Learning a foreign language for me was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Language and words are incredibly hard for me, and I struggle a lot with context. I’ve come to realize over the years, that for most people, if they come to a word they don’t know, they simply skip over it and try to figure it out based on the context of the sentence/paragraph, or conversation. My language processing doesn’t work this way. If I come across a word I don’t know, I get stuck. I can’t move on until I’ve figured out what it means. And usually by then, the conversation has moved on well beyond what I can figure out, and I’m lost for minutes or hours. This happens in English. It happens when I read, when I speak, when I interact with people. I have an incredibly extensive vocabulary – I read so much as a child that I would pick up some pretty obscure words. That helps. But even so, I’ve always gotten stuck when I hear something I don’t know.
I had echolalia when I was growing up. But I still have it today. I echo things in my head and sometimes out loud. I use scripts to talk, because I know then, that words are being used in the right contexts. Because context is hard for me to figure out. Despite having the highest reading levels of any of the students at my schools, I always had trouble on the “critical reading” sections of standardized tests, because they would ask us stupid questions like “how did the author feel when s/he wrote this?” and other absurdities. But worse, it asked us “using context clues, what is the definition of this word?” – and that’s where I’d go wrong. I understand the idea behind context clues, and the rules and how they work. But really, I can’t employ them, not well, anyway. I’m better at doing it in writing, when I have time to think, but in test situations, when there’s a time limit and stress about the exam itself, I didn’t have the ability to break the loop. I scored well on these exams because of my prior knowledge – many of the words, I just knew. Some I was able to guess. But in context, it’s hard. I have a dictionary – that’s what it is for! And in spoken language, when I have to process words verbally, it’s infinitely worse.
This is especially important in the context of learning a foreign language. The way foreign languages are taught in the US (or rather, the way I’ve experienced it), the teachers and professors enter into the classroom and from the very first moment, they speak only in the language they are teaching. No English is allowed, except in dire circumstances. Sure, there might be a couple of English translations around to help understand, but for the most part, it is all about immersion. For most people, this is fantastic. They are forced to think in the language and really learn it. They learn faster, and are able to converse in the language and get around. Win/win! But for me, this doesn’t work. Can you spot the problem? Yep, context. Use a word I don’t know, and I perseverate on that word. I lose everything else. Learning “in context” doesn’t help me in the slightest. Yet I have managed to master a second language: French, and I think that my autism has helped me, rather than hurt me, in that quest. I want to share my second-language acquisition story here.
I spent most of my childhood wanting to learn French. I learned how to count very early on, in one of those “preschoolers and language” programs, and was really good at counting all the way up to 39. For some reason, the word for 40 had a very hard time sticking. But I had a good understanding of numbers, and I really enjoyed using them. But I only got to spend a very little bit of time in the program. I don’t know exactly why my mom stopped bringing me, but I think I only went to 2 or 3 lessons. My language abilities remained at “I can count to 39” for many years.
In my elementary school, there was the opportunity in 4th grade to start either French or Spanish. I was looking forward to that so much, because I couldn’t wait to start French. Then budget cuts happened, and I didn’t get any language class. Then in 5th grade, they decided to start everybody in Spanish. Now I didn’t want to learn Spanish, I wanted to learn French, but I decided that I would have fun with learning it anyway, because then when I got to middle school, I could choose French. So while I was in Spanish class, I tried to learn Spanish. The teacher used some English and mostly Spanish. And she did this utterly fantastic thing in her class that helped me (as an autistic kid) learn the language and not get lost. She had “vocabulary sheets”. Each sheet had space for something like 25-30 words, and we got a little reward (sticker or something) every time we filled one up. The vocabulary sheets were to be filled out whenever there was a new word we didn’t know in class. Every single class, I would sit and listen to her talk, and go over activities, and write down every single word I didn’t know. Then I’d spend some time in class looking up the meanings. By the time the year was over, I had more than 100 vocabulary sheets, 5 times more than the next highest person in the class! Writing down the words I missed did a number of things for me to help me out in the classroom. First, it took the word out of my brain and put it onto the paper, so I could continue to pay attention. Second, it gave me the chance to look up the vocabulary words after class, so I could learn them explicitly. Third, it gave me the chance to really learn Spanish phrases that I could then echo back in context. And so, while my Spanish was never phenomenal, I actually learned a lot that year. I still know and can understand a lot of spoken Spanish for that reason.
But really, my language is French. I officially started French in 6th grade, and it was really fun. Now I’m absolutely terrible at language acquisition. I can memorize vocabulary and little rhymes to learn how to conjugate verbs, but overall, I have a very difficult time speaking a language. The one thing I’ve always been pretty good at is accents – why? Because I am very good at echoing, and when I hear a word or phrase, I can repeat it exactly. But I was never very good at language class. When I was taught in an immersion setting, especially, I would get lost. And when I got lost, I would fail. There weren’t the magic vocabulary sheets, and though I tried to keep my own, the teachers wanted us doing other things. I lucked out and had a series of very good French teachers. Not all of them, mind, but out of 7 years, I had 2 bad teachers, 2 mediocre teachers, and 2 really great teachers (one of whom I had twice), and one amazing mentor who I never had as a teacher exactly, but who was a teacher in the school who helped me after school. In high school, we read novels in French, and I really began to struggle. Novels were even harder for me than any of the vocabulary and grammar exercises we had done before. I was really good at following grammar rules, but reading whole paragraphs? That was a near disaster. At some point during high school, my French teacher (one of the great ones) pulled me aside at the end of class. We were halfway through yet another novel, and I was still having absolutely no luck understanding what was going on. I was coming to her nearly every day after school for extra help, and could read and repeat the words, but I just had no reading comprehension, because I would get stuck halfway through a sentence, every time there was a new word. I became the very first student she ever told to “go buy the book in English, read each paragraph in French, then in English, then again in French.” My language abilities were just that bad. And being in immersion-based classes were just making it worse. This teacher and her friend (the other teacher) both realized that, and it is a hallmark to the great teachers, that they can be flexible in how they teach individual students that I can speak French now. Their hours helping me one-on-one, using English AND French outside of class, not insisting that I “just pick it up” using immersion like everyone else, and their dedication, are what I am truly grateful for.
But I kept on working. I know that people observe autistic kids who seem to make no progress for months on end, then *bam*, suddenly they make leaps and bounds? That’s how my language skills were. By the time I graduated high school, I was speaking what I called “functional French” – not fluent, but I could get around. I had the opportunity my junior year to go to France with my high school on an exchange trip, and I had managed to pass as French there – I figured out a couple of the cultural rules by observation, and once I started employing them myself, the French people stopped switching to English on me! I went to Quebec City with my family, and people asked me if I was French. My comprehension still wasn’t superb, and my writing was pretty horrific (but then again, so was my writing in English), but functional was functional, and I’d take that. I even got a 5 (highest score) on the French Language Advanced Placement Exam!
Then I got to college. I had to take one term of French to fulfill my “year of a language requirement”, so I did, and it was interesting. We didn’t speak much – it was a literature class, not a conversation class, and I barely made it through with my pretty abysmal composition-writing skills. Then I stopped having the opportunity to take French classes – the higher level classes were all upper-division, literature based classes (read, write compositions, not much talking), which I knew I wouldn’t do well in or really enjoy, and didn’t have the patience to try – there were other things I was more interested in – science and math classes.
But I kept working on my French – I read Harry Potter in French, and own the first 3 books – it always helps when you know the story. I tried to think in French when I got the chance, and I would translate things into written or spoken French, just for practice. But I was never very good. I’d sort of reached a plateau, and wasn’t improving any more. And then I spent 3 days in France at the end of my trip, and I discovered that actually, all that time I’d been “not improving”, I’d actually improved considerably. For 3 days, I spoke exclusively French with a good family friend and her family. We talked about all sorts of things – from my research, to my parents ridiculous divorce, to their health issues, to the beautiful scenery of the Alps, to other harmless subjects like cars, the weather, and cats. I interacted with 15+ different French people, of all ages (friends and relatives from age 3 to 75), and I understood nearly everything! Because I’d been working on my vocabulary, I didn’t get stuck very often – and the few times I did, I was able to ask “what does this word mean” without getting lost. I picked up a few new words, and actually lived, entirely in French. That’s definitely not something I could’ve done when I was still actively trying to learn the language. And they all told me they couldn’t tell I was American – I have a perfect French accent, to boot! I’d call that language success.
So what does this all mean and what does it have to do with Autism? Well, we learn differently. Sometimes the “right” way to learn really truly doesn’t work for us. For me, I actively learned French for 7.5 years. Then 3.5 years later, I was able to come back and use it, better than I had when I was actually learning. Having the extra time to really absorb the language, and using it in my own head was the trick. I practice everything I’m going to say over and over in my head until I get it right, BEFORE I try to say it. Learning French in school was information overload for me – I never had time to assimilate all of the information, and organize it into my brain. During the 3.5 year gap between my last official French class and now, I’ve had the opportunity to really assimilate the language. Because of my echolalia, I am able to reproduce phrases and words exactly as I hear them – once they were organized, I could use them as scripts and as basis for my own sentences.
Looking at how my French has assimilated, gives me a number of insights into how I learned language as a child. Growing up, I wasn’t incredibly language delayed. I had a very big vocabulary, but often couldn’t use anything in a sentence. My ability to communicate and be understood wasn’t due to mispronunciations, but due to my inability to contextualize and organize my knowledge of the words. For me, language is really “hurry up and wait”. I worked incredibly hard on my French, and never really saw a pay-off until years later. But I do think that now that I have this ability, it will likely stay with me for life.
And so, this is just another way that my Autistic Brain works, and a few insights into how language acquisition may work in some Autistic youngsters. Foreign languages are really hard for me. But with enough persistence, effort, and time, I was able to not only assimilate, but actually learn to communicate in another language. Maybe one day I’ll add a 3rd.