Autistic Bilingualism

I’m bilingual

My first language is English. It’s what my parents spoke at home, my first words and thoughts were English. I learnt Welsh when I went to Ysgol Feithryn (nursery). I would have been about two. It carried on into a first-language Welsh primary school, and then a secondary school where English was not permitted even in the playground (making it the ironically rebellious act). I did my GCSEs in Welsh. I learned French and German and a smattering of Japanese through the medium of Welsh. 

I remember a teacher once saying to me (and time passed means it will be a clumsy paraphrase), “It must be so hard for all you second-language-Welsh pupils, you have to translate everything in your head. You see a table, you thing ‘table’ and then look for the Welsh word, ‘bwrdd’ and then you can say it.”

I looked blankly at her. I didn’t even disagree. It was a throw away comment to a fourteen year old about how her world behaved. 

I do wonder how many of my processing issues were mis-attributed to language issues. When I paused to work out meaning, did they think I was pausing to translate? When I said something strange, or misunderstood things, was it put down to being too anglicised instead? It would explain why I was yo-yo’d around different sets for Welsh. One teacher was determined I was on a parr with the best of the year, but no one else could see it. Perhaps she saw past my traits to the language beneath them?

You see, I don’t “translate” in my head. I’m bilingual. I see a table, and it is instantly both a table and a bwrdd. It is both. It is not one above the other. I would reach for the word in the language I needed. Why would I take a route through another? Why would I go the long way around?

English is easier for me, because I use it more. That would change if I swapped for a time, but because it’s the language I reach for, it’s the language that fits me best. The more I choose one over the other, the slower I become. Lets not forget that I’m also putting in the work from an autistic point of view. When I speak Welsh I feel slow, I feel tired, I feel like I’m not expressing what I really mean, I’m reduced.

Not because it’s Welsh – Welsh is far more logical than English, it’s far more lyrical and flowing, it’s so much clearer in itself – but because I don’t have the energy to use it more. 

I’m bilingual you see. Bilingual in language, but I’m only Second-Language Non-autistic. I will never be bilingual in your world. I will always have to put the effort in to translate you. 

This morning someone told me they were “Riveted” by my latest poem. My autism pictured a ship’s rivets. It placed them around a person. I then translated that into its non-autistic meaning, they were captivated by it, they loved it, it held them. 

I have these little pictures for so many things. Someone wears their heart on their sleeve? No problem: Picture an actual heart on a sleeve, hearts symbolise love and feelings, it’s outside their body, everyone can see it. Translated it means they show everyone how they feel. 

In some ways I’m closer to bilingual; I know that if you’re smiley then it’s likely you are happy. I don’t need to think “There’s a smile. What’s a smile? A smile is happiness”. The answer is there. I have studied expressions in great detail. I have become fluent in them. I practise every day. It’s only when I’m tired or stressed, that the difference between fluent and automatic becomes apparent.  

No matter how good you are at speaking another language, it can feel a relief when you get to speak your mother-tongue. Autism is my first language, it is a conversation without small talk, a need to move and avoid eye contact whilst connecting – not to avoid the connection, but to connect better. I have learned your ways but they will always be a performance, they will always need me to work hard. 

I am bilingual; Welsh and English. I don’t think I will ever be as capable in non-autistic, but then, there are few non-autistics willing to learn autistic, and I want to connect. 

And they say we are the ones with the communication issues.

69 thoughts on “Autistic Bilingualism

  1. How much easier it would be if we only could meet half way… Or at least give the person we talk to the room and comfort zon they need, there are so many people who don’t get the connection they want/need because the studder, have autism, or some other “disability” that make NT persons more or less ignore them. Or worse, think they are stupid. The more I learn the more I think that it’s us, the NT:s, that are having a ‎disability. We have big troubles with everything that dosen’t fit nicely in a box!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s true! The more I look into things, the more it seems to be that NTs struggle most with “Theory of Mind” and assuming other people think the same as them. Not because they’re less able, but because they’re less likely to have had to push themselves to do it and far more likely to have agreement in their social group.

      I’m rather fond of all my NTs, they just need a bit of patience at times 😉😄💐

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I’m a professional translator and sociolinguist and this piece was FASCINATING and beautifully-written! Thank you so much for sharing; it has really opened my eyes. I will be sharing it with my colleagues who work with children on the spectrum and I hope it will be a great resource for them when learning how to connect.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I love bilingualism as a metaphor. Sadly, I am a pedantic semi-retired linguist and so I *have to* point out that what that teacher described is somebody who has only just begun acquiring a new language. What you describe otoh is the normal bilingual experience.
    Interestingly, that teacher’s opinion mirrors the “autism is a horrible disease” pov, possibly due to the “condescending while clueless” factor they have in common.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely, her view was completely misunderstanding bilingualism. I don’t for a second think that anyone else with more than one language “translates”. None of my other bilingual classmates did that either.

      The comparison is between my bilingualism in language and my lack of it in communication. I will always be a learner when it comes to non-autistic communication, it is not something I can learn to be bilingual in.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Again, I liked the metaphor, it really works for me. Something I could really use if I wanted to explain myself.
        Pedantry is when you have to point out details even when you have no reason to assume that other people need to be told 😉
        I think I was extra annoyed because I remember bilingual kids getting a lot of (often racist) sh*t from people who don’t get language acquisition. A bit like us neurodivergent folk, really.

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  4. Interesting post, I love thoughts about language, it fascinates me. I don’t think I can claim to be bilingual, I grew up speaking German and started to learn English at school when I was ten, like everyone else. However in the meantime I have heard, read, spoken so much English, and lived in England for many years, I stopped translating in my head a long time ago. Both languages feel the same to me in terms of ease of use. I do speak slowly and hesitate because I’m always searching for precisely the right word, but I do that in both languages.
    I also get all these little pictures in my head, but there, too, it doesn’t feel to me like I have to translate, from word to picture and back again – it’s completely automatic.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. i’m multilingual too. in daily life i use mostly english which is my 3rd language – and it’s tiring. i’m a fast listener etc and have retrained my brain to take audio in first.
    but there are always those tired days. when i struggle to decipher stupid language expressions to what they mean (english is full of senseless expressions)… so the translation of words to what people are trying to say (all processing without translating to other languages) is exactly that nonnative fluency struggle.
    add the same to body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. it’s alot of decoding work because i speak none of those natively either. we’re expected to be able to decipher a huge number of facial expressions and read between the lines of “how” someone says something.
    wirhout people understanding that speaking at all is a hassle too, so when a lot of when you try to speak gets lost because you fail with the collateral conmunication etc it sucks.

    i never do the translation thibg between people laguages i know, except as a silent mental stim (among with other thigs i do to words in my head).
    i try to explain to people my “native” way of thinking is in images/concepts instead of a language. a few get it. if i’m by myself i may talk to my animals and will ve exposed to languages by listening to books. but i can still revert to my image-thinking. it’s a lot more efficient than word-thinking.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That is so blessed awesome! When I lived in Peru and was learning Spanish, I got good enough to ‘think’ in concepts, not English, and then speak in Spanish, so I could navigate the language for when I didn’t know a term.

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    2. I got diagnosed yesterday…
      And this is the first time I see someone describing my thought process.
      Still not sure though if it’s the same though. Too many new things for me, but conceps usually flow in my mind forming shapes and images, connecting, representing and mirroring what words would describe.
      In that way I feel like a much faster, kind of chaotic quantum computer. Sometimes I get answers in funny ways and sometimes I dont even know how I got to the answer, but I did.
      Does that sound like what you experience?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes. It’s sounds very familiar. I don’t work in a “linear” way, my thought processes spiral out, covering a vast area. I’ve heard it said that we can often be misunderstood because what we say is “Because of A we need to do C” without explaining the route to C through B, because that’s too big for a few words. (Hope that makes some sense too!)

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        1. I often get frustrated with our communication options.
          Words can transmit so little. I start thinking of all the possible misunderstandings and trying to edit my thoughs/explanation in a way that makes the idea scale and flow correctly, like “Oops, I have to say A before B, but not forget C, while presenting D as an option”, but then I realize it got too big and no one will care enough to listen to the whole thing or actually try to understand. So I end up feeling like I just did a lot of useless work, ’cause, you know, I’m an island, full of treasures I can’t ever share.
          Not to mention when it gets so big I forget what I was thinking/talking about to begin with.
          I like words better as art than as a communication tool. I like it when it shades itself in mistery, provoking you to unfold the idea before it can surprise you, or when someone’s able to convey a feeling you didn’t even know you had.
          Do any of these ever happen to you or cross your mind? I’m very curious to know how much I have or not have in common with people like us.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. You have described a lot of my thought processes perfectly. Thinking through all variables can make a simple question like, “What would you like to drink?” A nightmare. What do they mean? Alcoholic, hot, soft? What if I ask for a hot drink and they just meant water. What are the social connotations of accepting each one? What if they don’t have what I say I want, will they be offended and think I’m being awkward?

            In the U.K. tea is usually a safe answer, but I’ve often just said, “No I’m fine”, even when thirsty, just because the thinking isn’t worth it. I try to have as many pre-thought-through stock answers ready for such moments as possible.

            When I’ve told people that they’ll just say, “Why don’t you just ask what they have?” Which is fine if I’ve previously thought it through, but that question also takes thought and if I’m stressed then it’s easier to not look at variables.

            I like words for their musicality, and I like words for imparting knowledge. I get frustrated by all the things you’re supposed to say surrounding the imparting of knowledge. They take time and effort and are not for me!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. “pre-thought-through stock answers” is funny.
              Sometimes I explain something to someone (cause I like to explain a lot of stuff), and they’ll say something like “wow, you explainded that so well, you’re talented”. Sure.. what they don’t know is that I have explained and reexplained that in hipothetical situations in my mind over and over again, more times than I can count. I have gone though all possible paths, finding dead ends, overextensions, broken bridges and mapped out the entire area. In the end, I wont just know how to do it, but how not to do it.
              I think true understanding of a concept requires knowing not only the right way, but all the ways, including the wrongs ones.
              Make me a question I’m not ready to answer and you’ll see me crumble, implode into that “talent”.
              Funny how the effort to overcome what is very difficult can sometimes make people think I’m actually really good at that.
              Being from Brazil, UK seems like a really exotic place to me. Which makes me think, we’re really all just humans, no matter what language you speak, what you like, what conventions you’re used to. There’s problably some guy from Vietnam or Africa who would share a lot of our thoughts.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Brazil seems really exotic to me! Yes, it’s amazing that brought up in different cultures, with different languages and different systems, you end up with such amazing similarities when you find two people with the same neurotype. Quite amazing.

                Like

  6. “And they say we are the ones with the communication issues” — that sums it up. Mildly autistic myself. Took me years to program my head to model “normal” communication and expressions of empathy. (For instance, even for this little comment, I had to double/triple-check analytically, just to ensure it doesn’t include expressions or words that aren’t supposed to be here.) Personally bilingual/trilingual as well. A friend I knew for five years was recently astonished to read an essay I wrote in Chinese — my first language. Anyway, glad to have bumped into you here.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Bilingual by birth (Hungarian/Romanian), polyglot through educational routine exposure and practice, dream in English, count only in Romanian, use Hungarian/English at home, watch French news, comfortable in German and Italian, capable of synchronous trilingual interpreting. All this while Dyslexic and with such Dyscalculia, that I let cashiers count their change out of my hand when I’m too stressed and sensory overloaded…
    Yet, so true, Autism is my first language. Magnificent 👾

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love this. I have always understood the definition of Autism. I have seen the my friend’s son diagnosed autistic and how he is learning the Russian alphabet at 4 years old, having learned English at 2, but struggles with verbal communication and non literal translations. “I’m bilingual you see. Bilingual in language, but I’m only Second-Language Non-autistic. I will never be bilingual in your world. I will always have to put the effort in to translate you.” This hit me hard. Then your descriptions of pictures for everything, and going about the “long way round” for the translation of expressions and sayings. You have opened my eyes even more than they were before, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so very welcome. Our natural communication techniques may be different, but that doesn’t mean we can’t meet in the middle and value each other’s ways of doing things. Thank you so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Ye gods! Today’s teacherly adventure was an all day workshop with a machine gunning instructor on teaching English phonics. It wasn’t new. This was the second time I’ve had it. I’m the departmental expert on it as I use the program daily. As a poet I take English apart constantly, consistently, reassembling the pieces as my own stim for amusement and writing. It also meant that I was completely ON all day. It meant a second cup of coffee and neurons blinking like fluorescent lights. It reminds me of why my daughter says I’m exhausting for her to be around: too much going on unsaid. At this point I’m grateful that age taught me to slow down before I went up like a roman candle, spitting sparks and fire balls, then empty and singed. Living alone now is such a relief: no need to communicate overtly or deal with others. My last room mate made that clear, despite it being a dear friend. Now I can just stare at the trees and listen to what they have to say. Or the birds. Or my cat. Or a book when I need another adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Beautiful.
    Thank you so much for sharing a part of your mind.
    I got diagnosed yesterday, at 28, so I’m still overwhelmed reprocessing every event in my life.
    But it’s great to learn more.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s mostly relief so far.
        Realizing *it* was not my fault. *it* was not wrong, and that it’s ok.
        I now feel more pride than anything else. I feel like this is a banner I can stand by.
        It allows me to like myself. I feel special and unique.

        Liked by 1 person

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