Is there a ‘disability’ for learning foreign languages?

Classmates help to each other to find something at the globe

Every educator has seen students struggle to learn a foreign language, even those who may excel in other academic areas.

In recent years, educational researchers in both the foreign-language and learning-disability literature have considered the possibility that a new type of disability exists, the “foreign language learning disability (FLLD).”

In an article in the Journal of Learning Disabilities, Richard Sparks, who is credited with identifying this disability, disputes the notion that a foreign language learning disability truly exists, stating that the use of the term “was premature, and, in retrospect, incorrect.”

Why a disability?

For many years, Sparks writes, researchers have attempted to explain why some students have problems learning a foreign language and have considered many possible causes such as language aptitude and native language skills or affective variables such as anxiety, motivation and personality.

Parents and advocates for students classified as having learning disabilities (LD) often automatically assume that the students will have difficulty learning a foreign language, Sparks says. He and his colleagues conducted several studies that hypothesized a connection between LDs and difficulties in foreign-language learning but could not find evidence to support it, he says.

“Because of the increasingly common usage of the term FLLD (e.g., FL disability, disability for FL learning), I thought that it was time to clarify for the record the position that a disability for learning an FL has not been supported by the research literature,” writes Sparks.

Difficult to identify

Sparks says he and his colleagues failed to find evidence of FLLD after conducting studies comparing FL performance by students with and without LD and with and without IQ-achievement discrepancies.

“Our studies have shown consistently that students classified as having LD enrolled in FL courses do not exhibit cognitive and academic achievement differences (e.g., in reading, writing, vocabulary, spelling) when compared to poor FL learners not classified as having LD,” Sparks writes.

“First, students classified as having LD do not always exhibit problems with FL learning,” he notes. “Second, students classified as having LD do not exhibit different learning profiles or more severe FL learning problems when compared to students with FL learning problems not classified as LD.”

The term learning disabilities has been used to refer to a loose collection of problems from underachievement to mental retardation, Sparks says. Professionals continue to disagree about how to define and diagnose many LDs, not to mention how best to instruct students with these labels, he adds. “The consequence of this disagreement,” he says, “has been a loss of confidence in knowing that a student diagnosed as having LD really has LD.”

How to diagnose

The diagnosis of an FLDD is problematic for similar reasons, he says. Proponents of FLLD have suggested several approaches to diagnosis:

  • Discrepancy between scores on standardized measures of intelligence and achievement
  • failing foreign language courses
  • lower grades in foreign language courses
  • discrepancy between intelligence tests and foreign language aptitude tests (e.g.the Modern Language Aptitude Test [MLAT])

Sparks says there are serious problems with all of these approaches. IQ tests have not been found to be a robust predictor of FL proficiency, he says. Some researchers have proposed that an IQ-achievement discrepancy and evidence of impairment in the skill area could be used to diagnose a foreign language learning disability. But Sparks says the courts have ruled that there must be evidence of “substantial impairment” compared to the average person for an LD diagnosis.

He notes that because the average person in the population cannot read, write or comprehend an FL it is difficult to maintain students have a disability. Based on the evidence so far, he adds that an IQ-achievement discrepancy does not seem to “delineate a group of students with unique or more severe native language of FL learning difficulties.” Withdrawal or poor performance in FL courses also is not a diagnostic tool. First, students withdraw from FL courses for many reasons (e.g. maintain a higher GPA, distaste for subject, etc.). Second, classroom grades may be unreliable and may not accurately assess a student’s progress in learning the FL.

Problems with MLAT

Since the late 1960s, the MLAT has been the most widely used FL aptitude instrument, Sparks says. To identify an FLLD, proponents have suggested that a discrepancy between IQ and MLAT and a discrepancy between MLAT and native language achievement scores could point to a disability. Sparks points out that IQ tests and the MLAT are both aptitude tests, so an IQ-MLAT discrepancy cannot be used to diagnose a disability for FL learning.

Others have proposed that a low score on the MLAT could be used to point to an FLLD. Not only is use of one test score to diagnose an LD unsound practice, Sparks says, but the norms for the test have not been updated since 1958. There has been an almost threefold increase in the percentage of individuals completing four or more years of college since 1958, he notes.

Sparks concludes that, based on the evidence, there is not a distinct disability that can be called an FLLD. “Like Ellis (1985) and Stanovich (1988), I take the position that the proper analogy for FL learning problems is obesity, not measles, and that FLLD can be operationally defined and diagnosed only in an arbitrary manner,” Sparks says.

One implication of his research, Sparks says, is that educators should question their policies for course substitutions or waivers from FL requirements with a classification of LD. An LD classification is irrelevant in determining whether a student will exhibit FL learning problems, he says. “In my view,” he concludes, “the focus of native and foreign language educators and researchers should be on developing effective methods for teaching FLs to low-achieving students.”

“Is there a “disability” for learning a foreign language?” by Richard Sparks, Journal of Learning Disabilities, Volume 39, Number 6, November /December 2006, Pp. 544-557.

Published in ERN January 2007 Volume 20 Number 1

25 Responses to “Is there a ‘disability’ for learning foreign languages?”

  1. elisabetta

    The whole dealing of the matter has wrong theoretical basis.

    First it ignores the linguistic literature on the subject of the years fifities through eighties dealing with the interpretation of language “problems”. not disabilities in native, second and foreign language learning due to langiage contact.

    Secondly, psychologists and what is worst psychoanalists, are not linguists with a phono-graphologica preparation and ignore the structural relation between the phonological-phonetic system and the writing system of the first language, as language tests document mixing up, for example, letters of the alphabet with phonetic interpretation. The related intrasystemic interference in reading and writing abilities conditions the development of an implicit competence for the development of reading and writing abilities.

    Third, no attention is paid to preliminary steps in language literacy having to do with the phonetic representation of sounds to be transferred in graphic material for writing by children.

    Fourth great methodological bias lies in the presentation of didactic language corpus in L1 and L2 teaching.

    Our studies related to the graphic-phonic relation as referred to speakers of Italian and a local dialect and contrastive analysis among foreign languages and native languages can explain a conspicuos amount of “problems”, not disabilities, besides aspects of motivation and affectivity in first and second language learning.

    The very analysis of “interlanguage” systems confirm the typology of evidenced problems and suggest diverse language learning strategies.

    Specifically, the training of teachers is not fit for the problems and the neurolinguistic interpretations only confirm the specificity of the acquisition of the phonological system as a habit behaviour.

  2. ginnae

    While I appreciate the comments of elisabetta, students who demonstrate difficulty grasping certain concepts are those who make educators suggest the existence of a foreign language learning disability. I am not a linguist; I am not a researcher in the discipline of Education. I am a HS teacher. Therefore, I am on the front-line and am not well versed in contemporary research and findings. Please excuse my surface scratching approach, if it offends the erudites. 🙂

    IN my 20 + years as a FL instructor, I have encountered only 4 students who would make me consider this LD. And their situations were valid examples of “disability”. They were/are intelligent people, capable of understanding and being successful in different subject areas (history, literature, even mathematics). One in particular made me wonder if she had a mild form of dyslexia, because she had difficulty with structural presentation of subject matter (conjugations, adjective agreement, etc) and geometry.

    IF a student has difficulty GRASPING and RETAINING the CONCEPT of conjugation, verb tense and syntactical differences between mother tongue and the language (adj agreement, pronoun placement, etc) learned in the classroom, it seems this would point to an LD. There is an obstacle that prevents the student from “(re)producing” concepts taught in class. They understand during class, and get it, but cannot recall and apply the knowledge in an assessment or productive situation. Continued repetition and practice do not have an effect. However, I will freely admit that I am not next to the student when he or she is supposed to be practicing independently. :-).

    The most common “symptoms” I have observed with these students were/are BLANK STARES, TEMPORARY COMPREHENSION, TEMPORARY RETENTION, FRUSTRATION, and finally “CHECK-OUT”. This includes exhausting approaches of inversion, cross-cultural or language comparisons, whole language (sink or swim) and using the concept of “Universe” (DC and Marvel Universes do not exist on the same plain. There are ways of communicating in the English universe that differ from the German and Romance Language universes).

    Has there been any research in countries where FL is “de rigor”, i.e. the European nations, and bi-lingual or polyglot nations such as Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, etc. And best of all, CHINA???


  3. Joanne

    I fully believe there is a foreign language disability. I have a high IQ and graduated with honors from high school and college. I was a very motivated student but I simply could not learn a language because I could not retain the vocabulary. I was able to learn it on the short term for tests hence getting by in low level courses in high school (non-college prep Spanish.) I worked harder on Spanish than any other subject. Because I was one of the top students in my class, I was subjectively given higher grades than I actually earned, but while all my SAT scores were around 700 my Spanish SAT was 450 after three years of high school Spanish.

    This kept me out of my first choice colleges and I took a major that did not require a language. When encouraged by my professors to get a PhD, I declined because there was a foreign language requirement that I knew I could not pass. I never knew what the problem was until later in life when I heard of FLLD. In my case I think it’s some sort of memory processing issue. It never made any sense because I excelled in English, including vacabulary tests. I was always well above grade level in reading. In all my classes including sciences (my ultimate major) I learned new concepts quickly and easily.

    To this day I can not remember names that are foreign no matter how hard I try. They just feel like a jumble of letters that I can’t sort out, and yet English words do not, even if unfamiliar. While not all poor achievement in foreign language is FLLD, I think in some cases (perhaps a small percentage) there is an issue that would qualify as a FLLD.

  4. Matt

    I am a native English speaker in my mid 40’s (British) and I have always had great difficulty with foreign language learning, despite trying various methods to acquire a second language.

    I consider myself to be an intelligent person – I have a First Class Honours degree in a scientific and engineering discipline from an English university and I have never had any difficulty in understanding and applying concepts in other fields of study.

    I have lived in a Russian speaking country for over 10 years, and I am married to a native Russian speaker (who is also fluent in English amongst other languages).

    I have had formal tuition and used extensive self tuition in Russian during this time, and I have been exposed to the language and used the language as best I can on daily basis for over 10 years with both bilingual and Russian only speakers.

    After all this time and exposure to the language, I would estimate that I understand only roughly 60% of the spoken Russian I hear. However, my ability to speak Russian is incredibly poor. I have great trouble recalling certain vocabulary and also difficulty with all grammatical constructs of the language (verb conjugation, tenses, cases, gender and adjective related endings etc). I haltingly speak the language, but with a huge number of errors and as time passes I do not improve.

    After 10 years of exposure and attempted use of a language in a native environment, I would expect to be fluent to some degree in the language. However I would describe myself as at best low intermediate. It has been an immense struggle and hugely frustrating.

    My children (both under 9 years old) have been exposed to Russian and English languages since birth, and both are fluent in these languages with a vocabulary consistent with their ages. They use both languages completely naturally, without thinking – it is as if they have two native languages! They switch effortlessly between the two languages, depending upon whom they are speaking with.

    I have read various theories that children are wired to acquire language from a young age and that this language acquisition ability is believed to diminish with age. My experience certainly seems to bear this theory out.

    I believe that certain adults retain this child-like language acquisition ability to a later age than others and those that lose it early are the ones who have immense difficulty in acquiring a foreign language. Whether one could classify this as a disability I do not know.

    However, one constant theme that I have discovered in the country I live in is that all of the fluent bi-lingual people I know (including my wife) acquired their additional languages as children and before the age of puberty. I have not met a single person who became fluent (to a native-like standing including accent) during (later) adulthood. I am not saying such a person does not exist, just that I have never met such a person!

    • Maarit

      Matt – i think that you have hit upon a critical clue to language acquisition. I was fluent in four languages by the time i turned 12, yet struggled mightily with trying to learn German (the foreign language requirement) in college. I barely passed and it was the one class that i really worked hard at. That being said, there are several people in my family who became fluent in various languages as adults (most due to resettlement post-WWII).
      I believe that there is something unique about language acquirement & retainment which our current educational system is missing completely and I am hoping that someone will be able to discover the solution. While i won’t dismiss the possibility of a language-learning disability, I think there is much more to it than that. Otherwise it would appear that as i matured, i developed a “disability” that precluded me from learning German but had no effect on me when i learned Finnish, Estonian, Swedish, and English.
      As i re-read your post, it occurred to me that language acquisition is not unlike learning a melody, except that as we age, we appear to become more cacophonic – not that we make a terrible noise but rather that we become unable to discern and match pitches…perhaps this isn’t a great analogy but it makes sense to me in some weird way. Music learning can be equally confounding to some as language learning is to others, yet children exhibit facility in learning both. Both seem to require a kind of mental elasticity that functions differently than learning math, science, or history.
      Matt, I empathize with your frustration and i commend you for persisting in mastering Russian. I hope that you will find the secret key to fluency.
      Best wishes,

      • Matt

        Maarit – thank you very much for your kind words and encouragement.

        A year has passed since I wrote that post and unfortunately my Russian remains as poor as it was when I wrote it. I recently started a new job and last week I was in a 2 hour meeting that was conducted entirely in Russian. I struggled to participate and struggled to follow the rapid conversation between the multiple speakers.

        I left the meeting with a splitting headache because I was concentrating so hard on simply trying to follow the speakers and understand their words. Also because of the level of concentration that was required simply for me to follow the speakers, I was unable to analyse the conversation itself, formulate the kind of responses and engage with the speakers – a process that would have happened naturally and effortlessly for me if the meeting had been conducted in English.

        After more than 11 years in the country I am living in, my ability to speak and understand Russian, as poor as it is, has far surpassed any other language that I attempted to learn (French and German whilst at school; I ended up dropping out of the classes because my grades were so poor, whilst I was a straight A student at all other subjects; later self study in German and Italian).

        Whilst it has taken me all this time simply to become a poor intermediate speaker of the Russian language, I finally realised that I just have to accept that this really is the limit of my abilities in language acquisition, and stop beating myself up about it!!


    • michael

      You are a hero Matt . I could never go to a foreign country and try to learn another like you’ve tried . all people I’ve know and heard about who speak more then one language learned them when they where really small . If i could go back in time , I would ‘e started when i was a little kid, and also done better in school, ha ha . I have to be strong and come to the realization that no matter how much I try , I Will not be able to learn it naturally like English . God bless you and your family .

      • Matt

        Thanks for your comments Michael. Almost two years have passed since my original post and I’m still struggling with Russian language, still no obvious improvement. I guess this is as good as it gets for me :)) Best wishes, Matt.

  5. michael

    Yes , I truly believe this is a true disability .Before I being , I was diagnosed with aspergers when I was 17 . Ever since I was a little boy any language , besides English, did not click in my brain . As a kid I had to tell my family to speak English to me whenever they spoke Portuguese when it seems anyone else would of understood it natural . Now it wasn’t till I was 24 year’s old when I fell in love languages . Thats when the anger and frustration started . I took a Spanish class , did not work , I’ve had tutors , Tried learning by reading , nothing work no matter how much I tried . It seems to me now I’m simple not wired for it . I have a super memory and can remember things most people can’t , But a language , no matter how much I hear it , does not click . They need to make this an official disability asap so people and kids don’t get anger and their hopes crushed all the time . Thank you and happy new year

  6. Annie

    I also believe there is an undiagnosed underlying remembering disability that prevents otherwise competent and educated people from acquiring a foreign language. Someone close to me has this problem, and despite full immersion in a foreign language environment for over 7 years and constant willingness to engage, has been limited to simple requests and information, and even those can be unstable.
    In their native language, they exhibit other slight “executive function” disabilities – a lack of self-checking on what they actually said against what they think they said, e.g., saying “I want this one.” and thinking they said, “i don’t want this one.” They fully believe they said “I don’t want” and will be strongly defensive when challenged. This probably comes from a combination of their need to hide what they think of as any “incompetence” and denial to themself of their slight disability.
    I think that what is happening is that their thoughts have moved on, and the loop that would self-correct is not there. They also exhibit slippage in less common words in English, often forming compound words or choosing a word with a quite different meaning which is similar in sound to the word sought. Again, no self-checker. This may also be associated with their high level of short and long term memory “forgetting” or eliding events into compound memories, with fragmentary details from different events cobbled together. The positive side of this is creativity and lack of a “box” to think inside.
    Does this ring any bells with anyone?

  7. Maarit

    As a person who grew up bi-lingual and became fluent in two additional languages before turning 12 years old, it has been mystifying to observe my honor-student daughter failing language class after language class at college. She is a straight-A student in all of her other classes except the foreign language ones. She studies diligently, utilizes ancillary language helps on-line and via listening apps, seeks additional help, etc. and still cannot pass the class.
    While having a learning disability is a plausible theory, I can’t help thinking that learning a language successfully is a process unlike any other and the manner in which it is currently taught in schools and universities is ultimately a colossal failure even for those students who successfully memorize the necessary forms and figures to pass or “excel” in class.
    Mastering a language, even at a basic level, requires something quite different than the process to which we are subjecting the students. I suspect that language learning and language retention occurs in a different area of the brain or is acquired differently than we are trying to teach it.
    I believe that we should try to acquire facility in as many languages as possible, however, the current method is not working. I don’t believe that even the students who passed the language courses would consider themselves facile in the language. This is not due to a universal learning disability, i suspect it has more to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of how language is acquired.

    • Vladimir

      You are absolutely right. It is misunderstanding of process in principle. Everybody is able to master two-three foreign languages but by the other method for people without linguistic abilities.

  8. Char Char Binks

    If there is such a thing as FLLD, I suspect that about 97% to 99% of all people have it. For the vast majority of people, success in acquiring a second language is difficult after age seven, and almost impossible after age 12. Foreign language programs in public schools are a colossal failure, and all foreign language teachers should be dismissed as frauds.

  9. Maureen

    I was a top student but could not learn a foreign language. I passed the classes bc I could read and write in Latin and then French by studying for hours. My biggest problem was in understanding the spoken foreign language and I could not speak in the language.
    I was a teacher for students with disabilities for many years. I did have some students who had auditory discrimination problems ( one student could not tell me if dog and boy started with the same letter and he was in 1st grade). Auditory discrimination problems are usually addressed by the Speech therapist and most times during early intervention programs.
    I believe that any student can have an auditory discrimination. Disability .I believe that I had t his and continue to have difficulties.( I cannot speak or understand “pig Latin” – have difficulty with spelling – and I cannot understand when an adult spells out a word bc a child is around. My 5 year old daughter would understand and tell me what was said. ) My son seems to have a similar problem.
    I have been trying to research this for years and I’ve not been able to find much information. I appreciate that this is being studied.

  10. Amit

    I would be a great case study.

    I was born in the USA but spoke only my dad’s language of Punjabi. I never spoke a word in all my classes because I couldn’t speak English. I remember trying but my brain wouldn’t think. Then all of a sudden, in a course of 3-6 months, it flipped. All I spoke was fluent English and couldn’t speak any Punjabi.

    It has plagued me my entire life. I tried learning Punjabi as a teenager but I was able to pick up reading and writing but not a single word of Punjabi.

    In high school, I took a year of Spanish and failed it. I picked up reading and writing but my brain would lock up trying to speak it.

    In college, I had to take a foreign language and took sign language. I had no struggle learning it and passed.

    When I watch Indian movies and you tell me to essentially to repeat a sentence I just heard, even though I can understand what was said(translate it to English) but if you ask me to repeat what I just heard in punjabi, it’s like my brain locks up.

  11. Robert

    Matt, my experience is similar to yours. I’ve known my German wife for 15 years, lived in Germany for 10, listened to my kids speak German and English fluently, but, after 4 attempts to learn German I am at a loss. I can’t hold on to anything I learn to the extent that I get fed up and retreat in a world of English. I’m now trying to find help and look at alternative methods. Something is nagging me that I have a learning block deep down and I’m considering hypnotherapy or a psychologist to try and unlock.

    • JAH

      I had a foreign language instructor/ tutor who said I was “thinking too much” and did not let my ,memory retention flow, but as hard as I tried I could not retain much of the words. Nothing will ever make me of the those people who can rattle off a foreign language. Do not be hard on yourself, not everyone is the same though sometimes it seems as though educational institutions expect everyone to be a language magnet.

    • Matt

      Robert, thanks for your comments. Did you try hypnotherapy and if so were there any positive results?

  12. Alonso Quijada

    I empathize with people’s failure of retaining vocabulary and/or complex structures too. Yet, I find it odd that the inability to retain or learn a language must have now a label:FLDD. What would be next? EnglishDD? This does not mean that LD is not real as well as other well documented disabilities by true qualified experts.

    As a professor of both theatre and languages for the past 20+ years I believe there is an underlying factor involved in language acquisition and becoming proficient (not fluent), practice, immerse yourself, and be open to fail and learn Languages. Learning a language requires beyond the basics, immersion, and engaging in the culture, allowing yourself to fail as well as starting again and again.

    Language learning is akin to working out, going on a diet, to put it mildly a change of lifestyle. Just as you figure out that you can no longer tolerate lactose or allergic to certain foods and change the way you eat, sleep, walk, etc., language acquisition for proficiency is the same. One cannot simply say, I will go to school, college, and/or buy tapes and become proficient. No one learns languages three times a week for 50 minutes in a classroom. I expect you go there to practice last night assignment. Teaching, language grammar only doesn’t work either. That is a dinosaur approach.

    Language requires heavy investment. You have to breathe it, live it, drink it, think it, until you get a splitting headache. It is not an immediate reward –It has nothing to do how smart you are or have an IQ of a genius. Nope. Nothing to do with that. Can you memorize? Can you repeat and imitate the sounds of any language, dialect and/or accent? Can you discern southern accents from northern, Midwestern, etc.? Can you tell the difference from a South African accent and a New Zealander or Australian? Can you discern British accents from Welsh, Scottish, Irish? If you can, you have an ear for languages. Now your other tool is your mouth, your producer of sounds.

    Speaking a foreign languages teaches you to forget the way you have always spoken. You have to articulate and pronounce consonants and vowels the way the natives do. Remember, listen, imitate, repeat, and forget the way you speak, learning requires opening yourself up new things and investing in it regardless how weird or self conscious you sound speaking another tongue. And that is an obstacle in itself. If you are hard on yourself and don’t allow to be silly, fail, laugh at yourself, and then go at it… you will abandon any new language approach you encounter. (Perhaps even life).

    Languages has been made possible in your brain yet as they say if you don’t use it you lose it. There are studies regarding parts of the brain that have been allocated for languages at an early age. The brain being the wonderful organ that it is, does what logic will dictate it to do, if you don’t use it, finds a use for that space. Nothing is wasted in our gray matter. Yet, studies have found this area reactivated and begin to expand. Muscle memory? Brain memory? Why do you remember the basic things in a foreign language? Bathroom, drinks, name, thanks? Because we categorize by necessity, by what we need it for, the practical. So expand to what you need, to know, to do, to communicate, etc.

    Somewhere in this post was said that colleges and high school teach languages poorly or the methods they use. I agree. The studies in languages in the 80’s and 90’s were a bit useless. Only the strong thrived and learned somewhat. Today, for the past 10 years, language teaching has been revised, studied, analyzed, by linguists, creating new pedagogical and social approaches. Studies have concluded that the approach to language must be communicative (real authentic situations), include culture (the other), community (worldwide web, local and abroad), make connections (how this works here and there), make comparisons (that’s how we learn about ourselves and others) . And finally, immersion. Allow yourself or your child to study abroad, to see and experience the world. Not a week or two weeks, a semester, a quarter or a whole year. Your daughter, son, student, will thank you. Learn the basics, then jump into that vast sea and swim.

    So I must agree with Sparks, do not label something to denote it as an impossibility — we love to make excuses or find blame with others. Giving up is easy, changing our habits, lifestyle, now that is hard but it is doable. Stick with it, keep at it, eventually you will become more proficient than you thought you could. Make a promise to yourself and short term goals. Then move to the other goals. Start small, finish big.

    • Laura

      With all due respect, Alonso, I don’t feel you really read the comments here. Or took them seriously. I don’t know how your “there’s no excuses” response is supposed to be helpful to educated, full-grown adults.

      Over and over again I read the comments from people who are successful in every other aspect of their lives but, according to you, are suddenly not trying hard enough or making excuses in this one respect. It makes no sense because in many cases our entire lives depend on foreign language acquisition. We are hard-working and responsible and we have gone through enough shame and frustration in our learning process, thank you.

      I’m 56 years old, with two degrees, including one in teaching. I moved to the Netherlands from Canada 13 years ago fully enthusiastic about learning Dutch. I started self-learning with books and tapes from my local library months before I moved, but assumed my lack of progress was only because I needed to be immersed in Dutch society with other Dutch speakers.

      How wrong I was. Much like Matt, I would say at best I am at a two-year-old’s level in understanding spoken Dutch. As a result, my speaking is equally as pathetic relative to the effort I have put in. I’m 5,000 euros in debt from courses. It took me 10 years to pass the government-mandated “inburgeringsexamen” when it should have taken me three. And that’s only at the A2 level, which is useless in the job market and pretty much anything else except shopping and making doctor’s appointments.

      I suffered burnout six years ago working full-time at a stressful marketing job in an English-speaking company while taking Dutch courses. I’m better now, but my age, combined with the time off from work, has rendered me unemployable in this country. I’ve been yelled at, snubbed, nagged, and sneered at, because I’m “supposed” to be fluent now, no excuses. I tried accessing a free course through the city of Rotterdam a month ago — because I refuse to give up — but left the intake in tears when the teacher got angry at me for not understanding and speaking Dutch during the interview. They can understand foreigners who can speak and understand but not read, but have no capacity to understand when a learner grasps the written language but can’t understand Dutch when it is spoken. I believe most of these teachers are trained to deal with immigrants and refugees rather than “highly skilled” expats who may or may not be educated or literate. They don’t know what to do with me — educated and “western” but too broke to afford expensive “expat” Dutch lessons. As a result, they yell at me and tell me I’m not trying hard enough.

      I have no idea why — when I was always the “smart kid” in school — a foreign language is impossible for me. Perhaps you should do less “assuming” and more research before you rush to conclusions, Alonso. Because I am sick and tired of the condescending finger-wagging from “experts” who are only used to teaching mainstream learners, not ones having learning difficulties.

  13. Patricia

    There are individual differences that impact foreign language learning: motivation, memory, cultural background, mother tongue, among others. Researchers have found that if you can grasp the phonetics of a language it would be easier (or less difficult) to overcome the challenges. We have used a combined program (for English) that entails phonetics, rehabilitation practices in the hearing field, coaching, music, textbooks, and people start listening, understanding, and speaking better even if their vocabulary is not large.

    But mainly, the problem that so many learners face is anxiety. If a person is expected to highly achieved (because of his or her scores in other fields) in foreign language, the pressure can actually block the brain. Again, every person is different.

    There is an article of a Japanese person who lives in Vancouver, about why Japanese can’t speak English well. And she claims one of the main reasons being the Japanese culture; where failing and making mistakes in front of others is a disgrace. Because of this, learners refuse to practice avoiding the embarrassment.

    Regarding the question of this article, I think it could be possible that the “disability for foreign languages” actually exists, because the test (MLAT) is based on cognitive psychology and neuropsychology, in other words it is designed not from a linguist’s viewpoint but from the mere human learning processes.
    In my humble opinion a college or university degree should never be restricted just because a person cannot speak a second language, which is what is happening in Mexico: outstanding graphic designers (recipients of several awards), and amazing chefs, are being withheld their degrees because they have failed to achieve a B2 level (CEFR) in their English test ! Of course, unless you want to be a diplomat or linguist, these restrictions should be reviewed and assessed.

    Again, every person is equipped with abilities to a different degree, and therefore each case needs specific attention.
    One size doesn’t fit all.

  14. Lori

    I think that evaluating students who are struggling with language acquisition not for a disibility but for signs of unresolved trauma would be tremendously helpful. The combination of an over-aroused limbic region combined with an under-aroused cerebral cortex makes many of the processes necessary for learning much less available.

  15. Ainsley

    I have wanted so desperately to be bilingual, multilingual but have been unsuccessful in grasping another language. I have been a high honors student since elementary school and am now mid-way through a 2nd master’s degree. Not only have I not been able to learn another language, I have a difficult time understanding those who have a thick accent whether it be foreign or just talking to a friend in Alabama who has a southern accent. If they speak too fast, I have to ask that they repeat themselves once, twice or more in which they end up frustrated. It’s frustrating for me as well. There are also some that speak as if they have marbles in their mouth, jumbled and I have no idea what they have said. I was informed many years ago that this was a ‘disability’ but was never told exactly what disability it was. Does anyone happen to know specifics? Thank you in advance.

  16. Martin

    It is interesting what problems exist with learning a foreign language. Some people say problems with learning is anxiety and just relax – but this does not exactly help. I have tried to learn french for 18 years and have never got to the bottom of it. I agree with some of the comments with keeping going with languages and not giving up – but not sure they realize the barriers that are there.
    I have an engineering degree, can learn an incredible amount of vocabulary in languages, be well structured, grammar is easy and I can practice continuously. I am well motivated and want to learn languages. However can I understand what people say? It freaks me out. Listening to tapes in class and trying to discern what people are saying is a nightmare,
    Originally I put it down to hearing problems. Honestly, when people talk in a foreign language I am lost. The most obvious phrase that one utters – I sometimes cannot work out what they are saying. I have ‘over learned’ the French language but it seems like a bottomless pit of effort without any improvement in working out what people are saying. The main problem is trying to discern what people are saying. My mother was a cleft pallet and I believe there are hearing related problems here particularly with high frequency hearing loss. Interestingly I have the same problems with music in discerning pitches and tones. If languages are like music then this may explain much. Would be grateful if anyone incurred the same problem and relate to this problem.

  17. Cheri

    Does anyone have information to offer parents of high school students that believe taking a foreign language is a must, which means eliminating remedial courses in English, often basic reading and writing. I have a list of colleges that do not require a foreign language or who will accept American Sign Language as a fulfillment for that requirement. Is there an authoritative paper, web site, research or other such reference I can use to support my claim that a concerted focus on English literacy first to gain solid proficiency there outweighs the desire to take foreign language classes, even and especially when higher ed is the goal?



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