Accommodations for Foreign Language Classes

In today’s global village, more and more deaf students are taking foreign language courses successfully. Navigating accessibility and course requirements for foreign language courses is not always as straightforward as they may be in other courses. Institutions should evaluate accommodations for these classes on a case-by-case basis. Effective collaboration and flexibility plays a major role in implementing accommodations including a “trial and error” approach to configuring accommodations.

A foreign language class can sometimes seem daunting for both deaf students and for the class instructor, but there are many ways for deaf students to successfully take these classes. Effective approaches are determined on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration a variety of factors, including the student’s accommodation needs, available resources, and the purpose of the class in the overall academic program for the student.

An open and honest discussion between all parties involved is a good first step. Being able to talk over the concerns at hand and brainstorm ways to alleviate potential barriers goes a long way toward arriving at an effective solution. To start, below are some essential questions to consider.

Why Is The Student Taking The Class?

Sometimes a student is taking a class just because it is a requirement. But deaf students may also take a foreign language class for personal enrichment, to enhance readiness for a specific career path, or to prepare for travel.

Has The Student Taken Any Foreign Language Classes In The Past?

If the student has experience learning foreign languages, formally or informally, then this experience and knowledge of what accommodations and approaches have worked well can be a great starting point.

Does The Student Have Ideas For How To Make This Foreign Language Class Accessible?

The student may not have taken a foreign language class yet, but still have ideas about what accommodations are most likely to provide access for that specific student.

Is The Student An Auditory or Visual Learner?

Does the student get enough use from hearing aids or cochlear implants that they prefer to use their residual hearing to access the class? Or does the student prefer to use speech-to-text or interpreter services in the classroom setting? Establishing the answers to these questions will guide discussions about accommodations and strategies.

For auditory learners, accommodations such as assistive listening devices, preferential seating, closed captioning, and speech-to-text services can provide the student access to the class content. For visual learners, accommodations such as speech-to-text services or sign language interpreting services may be the most effective way to ensure access.

Speaking is Not Essential to Learn a Foreign Language

One challenge is the common belief that listening and speaking the foreign language is an essential component of the course requirements. Implying that a student needs to be able to “speak” or “listen” to a language in order to meet the course requirements may be frowned upon by the Office for Civil Rights because it can be seen as excluding certain groups from partaking in an institution’s program. However, when institutions have taken creative approaches to accommodate deaf students, the students often thrive in learning other languages. One example is Tory’s Story and her journey in learning Arabic.

Equitable Alternatives

To determine the best route, accommodations or substitutions, start with the student to understand their comfort level with different types of communication modes. Careful consideration of the intent of the course objectives would help guide the discussion on determining a reasonable alternative.

Options to consider with an equitable alternative:

  • If the oral component is about communicating effectively (pragmatics and semantics of the language), a written alternative may be reasonable. This would align with other strategies the student may use to communicate in their daily lives.
  • If the oral component is about grammar use (syntax of the language), a written component that demonstrates the student’s use of grammar may be appropriate. A one-on-one setting with the instructor for verbal or spoken components may be another option, if the student is comfortable with it.
  • If the oral component is to assess articulation and speech production (phonology or morphology of the language) then a waiver of this portion may be reasonable or replaced with another activity such as cultural/historical research.
  • If an audible file component is about listening, a transcript of the audio in the written version of the language can provide access to the audio.
  • If a video is shown or assigned, the captions should reflect the video’s language versus subtitles, which are translations from one language to another.

Addressing Barriers for Deaf Students in Foreign Language Classes

For disability service professionals:

  • Contact the instructor or department in advance to inquire about class requirements and materials.
  • Schedule a meeting with the instructor and student prior to the first day of class to establish a relationship and a shared understanding of the student’s goals.
  • Talk to the student about their preferences regarding the speaking and listening component of the class, as well as potential alternatives for specific assignments. Some students may use their own voice when participating in class while others may use sign language and fingerspelling, while the interpreter voices their responses.
  • Encourage everyone to be flexible. Accommodations may not always work as desired at first and it may be necessary to find a successful fit through trial and error.

For instructors:

  • Use visual cues and prompts to aid in learning or memorization
  • Make explicit connections between print/text and spoken or auditory content
  • Leave gaps between indicating a visual aid and speaking about it, so that a student’s eyes don’t have to be two places at once (visual learners will be looking at the interpreter or speech-to-text output, and most auditory learners benefit from watching the speaker to better understand via auditory channels)

It is important to remember that deaf students should have the same opportunity to participate in foreign language classes that their hearing peers have, and that effective outcomes can be achieved through brainstorming and creative problem solving.

Service Providers for Foreign Language Courses

Depending on the student’s communication preferences, providing both interpreting and speech-to-text services can ensure receptive and expressive language skills can be satisfied with foreign language learning. Both kinds of service providers must be qualified to convey the foreign language accurately. The level of competency of the service provider could directly impact the student’s capacity to participate, perform, and meet the academic standards of the course. There are service providers in both the interpreting and speech-to-text services fields that are fluent in more than one language.
A good first step in finding qualified service providers is to discuss the language of instruction, communication requirements, and interactions within the classroom setting with faculty. For example:
  • What percentage of the class is conducted in languages other than English?
  • What level of competency is needed to navigate this class, spoken and written forms? Beginner, intermediate, or advanced fluency?

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