Sunday, October 19, 2014

Learning A New Language

Foreign language instruction is increasingly part of the curriculum for students of all ages. Once reserved for junior high and high school students, I now see elementary school students receiving foreign language lessons as well. Exposure to foreign languages, customs, and cultures is a valuable experience for all students. With some careful planning, our students with hearing loss can be successful as well.

As teachers of the deaf / hard of hearing, we can help foreign language teachers understand and address the unique challenges a second language can present to our students. Here are some key points and suggestions to share with foreign language teachers, and to keep in mind when providing itinerant support to students:

Many of our students are still learning English grammar and syntax, so learning the rules of a new language can be challenging. Explicit instruction, use of visual supports, and copies of charts (such as those used for conjugating verbs) and vocabulary for the student to review independently can all be helpful.

Many languages have subtle auditory differences in words that can be harder for students with hearing loss to discriminate. Consider the masculine and feminine le and la in French, or the /s/ at the end of words in Spanish that denotes verb tenses. The student should have visual access to all new vocabulary, and ample opportunities to practice using and listening for (depending on auditory access) the differences in sounds. Speechreading can help the student gather additional information, so it is important for the teacher to face the student when speaking.

Help the student organize vocabulary with a system. The following presentation offers examples of this: 
While a bit outdated, the suggestions for color-coding would be beneficial for many students, not just those with hearing loss!

Students with hearing loss need extra opportunities to practice listening to and pronouncing new vocabulary words. At times, students may not want to participate in class due to fear of mispronunciations. Providing extra practice (such as utilizing support from the TOD/HOH or SLP) and use of visual supports can alleviate some of this stress,

Provide subtitles for videos and transcripts of any recordings used in class.

Assessments typically include oral and written components, and adjustments will likely be needed for the oral portions. Students with hearing loss should have the oral component read aloud by the teacher (vs. listening to a recording). This will provide visual information for speechreading, maximize auditory access and allow the student to ask for repetition as needed. For students who struggle auditorily, the oral component may weigh less towards to total grade for that student. Additionally, consider the student’s speech abilities. A student who does not have access to all speech sounds, and therefore does not produce them, should not lose points on an oral assessment for those errors.

Just like typically hearing students, there are many reasons students with hearing loss take foreign language classes. One of my students spends time in France with his family and wants to be able to communicate independently while there. Another student is taking Spanish simply because it is required and she wanted to give it a try rather than waiving the class (as many students with hearing loss are able to do). A third student attends a Jewish day school and is learning Hebrew as part of the religious curriculum, which includes reading religious texts. Yet another student has taken Latin as a way of improving his understanding of English. Each student has a different reason for choosing and participating in their language class. For students with hearing loss, there may need to be some adjustments in what is emphasized or weighted more heavily - whether it be speaking, reading, writing, or cultural exposure. But, it is usually worthwhile to consider the benefits of taking a second language before presuming it is not a possibility.

The first year taking a foreign language often goes well as long as the student’s first language is in tact. Because the teacher assumes that everyone is new to the language, the instruction is generally slow paced and very clear. The teacher slowly articulates, is careful about word boundaries and includes a variety of visuals such as posted vocabulary and conjugations of verb forms. Projects and cultural lessons make the experience hands-on and meaningful. Since everyone is working on syntax, the teacher often writes out whole sentences and is very explicit about grammar and syntax. It is helpful to point out these strategies and encourage teachers to keep using them, even more so as the student progresses through the levels. As instruction becomes more conversation based, teachers tend to drop some of the visual supports that the student with hearing loss will continue to need.

Above all, encourage the student with hearing loss to communicate with the foreign language teacher – both when difficulties arise and when strategies are working well.

How do you help students access foreign language classes?


  1. This is really an awesome post. All the tips of Learning a new Language are excellent. It takes time to learn a foreign language. And not just time but also dedication. It is very important because it comes with it the discipline you need to show and not just your interest.
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    1. Thanks for your feedback, Junu! I absolutely agree. Learning a new language and becoming invested in that learning is a process but our students are absolutely capable!

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