Learning a language with dyslexia - 10 tips to unlock the barriers

Posted in: foreign languages

To mark the recent Dyslexia Awareness Week, Languages Course Leader Carmen Schembri Wismayer offers some strategies to help students with dyslexia if they’re learning a foreign language.

You might be surprised to learn that, according to the British Dyslexia Association, 10% of the population are believed to have dyslexia. This means that on average in every language class we run, two of our students will have dyslexia-related difficulties.

Dyslexia shouldn't be seen as a disability that hinders people in their daily life but as a specific learning difference in acquiring new knowledge and skills. If you’re dyslexic and you want to learn a foreign language, you can do so successfully. You may just need to do it a bit differently.

Considerations for dyslexic learners

Dyslexia is a language-based learning difficulty. Most recent research suggests that there are neurobiological origins of dyslexia and it is often inherited.

Dyslexic students tend to process verbal information differently from those who don't have dyslexia. They often have shorter memory spans when it comes to processing language input, which may result in a reduced ability to identify and mentally manipulate the sounds and sound structures in a syllable or word.

That's not to say students with dyslexia are always at a disadvantage when it comes to language. On the contrary, they can have keen analytical skills, be very creative, and be good at problem-solving and thinking outside the box. These are all essential qualities when you’re confronted with a new linguistic system and unfamiliar grammar to map and explore.

In this FutureLearn video, students with dyslexia talk about some of the difficulties they face*.

‘Opaque’ vs ‘transparent’ languages

Just like people, languages are all different. Some languages, like German, Spanish and Italian, are considered to be 'transparent' languages with clear sound-letter correspondence. Languages like English, French and Danish, however, are classed as 'opaque' languages with irregularities in spelling and pronunciation.

Students with dyslexia are likely to find a 'transparent' language easier to pick up.

And how about those languages that don’t have an alphabet, such as Mandarin? Learning Chinese entails matching meaning and sound to a specific character. This uses a different part of the brain for processing than an alphabetic language. There have been studies that show dyslexic students have fewer difficulties learning to read and write in character-based languages. (Check out this blog by one of our students of Mandarin Chinese who is dyslexic).

Strategies to help you learn a foreign language

If you have dyslexia, and even if you don’t, here are some tried and tested strategies to make learning a foreign language easier:

  • Use multi-sensory learning – listening to new words, seeing them and writing them down/typing them will help you to retain new vocabulary.
  • Colour code grammar – different colours to represent different genders and different parts of speech will help you to remember newly-learnt material more easily.
  • Regularly review your learning - frequently reviewing what you’ve learnt can help you to connect new information with previous knowledge. Having an overview of the bigger picture will also help you to memorise and retrieve material more easily.
  • Work with peers – reading and speaking with other students will allow you to practise and to share learning in an informal way.
  • Listen to sound patterns – a great way to develop this skill is to watch a foreign film with subtitles in the film's original language. This will reinforce your sound-letter mapping as you listen and read the foreign language.
  • Practise pronunciation – get to know the authentic sounds of a language by downloading some recordings from forvo.com (a free audio database of language) and tackle the individual phonemes (the units of sound).
  • Take a broader interest - meet native speakers of the language you’re studying and discover more about their history and culture. You can do this by taking part in the PAL language scheme, virtual exchange, or a Language Café.
  • Surround yourself with language – try leaving the radio on in a foreign language, listening to songs etc. The more language you’re exposed to, the more your ear will become attuned to it.
  • Use the keyword method – a mnemonic approach to learning vocabulary can help you get the first 300-400 words into long-term memory. It involves finding a word in your native language that sounds like the target foreign word. The most important factor is that both words start with the same sound. Next, create an anecdote and visualise it to connect the meaning of the word that sounds similar to the meaning of the foreign word.
  • Make flashcards for review – repetition and practice are key. Research shows that it's easier to maintain vocabulary if you review words at spaced intervals. Many electronic flashcard programmes today do this for you.

Learning a foreign language is a truly enriching experience that will develop vital communication skills, social experiences and give you greater insight into the values and beliefs of another society.

Having a learning difference like dyslexia shouldn’t be a barrier to this and the Skills Centre's language teachers will support you on your language journey. Go for it!

If you have a question or another tip on learning a foreign language with dyslexia, please comment below. If you need further support managing dyslexia, please contact the Disability Service.

(*Video is from Lancaster University’s ‘Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching’ FutureLearn online course.)

Posted in: foreign languages


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