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Why teach a second language to learners who are already struggling to master their first? What are the benefits?

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Much of the material on this site deals with HOW to teach foreign languages to learners to learners with various learning needs, but equally important is WHY? You hear many reasons why alternative courses should be provided:

"He can't use his own language properly yet, so why should he waste time trying to learn another?"

"She hasn't time; there are more important things for her to learn."

"They'll never use it anyway."

So what ARE the benefits of language learning for learners for whom the purpose of such study is not always evident to themsleves, to their parents, and sometimes, even, to their teachers? What is the rationale? What benefits are we claiming to offer? What expectations do we have of learners? And are there any benefits for teachers?


Workshop 1
Poses some questions for reflection on themes covered on this page, including: Why should we offer opportunities for second language learning to learners who are already struggling to master their first?

Languages Plus: Making links Describes foreign language learning as the gateway to many other benefits

Why aren't they learning?
Some students are learning MFL happily and successfully, while others of similar ability are struggling or have become alienated.
Why aren't they learning?

Introduction to inclusive practice
How can language teaching become more inclusive?


All children are citizens of a plurilingual world. All have a right, and perhaps a responsibility, to learn about other cultures and to sample other languages.

All children need to learn to accept and value people from backgrounds different from their own.

In our work we have met children who saw themselves as 'different' from those around them and who were comforted to learn of a wider world in which people could be different and valued.

Learning another language helps children to become more aware of their own. This awareness can lead to improvements in literacy across the curriculum.

Reseach shows that bilingualism, even partial bilingualism, can have a beneficial affect on brain development.

It's another way for children with delayed skills development to revisit basic concepts and to learn social skills in a way that seems more interesting and grown up.

The experiences that accompany foreign language learning are life-enhancing, but the precise benefits for any specific child may be unpredictable.

Who can say what benefits any child will gain from any particular experience? Who can deny any child the chance to enjoy those benefits, whatever they may be? (See Workshop 3)

Experience has shown that, contrary to common expectations, all but a very few children can benefit from language learning, provided that the content offered and the methodologies employed are appropriate for their learning needs.

So why not at least give it a try? It may be the only chance a child will get, and the decision can be reviewed later. Miss the chance when it comes, and the opporunity is lost, maybe for ever.

For further thoughts on these and other points, see the downloads, below.


Over the last fifteen years or so we have encountered young people with all sorts of difficulties and disabilities successfully and happily learning a foreign language. Many of them in special schools and units where we might not have expected language learning to be part of the curriculum. We have also encountered young people who were struggling to learn and some – often in mainstream schools – who have become alienated. If some can do it, why can't more be successful?

Teachers sometimes report that they feel reluctant to spend the necessary time with 'bottom sets' because they feel more able learners are losing out. Yet the approaches that work with less able learners also work with more able learners and can often transform the experience of those struggling in the middle. So, by adopting these approaches, teachers find they also become better at meeting the needs of other learners too. Far from having to spend time devising 'special measures for special learners', teachers gain valuable insights into techniques that make language learning seem easier for learners of all levels of ability.

To put it another way:

Strategies grid

This website was developed to help teachers to reflect on the issues. touched upon on this page. Briefly, improvements to teaching practice seems to come down to three key points: course composition, teaching approaches and adult expectations*.

Course content – see the download below: Three ingredients
Teaching approaches – see, amongst others, the pages on developing inclusive practice
Adult expectations – see note below, and Workshop 1.

* Although, overall, pupils with severe, profound and complex learning difficulties (SLD) and those with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) are somewhat more likely than others not to be included in modern language programmes, pupils of all abilities, including those with SLD and SEBD, were represented in the programmes described in this survey. The decision whether or not to offer modern languages appears to relate to adult expectations of pupils' capabilities and to staffing resources rather than to the ability of pupils to benefit. (McColl 2003)

Please see note on copyright


Some benefits are not predictable
This extract from Modern Languages for All suggests that some of the benefits to be gained from language learning are predictable (provided that the teacher designs the course in such a way that these benefits are 'deliverable'), but that some are not – that some benefits arise from the impact made on an individual learner by the concepts and processes involved. The 'snap shots' of individual learners and the way in which language study has enriched their lives are true stories collected by the author; only the names of the learners have been changed.
Download extract 1

Foreign Language Learning and Inclusion: Who? Why? What? – and How?
The following article was published in the Journal Support for Learning
Published by NASEN in 2005.
Download article

Exceptional withdrawal from modern language learning in mainstream schools
An extract from Europe, Language Learning and Special Educational Needs
distributed as advice to Scottish mainstream schools in 1997.
Download extract 2

The LangSEN Project
In 2004 the Council of Europe set up a project called LangSEN that aimed to raise awareness of the rights of disabled people in respect of foreign language learning and to disseminate examples of good practice. One of the keynote speakers asked if the aims, expectations and benefits of foreign language learning should be the same for all learners.
Download a copy of the keynote speech

What is language learning FOR?
Some quotations from a variety of sources; some you may agree with, others not...
Download quotations 1

The European perspective
In 2005 the European Commission published a report on Special Educational Needs in Europe: the teaching and learning of languages. Here are some extracts from the report. Find a link to the whole document below.
Download extracts from the European report

Three ingredients for success
Download: Three ingredients


[Links last checked 9.2.11 unless otherwise indicated.]


Looking for research into the benefits of language learning? Here's a useful starting point:

Languages smarten up your brain
A study by David Marsh published by the European Commission in January 2010 reveals that learning an additional language such as English may bring benefits that go beyond the ability to use the language itself. The study has implications for why, when and how we teach and learn English as a second or foreign language. This article in the Guardian Weekly draws attention to the implications for learning English as a foreign language, but the research has implications for all foreign language learning. The specific cognitive advantages mentioned apply to all levels of ability.

Special educational needs in Europe: the teaching and learning of languages: insights and innovation
European Commission, January 2005. "All young people in the European Union, whatever their disability, whether educated in mainstream or segregated schools/streams, have equal rights to foreign language education..."

Times Educational Supplement
Archived discussion on this issue from the TES discussion forum. A range of views from practitioners.

[8.6.11] The legal and professional context
The Open University has a comprehensive and comprehensilble suite of pages on the implications for educational institutions of the Disability Discrimination Act.
In particular, it deals with the requirement for schools and other institutions to make reasonable adjustments to learning and teaching methods as well as to physical access in order to allow all students to take part in curricular activities.
The DDA Code of Practice for Schools can be found here:

[12.4.12] The Association for Language Learning's statement on disapplication


Given that all children of the European Union, regardless of their aptitudes and abilities, share the same fundamental right of citizenship, it follows that an inclusive approach to early language learning should be adopted.

FROM: Foreign languages in Primary and Pre-School Education: Context and Outcomes (Section 5.3.4) (page 108) Christiane Blondin et al. European Union 2007


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Through learning language, we learn about culture.
Through learning about culture, we learn respect for others.
Through learning respect for others, we can hope for peace.


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