Language Learning Disabilities – How to Help!

We’ve talked a lot about children learning a second language and growing up bilingual. However, there is an important topic we have yet to delve into. That is, the relationship between learning disabilities and learning a foreign language.


The number of children with learning disabilities is a number that will continue to grow along with the population. And still, as this number increases, so does the number of techniques that enable and help these children learn and reap the fruits of studying a foreign language.

Children with special needs may need some accommodations, but they can very well learn a new language just as they would without having been diagnosed with a learning disability.

When tackling this topic, the first thing we should discuss is what may cause a child’s language learning disability.

While it can be similar to other learning disabilities, a study by Harvard professor Dr. Kenneth Dinklage, proved that there are a few peculiar aspects of learning disabilities in the study of foreign languages.

According to an article on LDOnline, Dr. Dinklage became curious to the fact that some of the brightest minds of Harvard University were having trouble or not passing their language classes. These were students in the pinnacle of academia in their fields, who somehow just couldn’t clear the bar of learning a new language.

In his study, Dr. Dinklage disproved a commonly blamed factor in language learning disabilities. He discovered that, unlike many thought, language learning disabilities were not the result of anxiety. It was the other way around. These were confident students who had never failed a class before. And with this in mind, Dr. Dinklage concluded that anxiety could not have been the source factor behind their failure, but it was actually one of the consequences of that failure.

Through student interviews and more study, he managed to discover that many of those students had been previously diagnosed with learning disabilities. While others, whose disabilities had not yet been diagnosed, ended up having those learning disabilities triggered by the language class.

Another study, conducted by college psychologists Leonore Ganschow of the University of Miami, Ohio, and Richard Sparks of Mt. St. Joseph’s College, pinpointed a few more specific aspects of learning disabilities with respect to foreign languages.

These researchers discovered that most students who have difficulties learning a second language have trouble with what they called “phonological awareness.” This means that these students struggled with the basic sound units of the language and they did not recognize or manipulate those basic sounds efficiently. This struggle, in turn, may affect their whole learning process, as they might experience comprehension difficulties as well as trouble with speaking and spelling.

The interesting part of this study is that they argued that these challenges may have ties back to the learning of the student’s native language. These could even be subtle problems that end up being ignored and pile up until they come crashing down like a house of cards once the student has to face a foreign language class.

Now that we’ve identified these possible causes of language learning disabilities, there are a couple of approaches that could ease the process and aid these students in learning a second language.

Teacher with Orange picture

Teach the sound system of the language. This first approach directly pertains to the findings of Ganschow and Sparks as it aims to counter troubles with the so-called “phonological awareness.” This approach boils down to thoroughly teaching the sound system of the target language. Using engaging methods aided by visual, kinesthetic, and tactile practice, a teacher should present the sound system of the foreign language to new learners. Based on the multisensory teaching method called the Orton-Gillingham Approach, this method commonly used to teach Spanish and German can be quite effective for students with language learning disabilities.

Customize language learning to the student. The second approach is a more traditional one. This tactic would entail the tailoring of language courses to the needs of students with learning disabilities.

Much like the methods used in overcoming learning difficulties in other areas, with this method, teachers would employ a more structured approach to their classes.

For example:

  • Using multisensory learning techniques to maximize attention and retention;
  • slowing down the pace of the class; making use of repetition and providing students with more opportunities to review and practice the concepts learned so they may develop confidence in his or her language skills; and
  • organizing the concepts of learning from simple to complex.

These are all key factors to address in tailoring the experience of foreign language learning to a student with learning disabilities.

Have you heard of any other interesting methods to tackle this issue? We’re all ears and would love to know more about your experiences! Comment on the blog below and be sure to join our newsletter to stay in the know!

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