My Journey #2: Language Learning Disability and Immigration

Listening and speaking is such an everyday occurrence, we hardly notice the mechanisms that actually make it happen. So it isn’t too surprising that evaluators often overlook, or simply don’t consider, a learning disability that involves the processing of language. But those who work with aphasia, or experience it, know what I am talking about. A language learning disability (LLD) is like a mild form of aphasia. Children or adults who have LLD struggle to understand what people are saying to them. They may also struggle to sequence their thoughts and put them into spoken words.

Perceptions of LLD

A language learning disorder makes learning across all subject matters difficult. In particular, the disorder increases the amount of time needed to do all of the processing. If everyone had all the time they needed to process language, this would not be a problem. However, we live in a world where “time is of the essence” and “time is money.” We have no patience or tolerance for people who require a lot of time to give us a response.

Some people interpret a slower response as diminished intelligence and formulate all kinds of ideas about the person… until they find out that they are talking to Steven Hawking.

LLD is like foreign-language immersion

When describing language learning disability in some of my training sessions, I compare it to the time when I emigrated from Sweden to the United States (1956). I was seven years old and could speak only Swedish and Yiddish. When starting the first grade, I was lost and frustrated. I had to learn English and Hebrew immediately in order to succeed in school.

When other students spoke to me I had no idea what they were saying, and I could not express myself either. The frustration built up to a point where I would just get angry. Visits to the principal’s office became common. Fortunately the principal understood and spoke Yiddish, so he was able to calm me down.

LLD in school

This experience is very similar to what a child with LLD is experiencing. They too make frequent visits to the principal’s office and get identified as having a range of behavior disorders.

A troubling fact is that the typical school evaluation by the school psychologist when a child is referred for “evaluation” does not detect language disorders.

The school psychologist typically does not have training in language assessment. This process is delegated to their team of speech and language therapists who have that training. Unless someone makes a deliberate effort to assess language function—not speech articulation—by including specific tests for language processing, it is unlikely that any language processing problems will be discovered.

Diagnosis becomes even more complex when children or adults with ADHD demonstrate a high incidence of language processing problems.

Dennis Cantwell (of ADHD fame) discusses the prevalence of language processing problems in his book, mentioned below. When considering the symptoms of ADHD—distractibility, variable attention, impulsivity, disorganization of thoughts—it is not surprising to find a large number of ADHD children behaving like LLD children. And ADHD children also develop behavior problems and wind up in the principal’s office. As you can see, the diagnostic process is complex and each element has to be slowly teased out to provide a clear picture of what steps to take for remediation.

The remedial process may involve several levels, such as language therapy, counseling, significant modifications in the school curriculum, learning strategies for organizing information from reading and listening, and social skills training with a peer group, and medicine.

Adults and employment

I was fortunate to evaluate adults who were out of work and looking for employment. Can you guess the most prevalent disorder they had? LLD.

They were all raised in the US and had graduated from high school. I informed their employment counselors to be sensitive about the kind of recommendations to make to help with their re-employment process. The employment counselors told virtually all of these adults to attend college and take courses involving a high level of listening skills, reading, and writing. When I pointed out the risk inherent in those recommendations, the counselors responded with a fire storm of rebuke and condemnation. They simply failed to recognize any other viable option except “college” when in fact, other options were available.

In a future blog, I will discuss how American blind infatuation with a “4-year college” education limits our options, potential, and income.

If you’d like to learn more about LLD, a good resource on the subject is a book by Dennis Cantwell and Lorian Baker, Psychiatric and Developmental Disorders in Children with Communication Disorders (1991).

Have a great week,

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