LINGUIST List 9.213

Thu Feb 12 1998

Sum: Foreign Language Learning Disability

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. OSBURNEA, Foreign Language Learning Disability: Summary

Message 1: Foreign Language Learning Disability: Summary

Date: Wed, 11 Feb 1998 16:04:27 -0500
Subject: Foreign Language Learning Disability: Summary

Not long ago I posted a query about the appropriateness of exempting
supposed FLL-disabled students from language requirements and allowing
them to take linguistics courses instead. From Lynn Santelmann
(U. Wisconsin) and Jerry Packard (U. Illinois) I learned of similar
policies at two institutions, although in one of the two the placement
is apparently confined to a language- specific linguistics course.
With regard to the actual diagnosis, criteria such as previous failure
to learn a FL and a disparity between verbal skills and other measures
of general intelligence were mentioned. Lynne Hewitt (Penn State U.),
while unfamiliar with this placement practice, suggested that a
linguistics course would be an appropriate treatment for the
disability, sup- posing such a disorder to exist.

This, of course, brings up the obvious question of the existence of a
FLL disability, and I asked respondents for their opinions. Nakamura
Akira (Tokyo U. of Foreign Studies) wonders whether some poor
performers in an intensive Japanese language course under his
supervision may possibly have been suffering from such a disorder.
Lynne Hewitt is skeptical that a student able to attend college would
not be able to at least _pass_ a basic FL course with "adequate
support"--tutoring and specialized test facilities. Comparing any
possible FLL disability to Specific Language Impairment (SLI) in L1
learners, Lynne notes that many researchers consider that "so-called
SLI kids are just the low end of normal," and it may be the same with
FLL disability--"not everyone can learn to play the piano, but we
don't get diagnosed as piano-learning disabled!" Peter af Trampe
(U. Stockholm) states that while the existence of a FL aptitude is
widely accepted, it might not seem appropriate to label low scorers on
FL aptitude tests as "disabled." He suggests that the students in
question might actually have a learning disability like dyslexia and
so have difficulties with (probably the reading and writing aspects
of, I suppose?--but see below) FL learning.

Could a student have a generalized FLL disability unrelated to
particular methods used to teach a FL, e.g. methods dependent on
reading or writing instead of oral skills? Could the brain of that
person simply be unable to handle FL material no matter in what form
it was presented? Peter af Trampe considers that there might be "a
generalized FLL disability that is somehow separated from L1," but
that it would probably be "very rare"--and how would it be diagnosed?
He also notes that someone with dyslexia, for example, could have
trouble with reading-based methods, but might succeed with oral
teaching, though not necessarily, since "some people . . . believe
that dyslexia is correlated with some kind of phonological deficit
. . . in the perception of the L1."

More than one respondent bemoaned the tendency in the United States to
over-diagnose learning disabilities when variation in a normal range
of ability might actually be involved. On the other hand, Lynne
Hewitt stressed the need to help traditionally excluded groups of

Andrea Osburne
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