Strategies for Helping Students Learn a Foreign Language


Students with foreign language learning difficulties are often those who have current or residual native language learning problems. For these students,

  • phonology (the sound units which comprise language),
  • morphology (word structure),
  • syntax (the structure and rules of language), and/or
  • semantics (the meaning of words)

often must be taught directly and systematically. Additionally, verbal memory difficulties may impact a student's acquisition of a foreign language, and therefore need to be considered when determining the best learning strategies.


Students should begin by consulting with their Learning Disability Services Coordinator to determine which foreign language courses would be their best choice. This choice should be based on their past experience in foreign language course work and their particular strengths and weaknesses in their native language.

  1. Students should attempt, when possible, to build on any previous positive experience they have had with learning a foreign language.
  2. They should consider the nature of the foreign language and how their own learning strengths and weaknesses would interface with a particular language.

For example, Spanish has regular sound/symbol correspondences making word decoding and spelling easier (phonology). Latin is a language that is primarily read, reducing the demands of oral communication. Chinese is a language with a logographic(symbol-word relationship) rather than orthographic system (symbol-sound relationship).

Once a particular foreign language course is chosen, your Learning Disability Services Coordinator, and/or faculty members in your college's foreign language department, may be able to help you to choose an instructor who best matches your style of learning. In general, a more structured, graded learning approach, emphasizing a multi-modal presentation of information, with the opportunity for frequent practice and review of material, will be most beneficial for students with foreign language learning problems. In contrast, a naturalistic communication approach is likely to be more difficult.

When selecting a foreign language course, look for courses that offer the following:

  1. Specific training on phonological and/or syntactical aspects of the language.
  2. A multi-modal approach to teaching the foreign language through the use of visual input (written material such as handouts, overheads), auditory input (practice listening to foreign language speaker in person and on tape), and kinesthetic input (writing in the foreign language, combining verbal and nonverbal aspects of communicating).
  3. Slower, controlled pacing of the presentation of material with time for oral and written practice (e.g., board drills, reviews of information, quizzes).


The way in which students prepare for and approach course work will impact their success. Below are some suggestions to enhance the learning of a foreign language.

  1. Review the course syllabus before or on the first day of class. Skim over textbook chapters to get a better understanding of the course material and the pace at which it will be covered. Lay out an initial study plan with consideration for extra review and practice time.
  2. Talk with your instructor about the availability of self-paced learning opportunities through the use of guided self-instruction manuals, audiotapes available in a language lab, individualized tutoring, and computer assisted instruction to augment your learning.
  3. Practice and rehearsal will be an important aspect of the learning process. To enhance memory and learning of vocabulary, make flash cards and practice learning new words on a daily basis. To increase your motivation to study, arrange to work at least once or twice a week with another classmate. Having a "study buddy" can make studying more enjoyable, give you the opportunity to practice communicating orally in the foreign language, and help you assess your learning progress. Developing and taking practice tests similar in format to the classroom tests will help you learn and review class material as well as enhance your test taking skills.
  4. Talk with your instructor about the possibility of getting handouts that correspond with oral information presented in class so that you can see the spoken words and phrases through their written representation.
  5. Ask your instructor for help in pointing out the patterns and redundancies of the foreign language by highlighting the relationship between more frequent root words to less familiar derivatives. Gaining an understanding about the ways in which the structure of the foreign language relates to the structure of your native language can also be helpful.
  6. Use an audio tape to tape record classes. By reviewing the audio tape, you allow yourself additional exposure to the sounds and structure of the foreign language. Additionally, by reviewing the information presented in lecture, you can check your notes for accuracy and completeness.
  7. There is some evidence that, for students who are at risk for having difficulty learning a foreign language, first taking a course in linguistics in their native language can better prepare them to learn a foreign language.
  8. To stimulate your interest and excitement about learning a foreign language, seek out opportunities to immerse yourself in the foreign language and culture (e.g., rent a movie in the foreign language, talk with native speakers of the foreign language, and visit exhibits/festivals that celebrate the countries in which the people speak the foreign language.

Testing accommodations that may help students who have a foreign language learning problem

  1. Extended time on classroom exams.
  2. Taking tests in a distraction-free environment.
  3. Alternative test formats. For example, for students with phonological and/or auditory-verbal learning and memory problems, written tests rather than oral tests may more accurately assess their knowledge of the foreign language.