We don’t know enough about how Autistic adults learn languages
By CJ James
Québec has made recent moves to protect the French language that, unfortunately, heightened the existing challenge for Autistic people who do not speak French. We are aware of many Autistic people who learned French (or other languages) in early childhood with no problems. However, acquiring a new language as an adult or older child is uniquely challenging for Autistic people. I have observed this during many Autistic meetups in Montréal, which is a bilingual city. This challenge is not surprising as Autism often manifests as a difference in communication, broadly affecting the use and comprehension of language.
While this article focuses on the challenges within Québec, the content of this article is also very meaningful for ESL, or English as a Second Language, teachers and special education teachers who may be dealing with Autistic children who are immigrants.
There is not much in the research literature about Autistic adults learning additional languages to their first language. Language acquisition is only studied in Autistic children and only if it is delayed. Instead, I want to discuss language learning in adults and older children. Unfortunately, there is not a large body of knowledge about adult language learning in Autistic individuals to pull from. I will have to provide anecdotal evidence from my own experience.
It goes without saying that I am just one person and while I hope that my representation of language learning differences in Autism is generalizable, that is not a guarantee. Every Autistic person is different.
Differences in Motivation
The general wisdom about language learning is that you learn what is most relevant to you. It follows that most people learn additional languages out of a desire to communicate with the people around them. The first challenge that I had in learning was that my motivation to communicate is …different. As a young child I was very extroverted. As I aged, I have learned that I am different and that my quirks are not always accepted. I have become reclusive around the general public. Which means that I am more likely to learn how to tell people very perfunctory information, such as the time, than to learn how to give compliments.
Some of the topics that they teach at beginner levels in general classrooms are not of interest to me. At this moment, I am in Québec’s level three class (of twelve official French language levels, where eight levels are taught in public adult classes). During level three, we work on building our basic sentence structures using topics such as making compliments, the weather, and talking about leisure activities such as sports. For most people learning French, these topics are very useful. But I have no interest in this sort of small talk. My peers practise this new skill outside of the classroom. Whereas I did not have an interest in it and this has caused me to fall behind my peers.
Differences in Response to Immersion
When I moved to Québec, we expected that immersion would lead to learning faster. Perhaps it was a fundamental misunderstanding of what role immersion would play in my learning. However, I even moved out to Trois Rivères (for those outside Québec, this is a beautiful and historic town that is very French-speaking) for 6 months where my French-learning remained stagnant. Further, if immersion alone were enough for me to learn, I would have been bilingual in English and Spanish when I arrived in Québec in 2020. See, I lived in Texas for 32 years without picking up Spanish. My mother even reports that I spoke Spanish with my babysitter as a toddler. Yet, nada. (Besides a few basic words that even English-speaking people use in Texas.)
Perhaps immersion works for other people? Is it because neurotypical people are motivated to connect with others and make small-talk –things Autistic people (generally) have limited interest?
The beginning of the challenge
I only really started making progress in understanding French when I started the government French classes. (What a culture shock that government-funded, government-designed classes are effective! More on that later.) In the beginning I started with twelve hours a week. Every few weeks, there was a surprise moment when something that was previously incomprehensible became clear. It was addicting, so I upgraded to classes that are twenty-to-thirty hours per week. I ended up losing a level in the switch because the new school placed me in the appropriate class through an interview rather than based on the classes I have previously taken.
This loss/repeat of level three has been a matter of a lot of speculation for me. In my second twelve-hour/week class, which was level three, I noticed that I understood the least when we did listening exercises. When we did the final testing for level three, I failed the listening exercise but had the second highest grade in the class in the reading comprehension. (The person with the highest grade spent a year in French-immersion classes as a child.) Obviously, my vocabulary was not the cause of the failure. I also noticed that my peers could understand more spoken French than I could when workers at the center would speak to us.
Improvement takes more effort
While I do not know why this happened, I knew that the solution is to practice listening. A friend donated a digital TV antenna to the cause and I started watching Montréal channel 10 for hours each day. There are not many TV channels available for free anymore, but I make use of what I get. I still do not understand overarching communication like storylines on The Bold and the Beautiful (and maybe I do not have much interest in that sort of drama), but I am now on par with my twenty-hour/week class peers. I talk to my classmates to find out if they do things like this to advance their learning and it seems like they do not. They are able to pursue their education more casually.
My spoken French is significantly more broken than the rest of my class and I have not come up with a fix for this. Yet, I still tend to out-perform my peers in written assignments. We even had a test on conjugation where I made top scores. These so-called “uneven abilities” are a hallmark of Autistic neurology.
If I could rewrite the class to be more neurodiversity-inclusive, I would take a Montessori approach. This would allow everyone to learn things as they are interested in them rather than having a strict curriculum. Personally, once I learn the things that interest me and I am conversational, I imagine I will have an interest in learning how to talk about the weather and compliment others because I am vain about my intelligence. The perk would be that in this order, I would learn these topics of conversation much quicker than I would learn them in the lower levels.
Also, I had to ask my teacher to include more written work when teaching idiomatic elements, such as articles and partitives, but that was an easy adjustment for the classroom. Autistic people tend to be very visual like me, so this adaptation would help a lot of other Autistic people. However, as I said earlier, there is a lot of variation among the Autistic population. This accommodation might actually be prohibitive for some of us. A Montessori approach would be flexible enough to adapt to these differences.
Prior to Québec
I have talked about snags that I have encountered in the French classes that I am taking right now, but there are major pitfalls that these classes have avoided.
This is not my first time learning French. When I was a kid, my family placed me in a chartered college-preparatory school. I started learning French in fifth grade, which was about four years early for a Texas curriculum. The way it was taught was, unfortunately, highly ineffective. It required hours per week of dull memorization. There was no other exposure to, for example, verb conjugations. By contrast, my classes in Québec are in slow, simple French. This way, I am exposed to verb conjugations repeatedly and acquire them naturally.
Additionally, in my early classes, my peers could understand when there was a listening comprehension test. The teacher never understood why I would cry through those. To this day, I have no idea how the other students did those listening comprehension exercises. They were just too difficult.
I struggled through the French course at my school before failing French III by 1 point, 69%. You only need 2 language credits to meet Texas state graduation requirements, so I changed schools and never had to re-do this class.
Due to the early discouraging experience, I believed it was fundamentally impossible for me to learn a language. It took encouragement to get me to consider that it was possible that I could learn a language after that. A friend explained that, obviously my neurodiversity impacted my ability to participate in my early language courses, but the structure of the courses was not natural either. Children do not need flashcards to learn their first language. It comes naturally through exposure.
Québec’s French classes teach common verbs through repetition rather than study. Since they are designed with the neuroscience of language learning in mind, they are naturally more accessible to neurodivergent individuals. That should not change and other language courses should take note.
We need help getting classes that suit our needs. This pressure on Autistic people needs witnesses –people who can help us bring attention to this need. The Québec government has already promised to expand francisation courses. Please make sure we are covered under this expansion. It’s time to be vocal about this on all platforms!
If you’re Autistic, you can help more by adding to the body of knowledge about Autistic language learning. Identify a task you would like to do in another language, learn how to do it, then weigh in on how you achieved the language learning. What challenges did you face? What worked? We need to know.
That said, I am very grateful that the government-funded French classes here in Québec are designed wisely. This makes them far more accessible for all people. On the other hand, there are things that just work differently for Autistic people. We need wider research and assistance on this topic. There is quite a bit of pressure on immigrants, particularly the older children of immigrants, to learn the language of their adopted countries.
Finally, I wish I did not have to talk so much about myself in order to have a discussion about language learning and Autism. There are surely major topics that are overlooked by such a narrow scope, but hopefully this writing starts a discussion.