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