Can those of us with autism learn foreign languages easily?

Stephen McHugh
This post was last updated on
January 9, 2024

Based on my experiences, those of us with an autism spectrum disorder can experience difficulties when trying to develop in our own native language. This can be linked to our limited interest in, and how we may relate to other people. We may take literal and concrete views of things like idioms, metaphors, inferences, and other complicated forms of language. 

When I started senior school, my first lesson happened to be French. After a number of lessons, I began to recognise that French was one of those subjects which I quickly displayed an aptitude for.

For those of us with an autism spectrum disorder, some of its signs can be useful when it comes to learning foreign languages. Some of these links I talk about below are based on my experiences, and may prove useful to others too.

Repetitive behaviours


To help prepare for vocabulary tests, one could try having a list for English and another for French. Here, one could simply draw arrows from the English word to what its translation is in French, or vice versa. Another approach you could have, and which worked for me, is to have one or both sets of words in the form of anagrams to act as memory joggers. In any case I’d read over the words before testing myself, until I was confident I could remember the words and translations. I’d also study the grammatical rules as often as necessary until I felt confident about how they worked.

 

Logically mindedPin

In terms of writing French I'd find some books to read over grammatical rules and phrase explanation, and work out how words are put together to make sentences in various tenses. Doing this helped me to familiarise myself with grammatical rules concerning how to write meaningful French sentences.

I would also find tips on pronunciation, e.g. the ‘er’ on the end of French verbs  is pronounced ‘ay’.
I found it interesting to note that the French put the noun before the adjective e.g. une maison petite, meaning ‘A small house’.

Below I’ve included another tip to employ when trying to learn other languages. In my French lessons I couldn’t help but notice a list of numbers and words in German. This, I believed, triggered my interest in other languages. 

Note the close resemblance in some of the spellings between the words when comparing the different languages. To me it’s a sign French, Italian and Spanish all belong to the same language family.

Words meaning ‘Hello’

Buongiorno - Italian (Buon - good and giorno - day): Bonjour - French (Bon - good and jour - day): Buenos dias - Spanish (Buenos - good and dias - day)

Words meaning Friend

Ami/e (French): Amico (Italian): Amigo (Spanish)

In one of my podcast episodes, there’s a section where I've explored the unique ways in which my logical mindset, a characteristic often associated with autism, shaped my approach to language learning. 

If you're curious about how pattern recognition plays a crucial role, especially in my journey with French, I encourage you to listen to my related podcast episode below. I’ve included transcripts of the episode so finding the relevant section should be easier. You’ll find it in section 2, which is 7 minutes and 30 seconds into the episode.

Having a good memory

Nowadays I still look up words in my own time, especially related to my interests, preoccupations, fears and related experiences. Doing these sorts of things helped me to contribute to question and answer sessions in class too. This can be useful for memorising lots of words, and maybe sentences too. In addition, one may quickly recall their translations when seeing them in text, or hearing them in conversation, even after one had long since forgotten coming across them.

Personal interests and visual learning

PinSometimes our teachers would have pictures, e.g. weather pictures where we’d have to say what the weather was like, e.g. hot, rainy etc. Pictures in illustrated dictionaries would act as prompts and memory joggers too. French was a subject where I sometimes found myself in demand for helping classmates with written homework task.

There were sing-songs too, most notably when learning how to say the alphabet in French. This approach can help in terms of getting one engaged, as music was, and still is an important interest of mine

 

Word and phrase explanations

Another thing I found important was phrase explanations for non direct translations, two examples of this are described below.  All of this gave me the encouragement to write and speak about certain things in French once I felt I'd built up a good enough vocabulary. 

One mistake I made was thinking that every sentence was directly translated. For me, that’s one important thing that would have prevented me from studying French further after leaving school. I had taken a rather precise and literal view of language. As I got older, I learned to appreciate the fact that direct translations don’t always work, especially for things like idioms. 

Nowadays I find that I can understand more complicated words and phrases more easily. However, I can’t always translate word for word, but I just try to understand in general what is being talked about in a few paragraphs of text from news reports in French. 

How are you? -  Comment vas-tu/allez-vous? 

It might seem logical to ask this in the following way, “Comment es-tu/etes-vous?” which happens to be the literal translation.  However, the French translation is, “How’s it going?”

Comment - How  

Vas-tu/allez-vous - are you going

Round the clock 

This is more tricky. For this particular phrase the literal translation is Rond l'horloge. But either of the two below could be used for translating this phrase. For me, after having a brief think about them I can better understand the logic involved. 

Jour et nuit - day and night

Vingt quatre heures sur vingt quatre - 24 hours out of 24

Other information

Once I felt more confident, I wrote letters in French to two aunts who are naturally good at languages. They even took the time to correct any errors made, be they grammatical or incorrect words. Each time I had my standard of French complimented by them, giving me confidence to further develop my knowledge of the language. One piece of advice they gave to me in the event of not knowing the French for something I wanted to say, was to use something that you knew meant similar.

Let’s suppose you didn’t know the French for toothbrush (brosse à dents), you could use something like, ‘Quelque chose pour se brosser les dents’. This translates to ‘Something for brushing the teeth’.

Benefits of learning foreign languages

Increased adaptability and flexibilityPin

Learning foreign languages affords us the opportunity to explore other countries’ cultures and experience temporary changes from our own ways of life. It can help one get used to the idea of accepting the fact that changes are a fact of life and to find ways of adapting to them.

In addition, learning foreign languages may help us to become more independent and flexible in our thinking and approaches to things in life, and more creative when trying to come up with ways to solve particular problems. One example of mine here is thinking up short stories to help those with an autism spectrum disorder understand idioms more easily.

Trying to learn other languages means you are effectively taking on more than one task, leading to the development of good multitasking skills. And furthermore, if you’re speaking to a foreigner in their native language, you’ll develop your listening and people skills, especially as you’ll have to listen and concentrate to try and work out what they may be saying.

Conclusion

For those of us with an autism spectrum disorder, you may have read above about how some of the signs we may display can be useful when trying to learn a foreign language. These include repetitive behaviours, being logically minded, along with having a good memory. 

Learning foreign languages can help us to develop social skills too, and to get us into the habit of being  more interested  in what’s going on around us.  Having said that, translations that involve non-direct translation can pose more problems for us, as we may take literal views of language.  However, for me the benefits of learning a foreign language can outweigh its disadvantages. 

And as far as I understand, there can be health benefits from learning foreign languages, such as helping to prolong brain function.

Let me know your thoughts, experiences and anything I may have missed that could be useful.

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4 comments on “Can those of us with autism learn foreign languages easily?”

  1. Hi Stephen

    good to read your blog on languages. I am learning some Dutch at the moment using Babbel, a site where one can learn a number of languages. I am concentrating on my listening skills at the moment. A suggestion for learning another language is to pick out on you tube some easy songs in say French, with subtitles in English and French. If you want to speak a little French with me maybe we could do that sometime on Whatsapp? amities , christina

  2. Hi Christina, thanks for your comment. From time to time I like to visit a French news website called francetvinfo.fr. I find it can help me improve my listening and reading. Now I feel as though I'm at a better stage to work out what is being talked about, even though I can't translate everything word for word.

      1. Thanks for your comment Christina. I'd be interested in what you think of that news website. I just try and understand what is being talked about generally, rather than just translate it word for word. That is one approach, I feel, that can take the pressure off and make trying to learn a new language less stressful.

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