public foreign language academy high school. He is in his second year of Japanese and first year of Mandarin. He was very excited the first day when he learned that the symbol represents the word and the sounds never change. It hasn't all been easy, but he will be better for having the experience. "
"We had similiar experience with our high school son who happens to be dyslexic. He as able to get through 3 years of Spanish. He does have phonemic awareness issues but does better with speaking than writing -- and forget spelling. "
"My child took French last year and spells as atrociously in French as she does in English. She excelled in every other aspect but because spelling is so important in her school's language classes, she changed to Chinese this year and is excelling, even in 'spelling'."
"Both my kids have documented dyslexia and both wanted to try spanish and finished three years apiece successfully. It an be done if the school allows them to try."
"American Sign Language (ASL) was the foreign language my LD son learned at the local community college prior to his HS graduation, to fulfill the University of California's language requirement. ASL has also come in handy in my son's volunteering at California's summer Youth Leadership Program for Students with Disabilities, as it enables him to speak with deaf students, something that few others who are not actively part of the deaf community can do."
"No, I disagree. I have two children with diagnosed dyslexia, one who has what is sometimes called 'double dyslexia' (problems with both phonemic awareness and sight word recognition). Both children, once they learned to read fluently in English (which is another story in itself), took Spanish at the middle school and 1 now at the high school level. They received A's and B's. Spanish is considered a 'transparent' language in that there is a very close connection between the letter symbol and the sound (unlike English and French for example)One of my children is now taking Mandarin. Mandarin is not a phonemic language at all, it doesn't even have an alphabet. The strengths of some dyslexics is remember visual details, this has come in handy in remember the 'character recognition' that is key for Chinese. Do not give up hope, it is very possible."
"Thank goodness for American Sign Language! I have my students take it at local community colleges. The greatest benefit is my students receive both high school and college credit. ASL also skirts around all the weaknesses of a language based learning disability. So, my kids learn a language, aren't frustrated, all have been successful, and love being able to talk to each other without making a sound!"