Learning a Language for People Who are Blind

 By Jennifer Jenkins
Fred’s Head from APH offered its readers an informational guide for foreign language learning materials in 2008, encouraging people who are blind or visually impaired to travel internationally. Today’s post by Jennifer Jenkins, contributing writer for http://www.onlineuniversity.net, an online resource for students interested in higher education, focuses on how the Internet and online learning platforms, including online schools and classes, have increased in scope and are making it easier for people who are blind or visually impaired to become multilingual.

Learning a Language Through an Online University Program

Bilingualism is a fact of life in most parts of the world, and research is beginning to show that the ability to communicate in at least two languages may have more than just cultural or economic significance. A number of  studies have linked multiple language fluency to cognitive benefits such as memory retention, decision-making skills, and possibly even dementia resistance later in life. Becoming bilingual in a family and community that speaks but one language can be challenging, however. Emerging online language technologies, particularly those pioneered and offered by universities, are attempting to bridge this gap. Students from all walks of life and in all locations will be able to benefit from Internet language learning, but perhaps none more so than those who are blind or visually impaired.

When stacked against its global peers, the United States does not rank very highly when it comes to overall bilingualism. A 2001 Gallup poll found that just over 20 percent of Americans speakboth English and a secondary language fluently. While that number is slowly on the rise, the majority of the nation’s new language learners are children. Most experts agree that language learning is easiest in infancy, but many of bilingualism’s benefits—including those related to cognitive health—extend even to adult learners.

“The bottom line is that bilingualism is good for you,” Judith Kroll, a psychologist at Penn State University, told Britain’s The Guardian after her team published a 2011 study linking bilingualism to improved cognitive functions. The vast majority of current research is on her side. A 2012 article publishedin the Canadian journal Trends in Cognitive Science is among the most recent to find definitive links between people who could operate in more than one language and delayed onset of dementia—and reduced symptoms when the degenerative disease hit.

Most of the cognitive benefits come as a result of the brain’s need to juggle information when switching from language to language. Many researchers liken the skill to that needed to solve “brain teasers” or crossword puzzles, activities recommended for many seniors as a way of keeping their brains sharp. Speaking in multiple languages can mimic this effect.

It is unknown whether these benefits also come across in bilinguals who are blind or visually impaired. Emerging research suggests that the brains of children who are born blind may have greater, more robust language capacity from the start, as many of the brain’s vision centers may automatically rewire to receive language cues.

“Researchers aren't sure how the brain adapts these visual regions to language processing, but there may be changes to the types of brain cells and composition of different types in that region, or changes to the architecture, or how the neurons are connected, that make the area better suited for language,” the online journal LiveScience reported in response to a 2011 study outof the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Maria Bedny, the study’s lead researcher, told the journal that this discovery may have significant implications for how blind people learn languages, both native and foreign. “Brain regions that didn't evolve for language can nevertheless participate in language processing,” she said. This might actually make it easier for blind people to become bilingual.

Many of the advances in language learning technology pose challenges for those with lack of sight, however. It can be difficult to learn from online games, live chats, and real-time quizzes, for instance, and most commercial language learning software is not effective if listened to alone.

The Internet is good at bringing listening and speaking drills into a student’s home, though, which can make online learning beneficial for blind people when properly tailored. Audio chats, streamed lectures, and access to podcasts and radio programs in foreign languages are only some of the ways in which the Internet can bring nearly any language to students with a variety of learning needs.

Universities dedicated to educating people who are blind and visually impaired are some of the best places to start looking for information on online language learning, but are by no means the only resources. Below are some ideas and sources of additional information.
  • American Foundation for the Blind. This non-profit organization provides an eLearning center with fully accessible courses, webinars, and audio chat information, and also provides resources for further study in certain areas, including some languages.
  • Hadley School for the Blind. Hadley offers a number of online courses, including some languages, in formats designed exclusively for students with sight issues.
  • Languages on the Web. A virtual clearinghouse on language courses and programs from around the Internet with a robust section on audio courses.
  • Mobility International USA’s National Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Exchange. The clearinghouse provides case studies and researched ideas for foreign language teachers with blind or vision-impaired students. All files are presented in both text and MP3 format.
  • BBC Languages. Not so much language instruction as immersion, this site, hosted by the British Broadcasting Corporation, offers news and analysis in streaming audio format in over 25 languages.

There are obviously a number of challenges blind people face when trying to learn languages online, but ever-evolving technologies mean that their struggles may lessen with time. Already, the audio and speech-only resources available through the Internet are revolutionizing how languages are learned. In a world of increasing globalization where bilingualism and multilingualism are prized, the demand for these sorts of advancements is only going to rise.


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