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  • Writer's pictureErica Klein Grasp Reading

Learning Additional Languages and Dyslexia

Updated: May 22, 2023

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Learning an additional language is tough, but there are so many benefits. We all know that starting young gives us the best result, but what of our students with extra challenges? Is it too much? If Canada is a bilingual country, aren't we all supposed to know two languages?

Canada's bilingualism (or lack thereof) isn't really the point of this post, however. I do want to share my thoughts on dyslexia and additional language learning. I, and many of the students I tutor, live in the only officially bilingual province in Canada, New Brunswick (which was a surprise to our family when we moved here knowing nothing about the province or that provincial bilingualism was a thing). In practice, this means that there are a large number of primarily English-speaking students in French Immersion programs. This presents a bit of a conundrum when parents discover that their child has dyslexia. What does it mean to be learning to read and write in two languages when you may have additional reading/writing challenges to overcome?

Many teachers, tutors, and parents will suggest that if a student is struggling in school, the first thing to do is get them out of the immersion program (if they ever entered one, anyway). If learning things in your first language is already a challenge, why add the challenge of learning another language on top of that? There is certainly some sound logic to this line of thinking. There are a number of challenges a person with dyslexia faces when learning additional languages, in an immersion program or otherwise, including:

  1. Reading, writing, and spelling are all critical components of language learning. Now we have that x2 languages. Additional language learners with dyslexia will require additional support to help them overcome these difficulties. The language being learned can be easier or more difficult than the native language. For instance, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese may be easier to learn because they are more consistent in the way they are read and spoken. French and English have a lot of inconsistent spellings, silent letters, and do not offer one to one correspondence between sounds and letters. (They came to play with eight great trains on the table.)

  2. Immersion programs can be overwhelming for individuals with dyslexia, as they are constantly exposed to a new language and may still be trying to sort out their first language. This can lead to overstimulation and difficulty in processing information.

  3. Immersion programs may not always provide adequate support for learners with dyslexia. Teachers and other support staff may be trained to provide support in English, but not French ... or they have no training to support dyslexic students. They are limited in their time and ability to provide targeted support to students that are having a tough time.

  4. Parents, whether or not it is fair or right, will ultimately have the financial and emotional price to pay to help their child. Can services be found (and afforded) in both languages? Can a parent of caregiver help with the second language? Does the child need services such as speech therapy and can they be provide in both languages?

There is a lot to consider when deciding whether to stick with immersion, but I don't believe it is all negative. Here are some of the benefits of an additional language program (whether French or any other language) for students with dyslexia:

  1. Increased exposure to the target language! Immersion programs provide learners with an opportunity to be fully immersed in the language they are trying to learn. This means they are constantly hearing and speaking the language, which can help them develop their skills more quickly than if they were learning in a traditional classroom setting. Research has shown that the earlier we are exposed to a new language, the easier it is to learn. If one parent can speak the target language at home, from the beginning, this is even more beneficial. The child may not grow up to easily read both languages, but there are many doors opened to those who speak and understand more than one language.

  2. Being in a *thoughtfully taught* immersion program can help improve language skills, including grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. It can also help with comprehension, as learners are exposed to a wider range of language and are forced to adapt to the language in real-life situations. I don't know if I really understood what it meant to "conjugate a verb" until I had to do it in French. Learning the grammar of another language can force you to more closely examine the grammar of your first language.

  3. Improved cognitive skills: Studies have shown that learning a second language can help improve cognitive skills, such as problem-solving and memory retention. This could help children with dyslexia, who may struggle with these skills. It could also cause a struggle, however, if the cognitive load is too great.

  4. Learning an additional language provides learners with an opportunity to learn about the culture of the target language. They have access to books, stories, poetry, and information that isn't found in their native language. This can be a valuable experience, as it can help promote understanding and appreciation of different cultures and ways of life. It is empowering for a child to have information beyond what their parents may have. If you are not bilingual but your child is learning two languages, they get to enjoy the opportunity to demonstrate that they are better at something than a parent.

Overall, learning additional languages and dyslexia may not make the easiest path forward, but learning a second language through opportunities like an immersion programs can offer many benefits for individuals with dyslexia. It is important to be aware of the potential challenges and to seek out appropriate support when needed. Remediation in one language WILL help. Understanding that phonemes (sounds) connect to graphemes (letters) and words are not a random picture, but something to be sounded out and decoded is a skill that a student could potentially apply to a second language. However, the ideal would be explicit, systematic reading instruction and additional support in both languages. Each family must weight the benefits and costs of learning a second language.

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