Lost in Translation: the Challenges Presented in Bilingual Special Education

In general education, both teachers and students face certain obstacles along the path to learning. If a student is learning English as a second language (ESL) then there can be greater difficulties, as communication and comprehension break down at a basic level. In bilingual special education, all of these traditional problems exist and are compounded further by the individual student’s learning disabilities, making it difficult not only to discern where the obstacles lie but in which language the student will best understand the solution. In this article, we will probe into the specific challenges relating to culturally and linguistically diverse students with exceptionalities (CLDE).


One of the more common issues within bilingual special education is the miscategorization of English Language Learners (ELL), who are developmentally capable, as special needs. Evaluations for learning disabilities do not adequately account for a child who is still learning a language versus a child with learning disabilities. Such a child may know three colors in English where a monolingual peer knows five. This child may be able to name an additional three colors in their native language, making them above average learners, but they are not tested for this and are thus miscategorized as special needs due to an inadequate evaluation.

Proper Classroom Supportbilingual special education

CLDE students who are placed in a special education classroom still require services designed to support ELL students. Just because they will have an education that caters to their learning disabilities does not mean that they can stop developing their english language skills. Students without learning disabilities require 3-5 years to become orally fluent in a second language. This only highlights the need for further attention to a CLDE student’s education which considers their primary language in the learning process, as they might require more time to become fluent in English.

Culture and Language

CLDE students have the added obstacle of learning in a culture distinct from the one they have grown up in. Ideas can be communicated quite differently across cultures, even teaching and learning styles themselves can be foreign and ineffective if not properly adapted. Students with disabilities require teachers who are aware of these differences, in both culture and language, and who can properly instruct the children in a way an untrained special education instructor could not.

For example, a Chinese student might expect a more rigid classroom structure and could feel flustered and confused in its absence. She might have difficulty focusing on the task at hand until the material is presented in a more familiar setting, at least initially. Similarly, a student of a more traditionally extroverted culture, such as Latin America, might have difficulty adapting to the social norms of an introspective classroom environment. A knowledgeable teacher could help bridge the gap and correct undesirable behavior without resorting to strict punishments or exclusion.

In summary, CDLE  students require culturally and linguistically responsive teachers and instruction, supportive learning environments, assistance in general education, and assistance learning English. If any one of these elements is absent or inadequate, it can impede the education of a CLDE child even further.


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