3 FACTS ABOUT LEARNING LANGUAGES : DYSLEXIA AND LEARNING NEW LANGUAGES
By Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) ‘s – Lois Lim
BM – Particularly in Singapore – How does the dyslexic child cope with grandparents speaking one or more dialects while their parents will speak English.
DAS – A child with dyslexia being exposed to more than one language used by the main caregivers at home might face some initial disadvantages in the development of listening and speaking skills in English. This is because there may be fewer opportunities to learn new English words in the context of daily conversations. These limitations in exposure to new vocabulary may have a knock-on effect on the speed of associating words in books with those picked up from listening and speaking with others.
Therefore, it is important to provide exposure to good quality English as often as possible to help the child with dyslexia learn more vocabulary. Attending school regularly and interacting more with English speaking teachers and peers may help in the long run.
BM – Does a person with dyslexia struggle with foreign languages?
DAS – Yes, a person with dyslexia is likely to struggle with learning an additional foreign language. This is mainly because dyslexia is a language-based specific learning difficulty. Research suggests that it primarily affects a person’s ability to detect and process sounds in a language (e.g. the sound “buh”) and to associate these with the written symbols of the language (e.g. the letter “b”). As such, a person with dyslexia often finds it difficult to figure out the rules and patterns in the language to decode and read by converting written symbols to sounds; as well as encode and write by converting sounds to written symbols.
This means that a person with dyslexia not only has difficulties learning how to read and write in the first language (e.g. English), there will also likely be struggles in acquiring the necessary skills in different language as the learning of another language often taps on the same areas for processing information.
That being said, it is not impossible for a person with dyslexia to acquire more than one language.
It is also important to note that most people, dyslexic or not, would likely find it difficult to acquire a foreign language if one is already struggling with one’s first language, or if the learning of the language was introduced later in life. Regular exposure to and use of the foreign language, teaching methods as well as interest in learning the language also play a part in its successful acquisition.
BM – Are there any foreign languages classed as ‘easy’ to learn for a dyslexic?
DAS – Languages can be thought of in terms of their degree of “transparency” or how consistently the sounds of the language map onto its written script. The higher the predictability in the letter-sound mapping, the easier it might be to learn how to decode or encode similar words in that language. For instance, the letters in Malay are more predictable in their pronunciation than those in English. For example, “a” in Malay is pronounced as “ah”, whereas in English, “a” can be pronounced in many ways such as “aa”, “ah” or “ae”. So a learner of English will need to learn more combinations and exceptions in the reading of different words compared to a learner of Malay. Both English and Malay use an alphabetic script. Chinese, on the other hand, uses a non-alphabetic script but is less transparent in its symbol-sound mapping than Korean for instance.
It is also important to note that the transparency of the letter-sound mappings in language is only one consideration of language learning. Not only does one have to know how to pronounce the words in the new language in order to be proficient, one also has to make sense of its grammar and learn a wide range of vocabulary, among other things.
Furthermore, weaknesses such as poorer working memory and slower processing speed in some persons with dyslexia may present as additional challenges in acquiring new language. Time, motivation, and how the language is taught might also further influence how easily a person with dyslexia learns a foreign language.
Thanks and credit to Lois Lim, Assistant Director | MOE-Aided DAS Literacy Programme
(Admissions) | Dyslexia Association of Singapore