Learning a new language with dyslexia
Is it possible to learn a new language with dyslexia?
Children who find learning their own native language a challenge, and adults who remember the struggles they had at school, may be reluctant to even consider a new language. Yet modern foreign languages can be hugely beneficial.
Moving abroad, getting a new job, meeting a new partner, and passing school can all necessitate mastering a new language. It’s a tricky challenge for anyone, and even more difficult for people with dyslexia.
But it’s a myth that people with dyslexia cannot learn a new language. And it’s a mistake not to try – foreign languages open up the world, giving children and adults cultural awareness, confidence, and new experiences.
Today, language learning is not just about reading from textbooks and copying out verbs. It should be a vibrant and rewarding process involving multi-sensory activities – perfect for people with dyslexia.
Dyslexia and language difficulties
Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that affects reading and writing. It may take people with dyslexia longer to learn a new language, and they will encounter some of the same challenges as they did when first discovering English.
Dyslexia can make it hard for people to decode words. Dyslexic people studying a new language may struggle to connect the sound of unfamiliar words with letters. It is more challenging to memorize new vocabulary so it can be retrieved repeatedly. It is also harder to keep words in the brain long enough to decode them.
Kids and adults with dyslexia may miss information and have a tough time staying focused and on task. Complicated textbooks, extensive writing exercises, and long classroom lessons spell language-learning disaster.
But fortunately, there are more effective ways to encounter a new language.
The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity says, “while people with dyslexia are slow readers, they often are very fast and creative thinkers,” which is essential when experiencing a language for the first time. A modified approach to learning a new language boosts success – and enjoyment – for anyone with dyslexia.
Choosing the perfect new language in the first place also helps.
What is the best language to learn with dyslexia?
Certain languages are naturally more challenging for people with dyslexia. French and English, for example, are less “transparent” languages, meaning that the sounds don’t easily match their letter combinations and there are many irregularities.
Spanish and Italian, and German, are more transparent and have a clearer letter-sound match. German shares many words with English.
And languages that use symbols, like Chinese, apply different parts of the brain for learning, which can benefit people with dyslexia. So, if you’re struggling with French, why not try Chinese?
Technology and tools also make the language-learning process less stressful and more positive.
Language learning tools
Modern learners with dyslexia benefit from modern tools. Digital highlighters and text translators make retention easier. Apps for learning allow language proficiency on the go.
Text-to-speech tools are particularly useful.
The LingoPen, for example, supports language learning in a fun way. Scan text and immediately look up unfamiliar words, translate words between languages, and hear the written text spoken aloud to boost language retention. You can also record spoken notes and store scanned text. This tool has over 10 language dictionaries within it, so students with dyslexia never need to struggle with unknown text.
Strategies for language learning
Similar strategies and tools that help children with dyslexia first learn to read and write can be used to teach a new language. A multi-sensory approach is ideal as it promotes understanding and retention in a way that people with dyslexia easily respond to.
Reading and writing a challenge? Then focus on speaking! You are much more likely to have to speak to a person in a new language than write them a note, particularly at the beginning of your language journey.
Other creative strategies also benefit language learners with dyslexia:
- Become familiar with the language sounds – listen to them and repeat them aloud. Use online resources like Forvo.com, a language database.
- Embrace pictures and shapes to learn vocabulary – add images and color around the words on flashcards to help associate words with images and improve retention.
- Use color-coding to separate and distinguish different grammar codes, for example, masculine and feminine nouns.
- Record sentences and words spoken aloud, then play them back whenever you can.
- Make videos or do role plays in the new language.
- Support all activities with an additional option, for example adding written prompts or subtitles to spoken instructions, use a highlighter for reading.
- Watch movies and TV series in your target language with the subtitles in the original language. Don’t panic about understanding at the start, just let the process help you match sounds to letters.
- Use YouTube videos or join an online language exchange.
- Surround yourself with the new language – put on a foreign radio station while you are washing up, download songs, and watch the news in a new language.
Making yourself understood when you first encounter a new language is what counts – worry less about spelling, perfect grammar, and fluent sentences. In fact, don’t worry about them at all!
The International Dyslexia Association also has a comprehensive list of teaching and learning strategies for modern language teaching.
Benefits of learning a new language
The British Dyslexia Association is among many organizations that recognize the benefits of learning a language with dyslexia, either as an adult or a child. For the younger age, they say, “many dyslexic children will enjoy the multi-sensory methods of language teaching which involve role-play, games, singing and other group activities. Learning a foreign language broadens pupils’ horizons as their awareness of other cultures develops.”
Anyone learning a new language can benefit from massive gains in confidence and self-belief – and this is even more impactful for people with dyslexia. For children, this extends to other learning and different subjects in the classroom. For adults, a new language opens up a world of opportunity for meeting people, encountering diverse cultures and beliefs, traveling, and working. Modern languages help increase resilience, tolerance, adaptability, and employability.
And the task of learning a new language also allows people with dyslexia to further strengthen and develop working memory and other key cognitive skills.
It’s a solution where everyone benefits – become a more dynamic thinker, more socially aware, and more engaged in the world.
Don’t forget that learning new languages is a challenge for anyone, whether or not you have dyslexia – you’ll have days when you just don’t seem to be getting anywhere. But don’t give up. It may be slow going in the beginning but there are breakthroughs. Your brain begins to create its own network for unfamiliar words, and you start to pick up vocabulary naturally.
Dyslexia should never be a barrier to the benefits a new language brings.