Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Language Learning Disabilities: The Ultimate Foreign Language Challenge

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Language Learning Disabilities: The Ultimate Foreign Language Challenge

Article excerpt


In today's world where great value is placed on global understanding, the acquisition of languages is essential. Academics would agree that the study of other languages provides students access to the cultural and intellectual heritage of cultures other than their own. Additionally, such study gives new and different perspectives on the structure and complexity of English. For the majority of students, the fulfillment of the college foreign language requirement is not problematic. But what happens to the individuals who have difficulty fulfilling the requirement? This article describes the special difficulties university students with dyslexia and other language learning difficulties have in satisfying the foreign language requirement. The article also provides a checklist of warning signs that identify students who are at risk for failure in foreign language classes, academic options to help students with language learning difficulties, and recommendations for alternative teaching methodologies for students who do not have the ability to learn a foreign language through traditional teaching methods.


A number of students experience special difficulties in satisfying the college foreign language requirement. The 10- to 15-credit requirement established by most colleges and universities is designed to build on or complement previous language study at the high school level and to ensure that students achieve meaningful proficiency in the target language. At some institutions, students may be exempt from the foreign language requirement either because they have exceeded the placement score range designated by the institution or because they have a documented learning disability which may preclude them from successfully completing this requirement without extraordinary effort. Fulfilling the language requirement is not a problem for the majority of students.

Unfortunately at every institution with this requirement, there are students for whom this requirement is not waived and who simply cannot succeed despite steadfast efforts to turn in their homework on time, seek out their instructors for extra help, attend the language lab faithfully, hire tutors, and spend an inordinate number of hours studying. These are students with undocumented language learning difficulties. In theory, their test scores should be the highest, but in reality, they are the lowest. Instructors watch the motivation and the morale of these hardworking students decline rapidly until the day they drop the course. Some never reenroll in the language class; some reappear the following semester only to subject themselves to more frustration, humiliation, and failure. Others attempt another foreign language, and a few-who are particularly tenacious-attempt a third language.

What can foreign language instructors do for these persistent students who have hit the proverbial brick wall in their academic programs? What is the nature of these special learning difficulties that often go unnoticed until students enroll in foreign language classes? What alternatives or instructional strategies should we consider when teaching them? This article addresses these issues and provides guidelines for assisting students for whom successfully completing a foreign language requirement is an extremely difficult achievement.

Perspectives on Learning Disabilities and Foreign Language Learning

Who are these students? They are students who, while often bright and sometimes gifted, have encountered some difficulties in learning the spoken and/or written code of their native language. Their language learning difficulties are often inherited (Flax et al., 2003) and are often compensated for because these students are highly motivated, work much harder than their peers, and have supportive families who typically provide them with tutors and/or other excellent educational opportunities (Shaywitz, 2003). Some of these students have compensated for their language weaknesses so effectively that they were never tested for a disability or placed in special academic classes. …

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