Foreign Language Learning and Students with Disabilities
Learn strategies for optimizing foreign language learning and links to in-depth research articles related to learning disabilities, blindness, deafness and other disabilities.
- Students with learning disabilities
- Deaf and hard of hearing students
- Students who are blind or visually impaired
- Suggestions for the foreign language student who has a vision impairment
- Links to more foreign language and disability resources and stories
Learning Disabilities Information
A search of the ERIC database turned up many articles on this topic. Some of the considerations include the following:
Learning disabilities affect the way that an individual takes in, retains, or expresses information. Different types of learning disabilities can impact spoken or written language, spelling, organizational skills, memory, among others. A student can be strong in listening comprehension but poor in reading comprehension or vice versa.
Research shows there is a link between native and foreign language learning. Mostly it shows up in phonological difficulties (e.g. problems with tasks involving putting sounds together and pulling sounds apart in spoken and written language). Students with learning disabilities may do fine in other classes, but their difficulties emerge when in a language class. Often the phonological difficulties are present in their native language as well (Granschow and Sparks 1995).
Some people may have difficulties reading in some languages but not in others because of the complexity of the different language systems (e.g. frequency of word occurrence, size of vocabulary, etc.)
Tips for Teachers
For the Universal Design approach, use Multisensory Structured Language (McIntryre and Pickering 1995) or the Orton-Gillingham Approach, which research has shown helps students to learn and retain foreign languages.
Students can benefit from a highly structured, multisensory, direct and explicit approach that helps them to see and understand how language is structured and provides ample opportunity for practice. This technique can be used in their native language first.
See Teaching Foreign Languages to At-Risk Learners for examples of these types of classroom lessons. This approach may differ from a whole language approach to teaching a foreign language.
Types of Accommodations
An accommodation is an adjustment or provision, which removes barriers in a specific situation. Academic accommodations allow a student with a disability to have equal access to his/her education or equal opportunity to show what he/she has learned. Accommodations should not provide an unfair advantage or fundamentally alter the essential requirements of a program or course.
Tutoring assistance and notetakers in class
Individualized learning pace, such as providing one term of coursework over a two-term period
Option to audit the class before taking it for credit
Taking a class under a pass/fail condition
Extending a drop/add date
Permission to write dictated questions before composing responses
Extended time to formulate replies on written or oral exams
Permitting examinations to be read orally, dictated, or typed; alternative test formats
Sometimes adjusting a teaching method to better include a student with a learning disability can improve learning for other students as well. Teachers can address diversity of students by focusing on elements of universality and flexibility. The better this is implemented, the less time is needed for individualized accommodation.
Explicit about expectations regarding class attendance, homework and class participation
Predictable structure to each class period
Planned repetition and review incorporated in each lesson; spiraling of concepts
Use of kinesthetic, auditory and visual modalities in instruction
Explicit teaching of the codes of the language
New materials introduced at a slower pace
Reduced reading in classes
Reduced vocabulary lessons, or provision of basic vocabulary on tests to assist in translation and review of passages
Noun and adjective endings chart to assist with translation
Flexibility in exam scheduling and time allotted to take exams
Supportive learning environment
An overview of laws and their requirements for foreign language teachers in relation to learning disabled students.
This UK website, maintained for over a decade by David Wilson, includes a regularly updated bibliography with over 1500 references arranged thematically. It also has teacher-training case studies and classroom-ready French and German teaching materials for foreign language learners with disabilities.
This website is created by a teacher in Scotland and includes a review of the research and tips for accommodating students.
Dyslexia in the Foreign Language Classroom
This book, written by Joanna Nijakowska and published by Multilingual Matters, addresses specific learning difficulties in reading and spelling - developmental dyslexia. It is intended to serve as a reference book for those involved in foreign language teaching, including experienced in-service teachers and novice teachers, as well as teacher trainers and trainees.
Recommendations on how to prepare for a smoother college transition, especially for high school students with foreign language learning difficulty.
This special issue focuses specifically on students with learning disabilities and foreign language learning.
A look at the issues related to foreign language acquisition, course waivers and substitution, and instructional approaches.
This site has information on using visual aid/schedules for helping children with autism develop language skills. These same approaches can be used for teaching a foreign language.
Written exclusively for LD OnLine, examines the causes of difficulty in second language acquisition and recommendations for teaching approaches.
Modified foreign language courses at East Carolina University
Based on University of Colorado at Boulder courses developed for at-risk foreign language learners, it outlines a curriculum designed to promote success among students with learning disabilities.
This federally-funded project by Longwood University developed key tools for faculty and disability services to use to reduce withdrawl from foreign language classes by students with disabilities and improve their access to language learning. Includes many useful worksheets and modules.
Students can benefit from a highly structured, multisensory, direct and explicit approach that helps them to see and understand how language is structured and provides ample opportunity for practice. This article gives examples of these types of classroom lessons.
Hearing loss can occur at any age, with the degree ranging from mild to significant. Each individual’s adjustment to being Deaf or hard of hearing is different, depending on the degree and type of hearing loss, the age of onset, family and community support, access to communication tools, and individual coping skills.
Some people with hearing loss:
- Can be assisted by hearing aids or other listening devices and be able to participate in group and individual conversations with little adaptation
- Have difficulty understanding speech from a distance of more than a few feet and may not be able to follow group conversations, with or without the aid of an amplifier
interpret oral language and speech, even with amplification of sound.
In the United States, the two main approaches to signed language:
- American Sign Language (ASL) has its own grammar, vocabulary and syntax
- Manual or Exact Signed English uses signs but is based on English word order and grammar.
Many people who are Deaf do not consider themselves to be disabled. Rather, they base their identity on the fact that they share a visual language and a unique culture.
For those students that want to practice lip-reading and speaking in the foreign language, involve them in the lessons by:
- Letting them sit close to you and speaking in their direction
- Wearing their assistive listening microphone that transmits your voice to their hearing aid or neck loop
- Repeating what is said by the hard of hearing student’s classmates
- Circling desks so the student can see who is speaking (with the speaker raising his/her hand to indicate where to look)
- Using visual cues (e.g. fingers on your hand) or pictures with words when describing new vocabulary, verb endings or concepts
- Pausing for the student to see the image before refocusing back on
lipreading or the interpreter / speech-to-text provider.
If the student is not interested in the speaking/listening components of the foreign language, assess their expressive/receptive skills by:
- Finding alternative writing assignments for oral presentations or using the service provider to voice for the student (keeping in mind not to grade the student based on the interpreter’s or text provider’s pronunciation).
- Assigning alternative listening comprehension activities such as with transcribed audio activities, assigned readings or computer-assisted language learning software.
- Allowing them to receive tutoring with local Deaf individuals abroad to learn the local sign language of a host country (although signed languages are different from spoken languages of the host country, so it would be like they are learning another language).
When planning lessons and activities, consider the following:
- Incorporating flashcards and other visual language learning games (e.g. Miniflashcard Language Games by MLG Publishing in the UK with multisensory activities or Quizlet, free web-based flashcards with vocabulary)
- Using videotapes/movies that have subtitles in the foreign language
- Avoiding dictation tests (i.e. say a sentence, and the students must write it or translate it) as this will not work for Deaf students using a speech-to-text provider who types what is being said
- Providing multiple choice questions for spelling tests (i.e. select the correct spelling of the word) if the student is using a speech-to-text provider
- Avoiding speaking when writing on the board or referring to a book page (i.e. the student must watch the interpreter, text screen, or lips of the speaker so can’t also be looking at the book or board at the same time).
The following resources provide a bountiful amount of suggestions and tips for faculty and service providers on making the foreign language lessons accessible to Deaf and hard of hearing students.
Cued Speech Transliterators
Cued speech interpreters, called transliterators, can work with all students (both Deaf and hearing) to teach them visual representations of sounds in the new language using hand shapes next to the lips to differentiate the sounds being spoken. This helps students with pronunciation distinctions they may not be hearing, as well as assists in learning to lipread the language for those who cannot hear.
Research shows that cued speech transliteration assists with pronunciation in both hearing and deaf students, but that using the cued system slows down a deaf student’s expression of the language compared to if they fingerspelled the entire sentence or used sign language.
PROS: This is a viable support for listening lessons. Cued Speech transliterators can be found in many European countries (e.g. le language parle complete – LPC - is cued speech in France).
CONS: Cued speech takes a while for a student to learn. Deaf students who are not interested in learning the spoken language will not want to use this system.
American Sign Language Interpreters
American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters can be used in foreign language classrooms. Ideally, the interpreter should have at least two years of instruction in the foreign language, even for beginning courses. If the interpreter does the homework and has the textbook, it helps to facilitate the interpreting.
The ASL interpreter and student can learn some of the sign language or fingerspelling from the host country to use when representing frequently occurring words in class. Also letters and accents found in foreign languages that aren’t represented in the English alphabet need to be learned or agreed on how they will be represented visually. The goal is not to learn the foreign sign language but the written/spoken foreign language (each is distinct, separate languages).
There is no widely used universal sign language, not even among countries that share common oral or written languages – so if the student learns the sign language and fingerspelling used in Costa Rica, this will not help them if they travel to Mexico.
ASL Interpreters working with international students in English classrooms, may also need to work with the Deaf student to learn Manual or Exact Signed English to facilitate understanding of English grammar and spelling.
PROS: A U.S. student is able to understand the class lessons since it’s in their native language while also accessing the foreign language through fingerspelling and unvoiced Sim-Com (mouthing the foreign words while signing their definition in ASL or fingerspelling them). The student can also learn the country’s signed language and fingerspelling that will assist them outside of class if studying abroad.
CONS: The U.S. student is not fully exposed to the foreign language since ASL is being used or the student and interpreter grow weary from fingerspelling and using Sim-Com for entire sentences. ASL interpreters that know the spoken/written foreign language can be difficult to locate sometimes. However, Mano a Mano is an organization of trilingual interpreters in Spanish-English-ASL.
Speech-to-Text providers could be hired to type the lectures, lessons, drills and dialogues for the student to read in real-time. Some providers give word-for-word captions, which would be helpful for grammar-oriented lessons, while others give meaning-for-meaning translations, so would especially require the provider to be fluent in the foreign language.
It would take at least 80 hours, and often much more, to train someone fluent in a foreign language in basic speech-to-text technology and methods. The Deaf student could use the laptop to pose questions or participate in the dialogues as well, which the speech-to-text provider would then read aloud for the class.
The real-time typing also can be saved and printed as notes from the class. The transcriber can add more white space, larger font, or clearer font to assist the student that may read slower in the foreign language. They also can use bold, italic or underlines to help show the parts of speech being taught in the lessons. The speech-to-text providers will not be able to type quickly, if at all, in non-Roman script, and they will need to build their own dictionaries in the foreign language to get the short-form codes needed to type up to speed.
A related method is the voice recognition system where the teacher or speech-to-text provider wears a microphone and his/her speech is translated into text on a computer screen, or the microphone feeds into a hearing loop or hearing aid to be amplified or specifically directed for someone who is hard of hearing. Voice recognition software that recognizes speech and outputs it in written form on the screen are still not to a level that provides real-time accuracy. It takes commitment to training the software in the new language to be accurate and twice as long to correct mistakes. Also if the students wanted to contribute to the discussion, but don’t speak for themselves, then a speech-to-text provider would need to be available to voice or a laptop with screen reading software and speakers to read what is typed by the student.
PROS: The student accesses all that is happening in the class in the language in which it is delivered. The student can also participate directly in dialogue with another student through typing sentences. If they use word-for-word providers and an assistive listening device, than the student will get complimentary support. Any of the speech-to-text providers coupled with a sign language interpreter would also provide better support than either on their own. Remote captioning and interpreting services may also broaden the chance of finding someone who knows the foreign language.
CONS: Some students may want to focus on more than just the reading/writing aspects of the language. If they also try to lipread, then they may have difficulty watching both the screen and speaker. The development of a short-form dictionary in the new language will take considerable time by the provider, and the provider will need to practice typing up to speed in the new language. It may be difficult to find a provider that is this fluent in the foreign language. Also, the teacher would need to review the speech-to-text transcript to see if the provider is providing accurate services. For the voice recognition system, a teacher has to spend as many as 15 hours training the computer to become accustomed to their voice in order for the voice recognition system to work, and then it would also need invested time in correcting the text. It also may not be available in every language.
- Discuss with the teacher and the interpreters or service providers your goals for the class (e.g. learning to pronounce, speechread or read/write) and how you plan to recite the lessons (e.g. using voice, fingerspelling everything, mixed signing/fingerspelling, cued speech, typing with screen-reading software or text-to-speech provider, etc.).
- Acquire sign language dictionaries from the country you are interested in going, where the foreign language is spoken. If you are taking Spanish, for example, the sign language for Spain will be different from the one for Costa Rica even though the spoken language is the same. Gallaudet University and World Federation of the Deaf are places to begin searching.
- If using speech-to-text services, you can also slow down the pace, enlarge or color text, or change the font by touching the arrow keys, etc. on the computer where the output is displayed (either in class or remotely) to assist with reading the new language.
- Don’t wait too long about approaching the faculty member or disability provider if the access solutions aren’t working; achievable alternatives can be found using some of the online resources listed above.
Special thanks to the contributors on this: Elizabeth Hamilton, Kathleen Prime, Christie Gilson, Eric Caron, Jeffrey Rathlef and Heidi Fischer.
Foreign language teachers and professors can implement the suggestions below when considering the perspectives and inclusion of a student who is blind or visually impaired taking his or her language class.
People with visual disabilities experience many types and degrees of visual impairment. A person who is legally blind (20/200 vision or less) may be able to read large print and navigate without mobility aids in many or all situations. Some individuals are able to perceive light and darkness and perhaps even some color, while others are not. With some types of visual disabilities, an individual’s vision may be better one day than another, depending on fatigue and other factors.
It is difficult to generalize about people with visual disabilities because of the wide range of causes and dates of onset. People with visual disabilities from birth are more likely to have learned skills in reading Braille and using tactile orientation aids such as mobility canes for navigation. People who lose their vision later in life are typically less likely to use Braille, and may have visual memories of color and scale that make it somewhat easier for them to orient according to verbal descriptions or directions. People who experience progressive vision loss usually incorporate gradual changes in the types of adaptations and strategies for access that they use.
People who have visual impairments use a wide variety of adaptive equipment, or formats depending on their needs and personal preferences. Examples include:
- Audiocassette tapes, CDs, MP3s, or digital audio recordings
- Braille documents (Braille uses a raised six or eight dot system that can be read by touch)
- Large print, monoculars, magnifiers, closed circuit TVs
- People who act as readers and/or scribes
- Electronic adaptations (scanners that change print text to electronic text, software that allows electronic text to be accessed through Braille display equipment, enlarged text on a screen or a computer voice output)
National libraries for the blind and visually impaired exist in many countries and in each state in the United States. These libraries, as well as educational institutions with disability offices, government agencies and national or community organizations working with people who are blind or have low vision often provide students with the adaptive equipment, advocacy, training or alternative formats that they need.
A foreign language teacher or professor should hold the same high standards for blind students as he or she would for all of the students in the class. Faculty do not serve blind students well by lowering expectations, but rather by understanding blindness as an aspect of their identity. The student is above all a learner and in recognizing this, faculty should ask not whether one can teach this student, but how to assist the student to learn.
The foreign language teacher or professor should also consider the student’s goals for learning the language and if possible tailor the program or the assessment methods to those goals. His or her work with a blind student may yield new knowledge about the countries in which the target language is spoken.
For more information, foreign language faculty can purchase Worlds Apart? Disability and Foreign Language Learning, edited by Tammy Berberi, Elizabeth C. Hamilton, and Ian M. Sutherland, from Yale University Press (Fall 2007).
A foreign language teacher or professor can prepare for a student with a vision disability by:
- Talking to the student early (preferably before the course begins) and offering to learn from one another. The student can describe how he or she has learned in the past.
- Asking the student to explain what kinds of adaptive or assistive technology works well, how he or she prefers to take notes, and how he or she studies at home.
- Showing the student the classroom, orienting the student to where tables, chairs and other objects relevant to the class are located in relation to the front of the room and doorway.
- Discussing the best place for the student to sit; a student with low vision may favor a specific kind of lighting or distance to the blackboard or whiteboard.
- Providing a student with bibliographical information for texts to be used in the class as early as possible to allow enough time for the student to obtain alternate formats such as Braille or electronic versions. The National Library Service for the Blind has foreign language materials and information about libraries for blind people in other countries that loan books on audio tape or Braille materials. For a large selection of education-related materials, Learning Ally also offers accessible media.
- Asking the student if there is anything else the student would like to share, (and checking in periodically throughout the course on how the accommodations are working).
A foreign language teacher or professor can adapt his or her teaching style by:
- Putting the class agenda on the board and going over it orally. At the end of class, returning to the agenda and summarizing the material covered.
- Saying aloud or writing in large letters anything that is being written on the blackboard or whiteboard.
- Describing aloud any visual aids or props or making any visual aids big with high contrast.
- Refraining from pointing to things on the blackboard or whiteboard and saying “this” or “that” or “here” and “there”.
- Spelling out unfamiliar words.
- Using a magnifying program (like Zoom Text) if projecting something onto a large screen or doing lessons in a computer language lab.
- Going over any handouts verbally.
- Giving students a CD-Rom with electronic versions of materials, such as class notes, PowerPoint shows, syllabi, vocabulary lists, etc.
- Repeating and recycling material multiple times to assist with memorizing material.
A foreign language teacher or professor can modify curriculum and class activities by:
- Asking all students to identify themselves as they speak so visually impaired students can follow conversations better.
- Pairing a sighted student with a blind or visually impaired student who can explain nonverbal actions in the classroom or information that is missed in other ways.
- Conferring with the student with a visual impairment to determine how the student wishes to handle such in-class activities such as using poster board or other visual ways of gathering input.
- Allowing a blind student to use his or her computer or adaptive notetaker in class (e.g. PacMate and Braille Note are examples of hand held devices that allows a student to take notes or access electronic handouts during class).
- Ensuring that websites and PDF documents necessary for the class are made accessible. See Providing Information in Alternative Formats.
- Engaging the class in oral/aural exercises to strengthen conversational skills and encouraging blind or low vision students to be active participants.
- Engaging sighted students in the class to produce taped recordings of assigned texts. Two or more students can read the dialogue or story aloud so that it can be offered to the student who is blind. The blind student will then have the text from which to learn and study, and the sighted students will have a meaningful opportunity to practice pronunciation and inflection. Some blind students will supplement this with the same audio books professionally recorded by advanced speakers of the language.
- Using oral realia (music, radio, interviews, newscasts, documentaries) more than visual realia (film, television). If using film/video, choosing films with more narration or highly descriptive (vs. subtitled) films. Inquiring what “descriptive narrative” or “audio described” films, which are adapted for blind audiences, are available in foreign languages from their state’s cooperating library for the blind or the Described and Captioned Media Program through the U.S. Department of Education.
A foreign language teacher or professor can provide alternative formats or accommodations for testing by:
- Including oral and aural testing as an assessment tool for all students.
- Considering the importance of strictly requiring proper spelling from the blind student if pronunciation is correct. (Will he or she be using the written language? Is oral accuracy sufficient for the student’s goals? There are ways for a blind student to learn accurate spelling if they plan to do written correspondence.)
- Working with the disability office or blind resource center on getting the tests put into large print, audio or Braille in advance of the exam.
- Having a student take the test on his or her computer, so it can read or enlarge the test for the student. Students can then type in answers.
- Allowing the student to take the test orally rather than in writing by providing someone who speaks the language to read the test to the student and then writing down the student's answers.
- Arranging a separate location and extended time for test taking (a reader or having a computer read the test aloud takes longer than silent reading).
- Asking the student which testing methods are most comfortable for him or her. Some students prefer written exams, while others access better oral exams. Some prefer alternative formats, while others may not mind working with a reader or scribe. For students with some vision, closed-circuit TV (CCTV) systems that are portable or other magnifying equipment can be brought to class to enlarge tests, and markers on unlined or wide-lined paper may be used for writing the answers.
Foreign language classes are not all the same in how they are taught. The course objectives, the teaching philosophy, the types of activities and assessments may vary. For example:
- Does the teacher focus mostly on grammar, reading and writing to prepare students for higher-level literature courses?
- Is the course focused more on conversation, culture and immersion activities?
- Is the course taught in another country where language will be practiced with native speakers and will be necessary for daily living?
- Will students have access to language labs to incorporate audio and other multimedia learning options?
- Will there be a lot of written handouts, online assignments, or films in the classes and writing on the blackboard or whiteboard?
When beginning a foreign language class, a student who is blind or has low vision will benefit greatly from describing his or her capacity for vision to the teachers and professors. Faculty are often unable to assist with classroom adaptations until they know that a student has specific needs. Even though a disability office may send a letter about approved accommodations to faculty, a student should take responsibility for communicating his or her needs to teachers and professors and enlist them as partners in the learning process.
Below are some suggestions for what students with blindness or low vision can do to find a course or self-study guide that works for them. It also discusses adaptive technology as related to foreign language learning. For a more in-depth discussion, students can access through university libraries the following: Morrow, K. A. (1999). Blind secondary and college students in the foreign language classroom: Experiences, problems and solutions. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Kansas, Lawrence.
Uses of Assistive Technology for Students in Learning a Foreign Language
For students using adaptive software, accessing websites or other class material may depend on the software understanding the foreign language. A synthetic speech program that recognizes foreign languages rather than just reads them is preferable, such as the JAWS program mentioned below. Some countries are starting to develop their own screen reading software; for example, a blind computer scientist in India has helped develop a Hindi screen reader. The cost is less expensive than if it were American made. For learning Turkish, GVZ Sinan is a compatible program although it may not be best with English translations.
Below is a sampling of some of the screen reading software and their capability with reading foreign languages.
- JAWS screenreading program is widely used, but it is also expensive (about $800). It both reads and recognizes many foreign languages.
- Kurzweil screenreader has attempted to do French and Spanish with some success.
- Supernova uses the Hal screenreader that has foreign language options including Arabic and Hindi.
- Window Eyes is the most “stable” screenreader available and is one of the more advanced programs in the foreign language area.
- Zoom Text enlarges text size on the computer screen and also has a screenreading function in multiple languages (Chinese, Czech, Danish, English, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish and UK English).
An MP3 player to record native speakers pronouncing words correctly can also be useful to students. For recording MP3s and later editing them, the Studio Recorder from the American Printing House for the Blind, priced at $200, is accessible, robust, and simple to use. Also, Franklin Language Studio dictionaries special editions that talk can be useful to a foreign language student.
Students need to be aware though that recorded texts or dialogues may not address the orthography (for example, spelling and capitalization) of the target language. It is easy for students to apply the orthography of their native language, which may only approximate that of the target language. This can be done individually, however all students will likely benefit from direct instruction. Audio formats should therefore be supplemented with activities that address this; students using JAWS can read line by line, and if they encounter an unknown word can use the SayAll command to find its spelling.
Students who also use dictionary software such as Google Translate for the definitions of unknown words in the foreign language, may find that this software does not enable Jaws to properly recognize the right language from which to translate.
Uses of Braille for Students in Learning a Foreign Language
For students who use Braille, some foreign languages are more phonetic in their spelling methods (e.g. the vowel has the same sound every time), and these can be easier to write accurately than other languages like English that has silent letters or more than one way to spell the same sounding word. If the student is using uncontracted Braille (i.e. spelled letter by letter) in the foreign language, then it may be easier to learn spelling, too. It will be less useful if the student decides to study overseas, as contracted Braille will most likely be used in that country.
The foreign language student needs to make sure that diacritical markings, such as umlauts in German, accents in French or the tones in Chinese, are being reproduced in Braille. Languages also have their own structures that may not readily correspond to one’s native language. Braille texts need to reflect, among others, all diacritical markings, word order, and capitalization rules of the target language. A typical Brailler may not be equipped to write some of these markings, so teachers and students need to work with Braillers to make sure that essential elements are present. Tables showing the Braille code for some markings are online.
In the same online article (above), the authors make a case for an eight-dot universal computer Braille code to incorporate the various special symbols without overlap. The main consideration for Braille users is that various languages have Braille systems that are vastly different from one another. For instance, French and Thai Braille both use symbols that are not in English Braille, or else the symbols are used but they have very different meanings depending on the language being transcribed.
Those who read Braille should learn the target language’s Braille code as soon as possible; then a student will avoid creating his or her own system of Braille, which is only useful to that person. If students want to learn Braille as it is used in other countries, they can use the free online PDF copy of World Braille Usage, a 130-page book compiled by UNESCO in 1990. It has listings by country for each country’s Braille alphabet and Braille organizations (which probably have websites by now).
Also, for those who use a Braille Lite, a thorough discussion of how it works in production of written work for a foreign language teacher or professor who does not read Braille, is provided online from a conference presentation.
Different Types of Course Structure or Self-Learning Programs
For independent self-study, Pimsleur is an audio-only language learning program that is available in dozens of languages. It is very effective for students with vision disabilities because it builds on concepts, offers repetition and breaks down the language. However, it is expensive and often doesn’t provide lessons for more advanced speakers. This is not the only option for self-study; students who can access programs that combine both audio and written materials may have a wider selection.
Participation in a language program that pairs students wanting to learn each other’s language or a conversation group outside of a class is essential to supplement independent learning or coursework. Students can also find a way to use the Internet to chat live with native speakers of the target language.
For classroom settings, students should inquire about whether or not speaking and listening activities will be a primary emphasis for the class. However, conversational classes will not be enough to develop fully a student’s foreign language proficiency. Writing and reading assignments may pose particular difficulties for some students, but they should not be avoided.
For classes where the teacher or professor often writes on the whiteboard or blackboard, some students may want to request a sighted student to volunteer to take notes using notetaking equipment, such as Wacom's pen tablets. The wireless equipment allows the notetaker to write on a tablet, which is simultaneously appearing on the visually impaired student’s laptop.
Regardless of the language course, teaching often incorporates visual aids such as charts, tables, graphs, and illustrations. Braille or screenreaders may or may not have the capacity to access these images, so students may need to work with faculty to seek out other methods of making tactile graphics. These can range from the most elementary methods such as flannel on a felt board or a pizza cutter on aluminum foil to the most sophisticated computer-generated tactile graphics.
Small class size (less than 20 people) seems to work best for foreign language classes, since it permits greater interaction among students and more time for teachers and professors to work individually with students when necessary. Of course, some students may prefer individual tutoring, which is even more focused. The most important consideration in either setting is that it is a structured and yet creative, interactive and participatory program for teaching and learning.
Learning a Foreign Language that Does Not Use the Roman/Latin Alphabet
People have been working for many years on developing a unified Braille code that would greatly facilitate international communication among blind persons who utilize Braille. This has been the subject of extensive debate, since some individuals and societies prefer to maintain their distinct, culturally sensitive ways of communicating, while others are willing to sacrifice a certain amount of uniqueness in order to bridge communication gaps and bring people closer together.
Until this happens globally, blind students learning a language that does not make use of the Roman alphabet could benefit by obtaining a Braille copy of the alternative alphabet and its Roman equivalents. It would also be useful to have a sighted or low-vision person who is familiar with both languages explain the correlation between the two alphabets; that is, which Roman letters correspond to which symbols in the foreign alphabet (if they do). For Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Korean Braille scripts go to this Braille scripts website.
If students who are blind initiate contact with organizations serving the visually impaired population in the country they are learning about, this can be an excellent way to network, exchange ideas, and access many useful learning materials, such as Braille codes, foreign language cassettes, and so on. Some foreign languages are spoken in many different countries, so the Braille codes may also vary between countries even though the written language is similar. It is important to talk with native speakers of the target language to determine whether blind people are expected to be able to write printed characters in the language. If not, some may consider focusing on oral proficiency only.
Does a student’s computer software support non-Romanized script such as Arabic or Chinese characters? Synthetic speech programs are beginning to be designed in languages that rely on characters, rather than the English alphabet. However, the voice output may pronounce character by character instead of joining characters into a full word. For example, if it were to do the same in English it would say individual letters “E. N. G. L. I. S. H.” instead of the word “English”. People are working in various countries, such as Thailand, on resolving this issue.
The Cyrillic alphabet can be difficult for those who have trouble focusing visually on a line of text, but can otherwise read large print. According to one student who studied in Russia, the shape of the letter played a role for her in that the letters are very square, and are higher than they are wide which causes them to be grouped closely and blend together. She did not have access to changing the font. In addition, the Russian paper in some textbooks or exercise books tended to be beige colored, providing less contrast with the text. The contrast of handouts was suitable, but some exercise books were difficult to read because of this lack of contrast.
Learning the Foreign Language Overseas
Being surrounded by the a foreign language, immersed in the culture and essentially forced to use the language can be challenging but ultimately the quickest way to improve a student’s skills and knowledge of a foreign language. Students can find easy access to radio and native speakers to engage in conversation overseas. One might say that learning a language overseas is the more authentic way of mastering a foreign language. It is also widely regarded as essential for serious study of any foreign language.
Because a blind student may heavily depend on auditory cues to navigate a new place, the motivation to learn the language also increases dramatically when abroad. Learning close to home can be more familiar and comfortable, but the obvious limitation of this model is that the student is not exposed to the finer points of the other culture. When studying in his or her home country, the student’s understanding and experience are limited to what textbooks, teachers, and perhaps the occasional exchange student, can offer.
With the experience of going abroad to study, blind students are introduced to the ways in which their counterparts around the world live their daily lives. For example, many countries outside the United States have public transportation systems available throughout their countries, which are often economical and widely used. This can make getting around easier than in some communities in the United States. Similarly, students from some less developed countries may find some U.S. cities have better accessibility on their public transportation systems, such as auditory announcements and Braille timetables. Also, the student with a disability learns about access systems for people who are blind in other countries. For example, in Tokyo all the sidewalks have tactile strips to follow and Braille is widely used on doors, buildings, elevators, etc. In Australia, students may encounter more crosswalks that have auditory signals than they experience in their home community.
While there is increasing technology and library services for visually impaired students in countries worldwide, including “talking books” using the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) international standard, the technological resources may be more readily available at home than abroad. The U.S. National Library Service for the Blind has an overseas librarian that can loan books to U.S. citizens overseas as long as they register before they go. For students planning to install their own software on computers overseas, they need to be aware that keyboards in other countries may be different, even if the country uses the Roman alphabet, and some countries may have frequent power outages.
For students coming to the United States to learn English, the classroom accommodations and adaptive techonology available in the United States for academic purposes may be something new to learn. Students coming to the United States who are used to personal guides for navigation, may find they must quickly learn to use a white cane for getting around independently. Training for this can usually be found at local independent living centers or organizations for blind people in the United States.
Blindness and low vision occur throughout the world so students can explore in advance of the trip how blind or sight-impaired residents of the target country live, work, and learn – keeping in mind that some resources might be available for local students but not for international students because of funding sources. Bringing equipment along is the safest way to assure it will be available (as long as one researches who can fix it should it break in the host country).
If a student works with a guide dog, possible issues of getting the dog into country and access issues once in country can be discussed with the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, as can fundraising, locating programs abroad and finding study abroad scholarships.
For more information contact:
National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange
Mobility International USA
132 E. Broadway, Suite 343
Eugene, Oregon 97401 USA
Tel/TTY: +1 (541) 343-1284
Fax: +1 (541) 343-6812
The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange provides free information and referral services related to the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange programs. The Clearinghouse is sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, and is administered by Mobility International USA, a non-profit organization founded in 1981.
Other resources include information on disability and foreign language learning for individuals with autism, downs syndrome, and other disabilities. Learn about publications, articles and online resources that look more in-depth at universal design and teaching strategies when working with students with disabilities in foreign language courses.
A World Awaits You - Accessing Foreign Languages Issue: This National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange online publication shares first hand experiences of foreign language students with disabilities, their teachers and service providers.
Bibliography on Modern Languages and Disability:This UK bibliography, maintained for over a decade by David Wilson, includes a regularly updated special educational needs and modern languages bibliography with over 1500 references arranged thematically. It also has teacher-training case studies and classroom-ready French and German teaching materials for foreign language learners with disabilities.
Early Foreign Language Learning for Students with Disabilities: This Center for Applied Linguistics web page provides links to resources for foreign language learning by K-8 students with disabilities.
English Language Classroom and Students with Disabilities: This tipsheet provides links to online resources and suggestions for teaching English language learners with disabilities.
Foreign Language and Disability Presentation: This is a teletraining audio and written transcripts with foreign language professors focusing on historical and theoretical overviews of disability, methodologies inclusive of Deaf, hard of hearing and hearing students, and overseas programs designed to accommodate wheelchair users alongside non-disabled students.
Language Study Trips for Students with Disabilities: This page on the ESL Language Studies Abroad website is a great example of using welcoming language to encourage people with disabilities to participate in foreign language programs.
Languages Without Limits: This UK website supports foreign language teachers in their efforts to make effective provision for learners of all abilities so that no-one should be excluded. It includes information for teaching students with autism, down's syndrome, deafness, and more.
Success Stories & Blogs from people with disabilities: This National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange web page compiles testimonials from people with disabilities who went overseas to study a foreign language.
U.S. Students Learn Arabic Through STARTALK Program: Inclusive classroom serves students with and without disabilities: This America.gov article highlights one STARTALK institute at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge brought together students with and without disabilities to learn Arabic and to explore Arabic culture through multimedia presentations, field trips and lectures guided by scholars from the United States and abroad.
Worlds Apart Publication: Disability and Foreign Language Learning: This book from Yale University Press focuses on how to enable the success of students with disabilities at every step of the way in learning foreign languages.Top of page
©2007 National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange
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