A friend of mine recently passed on an article entitled Why Foreign Language Study is a Great Idea For Students with Special Needs. My initial reaction was a negative one, I have to admit, but after reading the article I (re*)saw the issue from a different perspective. When discussing children with special needs it is inevitable that overgeneralization occurs. Students who have language processing issues may have a harder time learning in a second language when their first language is not consolidated in an age appropriate/needs based manner. The first thought that came to my mind when I read the title of this article was that students with special needs might have a hard time coping in a dual immersion program (the default setting in my language acquisition brain!). Of course there are many other setting where language learning occurs. What I loved about this article is that it highlights the problem solving aspects of language learning as well as the cultural aspects inherent in a second language classroom. It’s a quick read but gave me so much to think about. My initial response came from a stance just like the one that opens the article. I like to think of myself as a teacher who is not overly focused on academics so it gave me a bit of a jolt. When I taught out of school hours French and Spanish (K through 4th grade) we sang a lot of songs, played a lot of games, and the focus was on communication. Looking back I remember that a couple of the students had trouble with language processing in the classroom but this never came up in the language classes. Like Karen says, in a beginning foreign language class everything is broken down and simplified for all learners. There is also an element of problem solving as words and phrases come together. Some students are better at this than others, regardless of their cognitive abilities. Learning more about your own first language is also beneficial for all learners, as Goethe says, “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”
Writing this is like going in a spiral. As I write I’m reminded of a student I tutored in French who has language processing issues. I think I started tutoring her when she was in 7th grade and I stayed with her for at least a few years. Sarah loved learning French despite her difficulty with French grammar. What was particularly difficult for Sarah was writing out verb conjugations, especially as there is no phonetic distinction between (je) mange/(tu) manges and between il mange/ ils mangent. Whenever she was tested on this she didn’t do very well. In general she had supportive teachers and when it came down to writing stories, Sarah let her creative spirit fly and didn’t worry about mistakes. She wrote a story about The Princess and the Paparazzi and it was funnier and more expressive than many stories I’ve read. I haven’t seen Sarah in quite a few years and I can’t remember if she kept her French up, but she always impressed me with her spirit and dedication. It upset me that tests would let her down but unfortunately as you move up the grades they become more and more important. Academic subjects didn’t come easily to her and she had to work a lot harder than many students, but she was willing to do so. So to come half circle, it seems clear that instead of putting a wall up when children with special needs want to learn second (and third!) languages, we should welcome them and give them the support they need. There is so much to be gained from the experience and this outweighs any academic considerations.
*as I was writing I remembered students from my language teaching classes and this would have modified my position, but I don’t want to edit this post so I’m leaving it as it was first written.