Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | July 27, 2012

Foreign Language: Words are Hard – Autism and International Travel, part 4

I’ve always had trouble with words. I’m not very good at spoken language, and I’m the only person my high school French teacher has ever recommended to buy a translated (English) version of the book, so that I could read the French, then the English, then the French again. I don’t do well with discerning words from context – if I don’t understand one word, I lose the entire sentence. This makes learning foreign languages incredibly hard for me, especially in immersion settings. Add to that auditory processing delays and you get one very lost autie.

However, I hate that most Americans don’t speak another language, and as such, spent a good portion of my time from age 10 onwards, learning French (why French? I don’t know – I just liked it). I’m very proud to report now that my French is what I call “functional” – I can even mimic an accent to the point where when I was in France about 4 years ago, people stopped changing to English the moment I opened my mouth! I’m by no means fluent, and I have trouble with finding the “right” words quite often, but I can get by. My roommate here is French, and we speak a hilarious combination of English and French, switching back and forth whenever one of us can’t figure out the right word. I even had dinner with a few of the French girls a few nights ago, and we carried on a conversation for over an hour entirely in French, about all sorts of things, including research. I understood nearly everything, and I even participated some.

But I’m not in France. And as a consequence, I’ve had to deal with a whole new set of language words and customs that I don’t understand. To top it off, despite being in a university town, nearly no one here speaks English. I’ve found a few restaurants where people speak French, so that’s a good compromise, but it’s still difficult. I’m pretty good with looking up things in my phrase book, but whenever I try to pronounce them, my accent comes out in French, and they don’t understand me anyway. And half the time, when I try to say something, it comes out half in French, and only half in the intended language. When I tried to buy my bus ticket, my brain got so confused that the words all came out jumbled in French, Italian, English AND Spanish (all the while uttering apologies in each language and getting even more confused) The poor woman looked at me with this pitiful look and said “English?” I might’ve turned several shades of red, but really, I was so tired that I don’t think I cared.

All this is to say that being here is definitely a linguistic experience. Words are hard. When I’m having conversations in English, words are hard, and it’s infinitely harder for me in another language. But I’m getting by. Kindness on the part of my classmates at dinners, my phrasebook and dictionary, and my mediocre ability to decode Latin-based languages means I actually managed to order some food all by myself a few days ago. I get points for that, right?

So overall, language has been a lot harder than I expected it to be, but it’s definitely been a pretty good experience even so. Plus I can now count to 50 in yet another language, and sort of get across what my point is. I like collecting numbers in other languages. 🙂 Luckily for me, the class is taught in English. I can only imagine how exhausting it must be for all the foreign students for whom English is not a first language.  And I’ve even started to fingerspell some of these new words, too…


  1. Glad you are having a good time!

    I propose a new language-related challenge for you: learn a new system of finger spelling! I’m guessing the one you know is the one used in the US and in English-speaking parts of Canada (and certain other countries with minor variants). But there is also the British Sign Language alphabet:

    There are also other finger spelling alphabets out there, but I think most of the rest are associated with languages from completely different linguistic families such as Japanese, Malay, etc.

    • Thanks for the comment, AND the challenge! 🙂 Actually, I am learning the the British Sign Language alphabet – one of my friends here is British, so we’ve been trading. I can’t really call it “finger spelling” – to me its a sign-language alphabet, but it involves so much more than just my fingers. But it is really neat to actually “see” the letters. Some of the ASL letters are really convoluted, and hard to figure out which is which (Q, for example, was a tough one for me to master).

  2. When I was a student in Guadalajara many years ago, my Spanish was barely passable, but the people were so kind and patient.
    I think you get points if you approach a foreign language and culture with respect, as well as the ability to laugh at yourself when you get it wrong (which was always inevitable in my case, but funny).

    Languages happen to be something I love, I’ve studied four of them, plus taken courses in Linguistics and learned the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). I think this focus offsets my supreme inabilities in math!

    We can’t get everything right – hang in there and have fun. :- )

  3. Lol good on you learning French. I couldn’t learn another language. Have enough trouble with English. I thank god for auto correct or I wouldn’t even type. I always have good thoughts it’s the communication part that can still be the hick up. Found it awesome that you learned to speak french very hard to think in another language. Guess if you want to travel it’s great to learn. Love reading your blog and about your trip.

  4. In my early days coming to the US, I had a hard time reading textbooks in English without my parents’ help in translating what I read. Sure, I have the dictionary skills. But, to look up a lot of words and phrases in a row makes it very time consuming from a studying stand point. Fortunately, I got better to a point where I just need to look up an occasional word or two since I started high school.

    As of now, my worst language is probably Mandarin. I still can hold a decent conversation if I need to even though I never used it much ever. But if I can’t find the right words, I sometimes would go back to English. How quickly/slowly will depend on the person’s abilities to understand English. If that person doesn’t understand English, I will then explain what I meant. If that person understands English OK, I will just say what I wanted to say in Chinglish (a combination of Chinese and English) and move on.

    That said, I think I will have an experience like yours when I travel to Japan next year (possibly by myself). Since I don’t know Japanese at all, this is going to be interesting… as all the international travel I did was either with my parents and/or going to countries where my Cantonese or Mandarin skills can help.

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