The Special Needs Child and the Foreign Language (by Sally Holmwood)

Sally Holmwood, tutor at Indigo Languages is establishing herself as a regular and always very welcome guest here on the Fluent Language blog. Her experiences working with young people of all ages, both inside and outside the UK school system make her views so profound, and Sally has a real passion for her languages to share with you. Today she is discussing a special group of people, often forgotten in the language learning world: Special needs children.

One Tongue, Two Languages

As well as working with languages, I support individuals with special needs in a wide range of settings. There is a wealth of information, on the internet and beyond, about teaching languages to children with special needs – and plenty of resistance from parents and school staff alike!

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“My Child Struggles to Communicate in English - Why Teach Them a Foreign Language?”

Many parents I know of children with severe learning difficulties would argue against teaching a foreign language to a child that experiences considerable difficulty in speaking their own. I know two mothers of non-verbal autistic boys, for example. For the mothers, English is not their native tongue. They live in England and so speak to their sons in English. They believe that, as their children hear English all day, wherever they go, it might confuse them to hear a different language spoken at home. Such apprehension about introducing a child with a learning difficulty to a foreign language is not uncommon. Some parents and staff believing pupils’ time might be better spent focussing on building independence skills.

Using Language-Learning as a Stepping Stone

At Languages Without Limits, the rationale that we are all different is reason enough to introduce pupils with special needs to a foreign language. Seeing the variation between people from different cultures showed pupils that it is acceptable to be ‘different’. There is scope for revisiting useful basic language concepts when learning a foreign language too. The teaching of social and other core skills can be integrated into foreign language lessons, shifting the focus just slightly. (Read this twice because it applies to all learners, not just special needs ones. -ed.)

“But This Child Can’t Speak!”

We may believe the non-verbal child does not benefit from learning a foreign language - but can we really be sure? If you haven’t heard of Carly Fleischmann, the Canadian teenager with non-verbal autism, now’s the time to look her up! Watch her video below to see for yourself the stark contrast between her father’s assumptions about her understanding and what she herself wants to communicate! Carly, like many other non-verbal youngsters, now has an electronic communication aid – many of these can even be furnished with foreign language software!

David R. Wilson has compiled a list of resources that include guidelines on making foreign languages accessible to pupils with a number of special needs, who may need to learn in a different way to their peers.

A Time and Place for Everything – Including Traditional Teaching Methods!

Rudyard Kipling once said

The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it!

We know that there are three learning styles – visual, auditory and kinesthetic (tactile) – and certainly some pupils with special needs learn better if they can ‘get stuck in’. Videos, games and songs and plenty of opportunity to get up out of their seat to act things out will enhance their learning experience – the more tactile, the better!

Take fruit. Teach the names – and even the signs – not just by showing a simple photograph or cartoon image as a visual aid. Embrace the wonder that is ICT. Even better still, bring actual pieces of fruit in for pupils to try and allow them to feel, smell and taste it. Make the most of stories like Eric Carle's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" – just think how this could be used to combine simple vocabulary with a brilliantly multi-sensory experience for children with special needs!

The Higher Functioning Special Needs Child

Let’s not forget the high functioning autistic learner either, who, like any of us, is highly motivated by things they really like. It may be the rigidity of maths or science that appeals. To others, like one young man I know, it is foreign languages. Excelling in school at French and German, he taught himself Russian at home. Foreign languages come complete with strict, non-negotiable grammar rules and a clear right or wrong answer for many questions. This can play to the high-functioning autistic pupil’s thirst for rigidity of routine. They may find such things easier to grasp than confusing abstract concepts found in other subjects.

Is the Special Needs Child the Better Language Learner?

We know that the pupil with special needs learns in a very different way to one without. We may have concerns that a child with special needs may not understand a foreign language, particularly if they are non-verbal, but that shouldn’t mean we exclude them altogether from the opportunity to learn. After all, Carly Fleischmann showed the world just how wrong people could be about the level of understanding of a non-verbal child.

The question of whether the special needs child makes the better language learner is a tricky one that brings me back to the diversity of all pupils, so much so that I am inclined to sit on the fence and say simply that we are all motivated by the things that interest us! We all deserve to be offered the same experiences and to receive support, where necessary, to make the most of them.

Learn One, Learn All!

The language learner with special needs may need to approach language learning in a completely different manner. Yet amongst the vast technologies that exist today, there are certainly many ways in which to offer them an experience of learning a foreign language that is meaningful to them. Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves from now on is not simply whether individuals with special needs should learn a foreign language, but rather how they should be doing so?

About Sally Holmwood

Sally lives and works in West Sussex, England. She splits her working week between individuals of all ages with special needs, and languages (specifically German and French). Sally loves to make time to travel the world when she's not working - sometimes Europe, sometimes even further afield! Furthermore, she is a big fan of great television: SherlockBonesThe Big Bang Theory and Doctor Who. Stay in touch with Sally on Twitter or Facebook.

**Note from Kerstin : Like Sally, I also believe very strongly that language learning should be open to everyone who wishes to do so. This is not an easy path for anyone, and her ideas of the learner with autism finding comfort in rigid grammar rules, or the tactile learning styles, should be an inspiration to us all. How do you bring more adventure into your learning styles?**