NVLD and languages?

I was interested to see what children diagnosed with nonverbal learning disability receive in the way of accommodations now that it’s recognized. One of the things I found suggested quite often was that they be excused from foreign-language classes. The sites never quite explained why, and I can’t imagine. I can guess, remembering my difficulties in my Spanish classes particularly in college, but at the same time I never would have wanted to skip them. In fact, I minored in Spanish and helped the majors in the Lit classes. While I don’t have much opportunity to speak or write it these days, I’m proficient enough that I can read novels fairly quickly. When I was able to write more, I also wrote proficiently, barring some idiomatic expressions I didn’t know.

My difficulty was with spoken Spanish. I can actually pronounce it very well, albeit with an inevitable American tinge, and was often asked to read the assignments out loud. As long as the printed words were in front of me, I could do that. Hearing it was another story, as was speaking it spontaneously. I’ve compensated well enough in English that the written and spoken are roughly the same now. But with Spanish, I hadn’t been around it long enough to learn how to do that. I could ask a question or make a comment in Spanish, but my mouth moved more slowly than my brain. Luckily, during my last two terms I had a professor who valued reading literature as a means of learning idioms and grammar, and more importantly spoke clearly and used her hands very fluently. My real-time spoken Spanish is somewhat improved now.

At the beginning of the semester I typed the professor a note in Spanish — I could type more then, and was able to hold and control a pen besides — explaining that I was hard of hearing. This was true; I’m nearly deaf in my right ear. But I needed to use that in order to approach accommodations to the other problem, so it was technically a sort of evasion. At any rate, she would give me reading comprehension exercises in lieu of the auditory translation/dictation exercises. I breezed through them. Everything was all right until I had to do a presentation, for which we spoke Spanish and weren’t allowed to read directly from our notes. I literally could not get the words out of my mouth. When I speak, I can see the printed words in my head, and I couldn’t see the Spanish that time and therefore couldn’t produce the words. I had to excuse myself.

So, at the end of next week’s class, the professor asked me what she could do to help. Feeling slightly awkward, I asked her to use her hands. I felt I could ask this because she tended to gesture when she spoke, but in such a way that she actually conveyed the corners of the words — it wasn’t a full-fledged sign language, but neither was it the vague hand flapping that accompanies most people’s speech. In this way, my comprehension improved somewhat by looking between her hands and her mouth, using the gestures to help verify the sound. And I owed her much for the respect she showed me during our final presentations. I projected the words and images on the screen, with summaries and captions written in Spanish, but I did not speak: the professor spoke for me. I had not asked her to.

Maybe I just got lucky for once, privileged to have an understanding professor who didn’t think I was being lazy or making excuses. But I really don’t think foreign-language classes should be dismissed out of hand. Couldn’t students with nonverbal learning disability just be evaluated more on their reading and writing, if auditory problems are indeed the concern? I never had the supposed “low reading comprehension” in either language, so I can’t comment on that, if these experts are referring to reading difficulties.

Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m wondering if speech recognition software might help others with nonverbal learning disability. It still reassures me immensely to talk to the computer, knowing that the words will be safe on the other side of the screen and I can see and edit what I’ve said. I’m curious, too, for myself: I wonder how my spoken Spanish would be if I could have used Spanish dictation software to verify and reinforce my speech. Nuance does sell a Spanish version of Dragon, as well as — I think — a bilingual English/Spanish version. Interesting, anyway.

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