Should a child be expected to study a foreign language, when they are already struggling with the English language?

This is a question I get asked all the time. It is also something I faced as a parent of three children diagnosed with dyslexia, who were all expected to learn French.

So, here’s my answer.

Assess your child’s ability to cope with the second language

The first thing you should do is assess your child’s ability to learn another language. Some children love foreign languages and they are actually really good at them. Even if they have a learning difficultly, a specific language impairment or dyslexia. Here’s why!

“Quite often children with dyslexia have excellent auditory and/or visual memories and learning to speak a foreign language comes easily to them.”


These children have developed the skill to hear or see whole words and remember them.

This means that some children with dyslexia can be really good at foreign languages. However, it doesn’t mean they will be good at writing and spelling in that language, although they can be IF the language is phonic based. Think of Russian.

Symbol based languages like Chinese, use symbols to represent words, so if a child has an excellent visual memory, these types of languages can also be achievable.

Many children today come from multicultural backgrounds and as a result are bilingual, trilingual or multilingual. The question about whether a child should be expected to take on a foreign language as an additional subject is usually asked by parents of English-speaking children who are being asked to learn a completely foreign language where it causes their children great psychological stress.

When this happens, we need to take action.

After we have assessed the child’s ability to cope with a second language and determined they aren’t coping, there are some things you can do.

Speak to the teacher about suitable learning formats your child could use

Talk to the foreign language teacher about other learning formats that may be better suited to your child’s learning style.

I know that I was able to find a set of animated video tutorials online, which taught the French language in a story-based format. Some teachers may be willing to incorporate these alternative programs into their classrooms.

“It’s definitely worth considering alternative teaching formats that are going to work with your child’s learning style and letting teachers know about them.”


Do some research into this area.

Ask your school if the course content can be modified

In other words, can your child be assessed on just the spoken language and not the written and spelling components? This way they can still learn to speak a language and be a valuable language learner.

When you travel to a foreign country, the best place to start when learning a language is to learn just by speaking it. Writing and spelling are secondary, they come later.

So, ask if the course can be modified to suit your child.

See what has been offered in the past

You can also ask what accommodations other students have been offered in the past.

This can be a good way to find out what might be available to your child, simply based on what has been offered to other students before.

Get your child’s IEP modified

You could get a modification written into your child’s IEP that excuses them from attending foreign language classes. An IEP is an Individual Education Plan and is a legal document.

If you are able to make this IEP modification, you then need to consider what your child will do when their classmates are attending their foreign language classes. There needs to be an alternative arrangement which suits everyone involved.

Let’s look at some of these options:

  • A learning support class – These classes may provide addition literacy and homework support. Some schools timetable these learning support classes at the same time as foreign language classes.
  • Additional English language classes – In these classes, students may focus on essay writing or novels. As children get older they may need extra help on writing descriptive or argumentative essays or persuasive texts. A parallel class for these additional skills could be timetabled.
  • An alternative education program offered in the library – It might be possible for your child to do an alternative computer program in the library. They could do something perhaps like my program – The Ten Minute Tutor. There are also typing program or numeracy programs.
  • Special interest program – This could also be done in the library under the supervision of the librarian. It might be a project or an area of expertise that they already have, that they would benefit from spending more time on.
  • Alternative program or class – It might be possible for a child to do an alternative program that is within their skill set. One boy I know who is severely dyslexic did media and film making instead of a foreign language and other traditional classes. After he graduated from high school he won a scholarship to a attend college in New York and is now an actor and a film maker.

“When you go to the school and say I don’t want my child to do a foreign language, come up
with some alternatives.”

There are lots of alternative options, so think outside the box and find a win – win for everyone.

If the curriculum states your child must do a foreign language and the school just won’t budge, then what are your options?

Get a letter or report from a learning specialist to support your request

You can get a letter from an expert that can provide legitimate reasons why your child shouldn’t do a foreign language. This could be an expert or specialist in the disability your child has been diagnosed with or an educational psychologist.

Take this letter to the school when discussing your child’s IEP.

Go and see the Principal or the Curriculum coordinator

This is the next step up. Go and see whoever is in charge of the decision. It is definitely worth trying this. Explain your concerns and offer some alternatives.

What if after all these attempts, it’s still a no-go, what then?

Go to your regional office

Depending on what country you are in, the next step is to seek out authoritative body that is the next level up from your school.

In Australia we have regional offices. Within these regional offices there will be a learning difficulties or disability liaison officers.

These officers are paid by the government to provide information, support and guidance to parents and teachers. They may also be able to contact the school on your behalf and discuss the options and legal requirements surrounding learning disabilities. This will be different depending where you are in the world.

Pick up the phone, call the regional office and ask to speak to the disability liaison officer.

If you have tried everything and still you aren’t able to find an alternative arrangement, then what next?

“Remember, it’s time to act when your child is struggling psychologically with the learning requirements being asked of them.”


When the negative impact of having to do a foreign language becomes so great, then it’s time to think about this last option.

Change schools

Now, I know this is a huge one, but maybe, this school, just isn’t for your child. Sometimes when you have a school that isn’t being supportive of your child and the way they learn, you have to act.

Find another school.

You can check out my Facebook Live video on this topic on YouTube here or on Facebook here.

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