I can't learn languages

Language Myth #2: "I can't learn a language because I'm dyslexic"

Dispelling common language fears

Many dyslexia sufferers are scared by their school experiences of being stigmatized and stereotyped as 'unteachable' or 'stupid' or 'illiterate'. Attitudes to dyslexia are much healthier nowadays, and nobody should feel ashamed of their dyslexia. Dyslexia is only a problem when a tutor is unaware of the needs of the student, and is inflexible in their approach to get the best results.

It's also much more common that you might think; it is estimated that as many as 1/5 people may suffer from at least one of the symptoms of dyslexia. Famous dyslexics include Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Tom Cruise and Jamie Oliver to name but a few.

So does dyslexia just mean that you can't read very well? Not at all. In fact, dyslexia is a complicated beast; it can mean working memory is shorter, making it difficult to retain information, letters appear mixed up, impairing reading ability, or the individual cannot easily understand how a word sounds just from looking at it.

The great news is that it is absolutely possible to learn a language when you suffer from dyslexia. All you will need is determination and a great tutor who is willing to adapt their lesson plans to help you. Take a look at the following tips:

1. Talk to your tutor. It sounds simple, but this will be the most important step in getting the most out of your lessons; if you don't tell your tutor what you are struggling with, and what your preferences are, he or she won't be able to help you.

2. Multi-sensory learning. A tutor that uses a variety of resources with a dyslexic student will have the most success; use all senses - try video clips, audio clips, conversation, role plays, games and songs, as well as tactile products which the student can touch, such as forming letters and sounds out of clay or a similar material.

3. Know your learning style. There are three main types of learners:

a. Visual learners learn best through seeing things; try overhead projections with clear instructions and vocabulary, with words spaced well apart to allow the individual to concentrate on just that single word. You can also try mind mapping, post it notes, writing syllables in different coloured pens and playing memory games such as 'pairs' to improve working memory and test vocabulary at the same time. Flashcards will also be useful, as repetition is key with vocabulary learning. Mind mapping is also a good way to make bold, visually impactful vocabulary notes which are easier to revise from than a long list of vocabulary.

b. Auditory learners learn best through listening; audio recordings, songs, conversations, and reading aloud will help these students. Applications like WordTalk also enable notes to be read aloud to you, in a text-to-speech function.

c. Kinaesthetic learners learn best by doing things and combining learning with physical activity; this could be memorising notes whilst walking around the house, taking field trips, talking with native speakers or practicing with friends. Touch is also an important sense for this learning group. Try tracing letters or sounds into the air or into coloured sand; it may help to better understand the sound you are making.

4. Did you know that the background colour of the paper you are working on or reading on can help to ease the symptoms of dyslexia? Try using materials printed on pastel colours such as peach or lilac; each learner will have their own preference. Apply this rule to your workbooks too; try to stick to a lined workbook with similar pastel coloured pages, readily available online from many dyslexia specialists.

5. The font a tutor types notes in can also make a difference; for dyslexic students avoid italics or underlining - instead use bold typeface to emphasize words; underlining can make all the lines run together. Sans serif fonts such as Comic Sans, Verdana, Arial, Tahoma, Century Gothic or Trebuchet are often used. There is also a specific open source font available for free online called OpenDyslexic; a font designed specifically for use in schools to aid dyslexic pupils, for those who find that letters often "swim" together on the page.

6. The most important thing you can to do help with dyslexia is to create a tidy, clutter-free space to work in; students should feel relaxed. There is scientific reasoning behind the need for relaxation; when we become anxious or stressed, these thoughts cloud our ability to think, and for a dyslexic pupil who may already be struggling with their working memory capacity, this can make it impossible to learn anything at all. To achieve this relaxation, building confidence is important, and the lesson should be taken at the student's own pace to reinforce the important relationship between teacher and pupil.

Having a tutor who is aware of your learning needs will be of utmost importance; all of my lessons are fully adaptable to your specifications. Additionally, I work closely with a dyslexia specialist, who is also available for consultation to help strengthen your confidence with literacy and language learning. Dyslexia just requires a different teaching approach, but with the correct support, you can excel. Please contact me for more details.

Language Myth #1: "I can't learn languages"

Dispelling common language fears

Virtually every time during my degree when I told people I was studying French and Spanish, I would get the same stereotypical response: "I can't learn languages" or "I just don't get them".

Whilst it is of course true that learning languages comes easier to some than others, that can be said of any skill different people have different natural aptitude and flair for different things.

In my opinion, success is down to two things natural aptitude and dedication. Let's translate this scenario to athletics for example take Jamaican teammates Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. Bolt clearly has natural ability for sprinting and reportedly hates training, whilst for Blake it is certainly his hard work, training and strategy which gets him closer to Bolt on the track. So when it comes to language learning, you have to be committed.

The other question I frequently encounter is "how long will it take me to be fluent?" To which I invariably reply, "How long is a piece of string?".  Firstly, what can we define as "fluency"?  Does it mean we need to know every word in the language?  Probably not; I'm sure I could throw a few English words at you that you haven't a clue about, yet as a native speaker you must consider yourself fluent.  As a teacher, the concept of fluency can be frustrating; it may have a different meaning for each person you meet. 

As with anything, the more effort you put in, the more you will get out. If you simply come to your weekly lesson and do nothing in between, you will still progress, but clearly not at the same rate as somebody who takes it upon themselves to study every day. This doesn't have to feel like a chore it need not be rote learning or grammar drills - I'll be publishing a blog soon on how to integrate fun language learning techniques into your everyday routine. 

One to one sessions with a private tutor will obviously also go a long way to helping you succeed... consider this... in a classroom of 30 people, each person would get to speak for just 2 minutes each in a 1 hour lesson. In a private lesson, the floor is yours and you are free to dictate the pace and topic of the lesson. Although you pay a premium price, these lessons will pay dividends in the end.