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How Does LD Affect Learning a Second Language?

Foreign Language Learning | Students with LD Learning a Second LanguageFor anyone, learning a second or foreign language can be both exciting and terrifying. It’s exciting because it gives us the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of another culture, but terrifying because everything is new and we often don’t know where to begin. While the prospect of learning a second language is daunting, this may be especially true for someone coping with a learning disability (LD). As a linguist and a language teacher, having taught at both the high school and university level, I’ve had more than one student ask, “How does a learning disability impact language learning?” To start to answer this question, let’s look at some of the research linking LD and language learning, as well as some strategies and options for your child.

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What’s the Link Between LD and Learning a Second Language? While teachers and students have known for years that students with LD may have difficulties in learning a second language, research on LD and language learning is still in its infancy. However, one thing that’s becoming clear is that if children or teens have difficulties with their native language—the one they grew up speaking—they may experience similar difficulties when learning a second language. Just as LD comes in many forms, the way in which your child’s particular abilities impact second-language learning varies tremendously, affecting everything from processing sounds (phonology) to language structure (syntax) and writing. While some children may experience immediate difficulties in the language classroom, others may only show signs of struggle as the amount of language that must be remembered (vocabulary, verb conjugations, sentence structures) accumulates. So, subtle difficulties may grow over time.

The demands of language learning may actually lead to cases in which a previously undiagnosed LD is uncovered in the second-language classroom. There are a number of possible explanations for this phenomenon, one of them being that while some children have developed coping mechanisms that effectively mask problems in the native language, the second language acts as a magnifying glass to expose more subtle difficulties. Essentially, children who’ve been able to “fake it” when working in their native language may have trouble hiding problems when working in a second language.

Foreign Language Learning | How Does it Affect LD?Attempting to explain why LD impacts language learning, a number of researchers, led by Sparks and Genshaw, have proposed that these difficulties hinge on phonological encoding or, simply put, the way in which we perceive, process and remember the sounds of a language. Learning a new language from scratch means perceiving new sounds, ordering them into words, and then ordering the new words—precisely the language skills that are often weak in the first language for children with LD. Compounding this issue is the fact that your child with LD may have a different understanding of how his or her first language works. Imagine the confusion it might cause your child if a teacher makes comparisons between students’ native language and the new, second language that’s being learned. For example, a teacher might say, “This new verb works just like verbs in English.” That’s not always useful for a child with LD.

All that said, LD is not the sole reason your child might underperform in the foreign-language classroom. It could be due to lack of motivation, anxiety, or inefficient language-learning strategies in general. However, as you’ve probably learned by observing your child, these other factors can potentially form a vicious circle: Your child struggles with language learning, which leads to anxiety and lack of motivation, which in turn leads to even greater difficulties.

Continue to the next page for tips to help your child learn a second language.

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