«Then, all I wanted and needed, when I learned so painstakingly to read and then to write, was to find a way to be less alone. Which is, of course, what spoken and written language is really all about.» (Philip Schultz)
When I think about language, I think about communication. If once the majority of people needed to master only their native language, nowadays the situation is totally different (for non-native English speakers at least). We are not only required to know a second language, but also to be able to study and ultimately work with it. But… What happens to people who have difficulties in acquiring reading skills in their first language? Are there enough means to help them acquiring those skills in a second language?
Developmental dyslexia is a language disorder for which people encounter difficulties in reading and spelling. The term “developmental” means that this disorder manifests during the development of neural and cognitive skills – i.e. while children are learning to read (as opposed to an acquired language disorder, which occurs after traumatic events, and entails the disruption of a language system which was working perfectly before the event).
Dyslexia and foreign language learning
If you have difficulties in reading in your native language, it follows that reading in a foreign language will be an even bigger challenge. There are ways in which people affected by dyslexia can compensate for many of their difficulties. Compensatory methods include increasing phonological awareness and using a multi-sensory approach to enhance memory for spelling patterns. The digital revolution has played a huge role in helping dyslexics to spell with the help of word processors and spellcheckers.
Taking into account the phonological deficit at the basis of dyslexia is pivotal when addressing the issue of how to teach foreign languages. Such difficulties often result in failure at acquiring a second language mainly due to the inability of the education system in targeting different learning styles.
Much research is focusing at the moment into filling this gap and developing tools to ease language learning for dyslexics. In Italy, this is mainly happening at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice where the DEAL (Developmental dyslexia and language learning)research group collaborates with teachers and provides them with tailored learning material. Some of their work can be accessed here, including some units from The Complete English Grammar for Italian Students. Grammar summaries and exercises adapted for students with dyslexia.
The experience of Philip Schultz
In this article, Philip Schultz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2008, recounts his experience with dyslexia and how he taught himself how to read. His frank account is the account of everyone who experiences such difficulties and used to be ashamed because of them. Luckily, nowadays there is more awareness on the matter and tools are being developed – not only for reading into one’s native language, but also in a foreign language.