Dyslexia and learning a foreign language

An email discussion list I’m on is currently having a lively discussion on which languages (if any) would be best for a dyslexic student who wants to study a foreign language.

Now, the traditional position of most Orton-Gillingham tutors I know has been that dyslexics should be exempted from the foreign language requirements in school, and allowed to focus their study on learning to read and spell English. Because English contains within it so many different source languages (Old English was a Germanic tongue, but over the course of many invasions and cultural mixings over the last millenium, our current English came to contain bits of Latin, French, Greek, and a whole mess of other influences) one might say that learning English is akin to learning many different languages.

However, as someone who has studied many foreign languages in school, I would argue that there are unique insights one gains from studying another language and culture which should be part of the curriculum for any dyslexic student, given the proper supports. If the goal is for a student to have exposure to another way of thinking and another culture, then there is no reason that a student with dyslexia or another learning disability can’t participate in the foreign language classroom. Now, they are likely to have the same issues in a foreign language as they would have in English- poor spelling, trouble decoding when reading, trouble with the order of phonemes and syllables, maybe even trouble memorizing lists of words and phrases. But, they shouldn’t be hindered in their ability to speak and understand a foreign language, though writing and reading may be more difficult for them than other students.

As far as choosing a language that would be easier for a dyslexic student, many people recommend American Sign Language. This is a full-fledged language and is accepted by most colleges for their foreign language requirements. ASL is unique among human languages in that it is a purely visual/kinesthetic language, and therefore is processed by a different part of the brain than spoken languages. This may make it easier for dyslexics. Also, while there is a process by which you can write down the signs, this is done with English words, and so there is no foreign spelling-system to master. Furthermore, for someone with a learning difference the experience of being able to sign and allowing them to experience Deaf culture would be beneficial.

Another option for a language using a more visual/kinesthetic learning process would be Chinese. I studied Mandarin for two years in college, after many years of wanting to learn it, and it was a very rewarding experience. Yes, it is considered ‘harder’ than other foreign langauges, but this is mostly because of the writing system of characters. To truly be literate in Chinese, one must recognize thousands of characters; however, this uses a visual-processing center of the brain, which is a different area than the one used to process English. Therefore, dyslexic students may not experience the same troubles with reading/spelling as they would in English. One thing that may be more difficult for a dyslexic student learning Chinese would be the great amount of homophones, and getting the pronunciations of the tones correct. If you have a musically-inclined student, however, the tones will be processed in that part of the brain and you needn’t worry. I found speaking/listening the easiest part of learning Mandarin, as well as the grammar. It has a very simplified and logical grammar system compared to English.

Lastly, I would consider a language with a more direct sound-to-symbol ratio than English. This is true for Spanish, and I’m told, Turkish and Indonesian. Also, there are rarer languages which have no written component at all (ie. Hmong, which is taught at the University of Wisconsin). Do some research, and you should be able to find a language which suits your student – and remember that motivation can go a long way toward overcoming the difficulties involved.

One Comment

  1. Dite Bray April 30, 2013 2:15 pm Reply

    As an update to my original post: recent research has shown that native-Chinese dyslexics have similar trouble processing when reading/writing as do English speakers. So my original statement that one uses the visual center of the brain to remember Chinese may not be accurate. To my knowledge, however, no one has done a study showing how a dyslexic English-speaker processes written Chinese. If anyone comes across such as study, please send me the link!

    Also, recent studies have clarified the link between speakers of Cantonese (which has more tones than Mandarin) and having perfect pitch. This link does not appear to exist with Mandarin, which only has 4 tones.

    I do believe that one can learn any language using the elements of Orton-Gillingham which make English dyslexics successful. Chinese characters lend themselves to a kinesthetic approach, as you must learn how to write them, and practice writing them many times.

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