Language Learning for the ADD Generation

Bored teenage students

by Steven Blum

I’ll never forget how distracted I felt when I tried to learn German at a Berlin-based language school.

As I strained to listen to my teacher discuss accusatives and datives, I couldn’t help but marvel distractedly at the UN-esque diversity of our classroom, filled with newly minted Berliners from Spain, South Korea, Sweden and Japan. A slight breeze would waft in through the windows and I’d wonder what winter was like in the German capital. Then I’d start craving soup. Then I’d resent Berlin and start daydreaming about a life in Spain, or wonder what kind of soup they serve in South Korea…

In case you can’t tell, I have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). It isn’t crippling, but when it comes to learning the grammar of a foreign language, it’s very, very hard to convince my stimulation-craving brain to care.

Those with learning disabilities like mine present unique challenges for language instructors. Some disorders, like dyslexia, make it harder for learners to write fluently in a new language; others, like Asperger’s Syndrome, can cause difficulties in verbalisation. But that doesn’t mean teachers should despair; it just means they need to find relevant ways of getting their instruction across to differently-abled learners.

Dr Judit Kormos researches special education needs in language at the University of Lancaster. She says that when teaching a student with dyslexia, language instructors should put less emphasis on spelling.

“I have seen many, many successful students who can speak well, even if they can’t write brilliantly,” she said in an article in the Guardian.

“So I think you can set slightly different goals for dyslexic students, in terms of what they need to achieve.”

Dr Margaret Crombie, who runs the website Languages Without Limits, agrees. She also advocates using a range of audiovisual materials when teaching those with disabilities.

“Multi-sensory teaching techniques are particularly effective for dyslexic students,” she says.

“Hearing it, seeing it, saying it, writing it, doing it, acting it out. Slowing down the language helps as well. Slow it down for the learning stage, and once they become familiar with the language, then speed it up.”

Learners with autism present different challenges – and opportunities. “A child with autism really enjoys grammar – they like the regularity of it and the way it goes together,” says retired special needs teacher David Wilson.

“They often enjoy speaking the language less; a lot of them don’t see the point. So, to some extent, you’ve got to do it on their terms. You’ve got try to meet them halfway.”

For those with ADD, I’ve found the key is to make language learning as meaningful as possible. Maybe that means watching a favourite TV show in a foreign language, or reading a translation of a favourite novel. The point is to ensure one’s brain is learning in a memorable way.

For teachers, it’s important to find out students’ strengths and weaknesses so that lesson plans can be geared towards a range of learning styles. Some people will find verbal lessons easier than writing drills and vice versa.

When Mark Twain lived in Germany in the 1890’s, he wrote: “I don’t believe there is anything in the whole earth that you can’t learn in Berlin except the German language.”

That was my experience as well. But with all of the advanced learning techniques currently available, it certainly doesn’t have to be.