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Curriculum & Instruction        < Previous        Next >


Sacre Bleu! 'Foreign Language Learning Disability'


Q. What if a child does very well in most academic subjects, but just cannot learn a foreign language? These kids don't appear to "hear" the different pronunciations and can't pick up on the different grammatical structures and so forth. What can be done for them?


A lot of the kids themselves want to get out of foreign language class, and use the designation of "foreign language learning disability" as an excuse.


But in the Journal of Learning Disabilities (November/December 2006), Richard Sparks writes that there isn't really a "foreign language disability." Studies of students who have been identified as "learning disabled," or who have lower IQ's, have failed to demonstrate that there is such a thing as a disability in language skills, he said.


Yes, there are students who do very well in other academic subjects, but bomb in their foreign language (FL) class. But it's not because there's a disease or syndrome that creates a learning disability (LD) that's holding them back, he writes.


"First, students classified as having LD do not always exhibit problems with FL learning," he notes. "Second, students classified as having LD do not exhibit different learning profiles or more severe FL learning problems when compared to students with FL learning problems not classified as LD."

Sparks says the courts have ruled that there must be evidence of "substantial impairment" in a student's learning ability, compared to the average person, for a diagnosis of "learning disability" to hold up. Because the average person in the American population cannot read, write and comprehend a language other than English, it is difficult to maintain students have a disability.


The Modern Language Aptitude Test, or MLAT, is a foreign-language placement test that measures phonetic coding ability, grammatical sensitivity, memory ability, and inductive language learning ability. Some educators believe a low score on the MLAT can indicate the presence of a foreign-language learning disability. But Sparks pointed out that using one test score is not a sound way to diagnose a special-education problem. Also, the norms for the test have not been updated since 1958. Meanwhile, nearly three times as many people are going to college as back then, so those on the lower end of the aptitude scale are going to be taking classes for comparison purposes.


Based on Sparks' research, schools probably should not allow course substitutions or waivers from foreign language graduation requirements. Instead, attention should be paid to how language is being taught in the early grades. If the school is using Whole Language reading instruction techniques, the kids are being handicapped from language ability. If the school uses systematic, intensive, explicit phonics, and only phonics, the kids are being set up for success on down the road, both with English and with foreign language.


It is probable that schools that concentrate on giving students good instruction in phonetics, grammar, memorization and other language skills won't have as big a problem with them being ill equipped to pick up a foreign language - an important skill in this day of global communications.


Homework: Read more about it in this article on Educational Research Newsletter:


By Susan Darst Williams Curriculum 04 2008


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