Autism and multilingualism

I have a terrible toothache which won't be sorted till Monday morning when the dentist comes back to work. Marianne is buried in boxes, and Sister 3 has no internet. So I'm recycling. Hope you don't mind!

This is a guest post I wrote last spring for Multilingual Mania. I've changed it a little to reflect changes that have occurred in the months since I first wrote it. I\m still annoyed with people who assume that being trilingual is bad for Max. But as he is speaking better in all his languages, people remark on it less.

It happened again last week. I was enjoying a cup of coffee with a colleague when she asked me point blank what language we spoke at home. I often get that question as my husband and I come from different countries and on top of that we're expats in Turkey. This makes us, for all practical purposes, a trilingual family. But people don't buy that and they want to know which of our three languages we really speak, when no-one is watching. It isn't a question I much like to answer, and I usually try to shrug it off. I say vaguely, 'it depends'. And it's true, it does depend, and it's not always easy to explain why we do what we do.

So let me try: my husband (British) and I (French) mostly speak English to each other – except when we slip into French, which happens. To our daughter, we've always both spoken French. Now she will allow us to speak English to her in non-francophone company. Just about. When home alone with her, I sometimes use a mixture of French, English and Turkish - occasionally all together in the same sentence - because it's fun, and because it is sometimes the best way to express what we think or feel. My daughter who's eleven, is equally comfortable in all three languages, highly skilled at grammar, well read and has a very rich French, English and Turkish vocabulary.

To our son, until about two years ago, we would speak mostly Turkish. Now it's become mostly French, with him still occasionally addressing us in Turkish. He'll speak Turkish to Turkish speakers, and, in the last few months, he's been trying out his English on our non-French-non-Turkish speaking friends.

So, yes, it's complicated. And I don't like to explain it because usually, before I'm done, I'll be interrupted and told I'm doing it all wrong. 'It's really important', they say, 'that each parent should speak in their own language, at all times.' Right.

If I was rude, (which I am on occasion), I would turn around and ask them what they knew of people like us, how much research had actually been done on trilingual families with one gifted child, one autistic, and two Ph.Ds, dealing with some circumstances that are not all that common, at least that are not usually found together. We wanted the children to learn French, but we knew it wouldn't be easy if they also had to learn English and Turkish and only heard French from. We've seen children failing to pick up a language because it was only spoken by one parent, and it wasn't English. Or we've seen them learn it only to lose it because they spoke it so little. So we decided we'd speak French at home. We feel that was probably the right decision.

The kids were learning Turkish at nursery school, at home with their minder, and pretty much everywhere they went. By the time she entered kindergarten our daughter was fluent in both French and Turkish. We put her in an English speaking school and a couple months later she was fluent in that as well. By Christmas, she could not only speak English but also read it.

Our son started to speak late, a bit later than his sister, in both Turkish and French. But aged three, when he started developing symptoms of autism, he decided to ditch French, and from then on his Turkish developed very slowly. So we took him to a speech therapist, Turkish of course - we had no choice in the matter, because there were no others, and because our son had clearly chosen Turkish for himself. After a year or so he spoke better. We encouraged him as best we could by using all the Turkish we had to communicate with him, and by reading to him in Turkish every day. When his Turkish was good enough that he was beginning to communicate, we then sent him to a French school and he began to speak French again.

At that time our household was truly trilingual, with all three languages being spoken at dinner, and yet, this was a time when we were really able to communicate as a family. We started to develop a sort of dialect of our own, with a lot of loan words, borrowed turns of phrases, and accents that people simply could not place. I believe our speech was all the richer for it, and certainly, our writing never suffered. I started writing a book then, our daughter got top grades in her essays, and my husband published several articles. Around that time I took a trip to Ottawa and was delighted to hear groups of children speaking a mixture of English and French, people having conversations in two languages at once. A home from home, I felt, if we ever have to leave Turkey.

Now eight, our son speaks equally well in both French and Turkish. Not very well, true, but any difficulties he has are most probably linked to the autism, rather than to straightforwardly linguistic abilities. For example he still mixes his pronouns in both languages. And he sometimes speaks inappropriately, failing to answer questions, repeating the same thing over and over. But he speaks.

Now I'm sure you can imagine what kind of criticisms we received over the years and how we felt about them: if we'd been consistent, people said, our son would have spoken earlier. Or maybe we've confused him by exposing him to too many languages, caused him to become autistic, even. People suggested we go back to either France or England and speak only one language at home from now on. At this point I usually bite my tongue because I really need to keep my expletives for when my computer plays up or I spill hot tea on myself. Of course all this was nonsense! The autism had nothing to do with how many languages he spoke. True, his particular strand of autism is linked to environmental changes which trigger crises. But as he was born in a trilingual environment, that really wouldn't have bothered him!

One woman once told me that a child could not develop emotionally unless they identified with their mother tongue. This woman was headmistress of an international school where most of the students were multilingual! What's more, she wanted my children's mother tongue to be English, i.e. their father tongue. I can't even begin to describe how I felt about this conversation. I was glad to find out later that she was in fact entirely unqualified to make any such judgements (and possibly to be headmistress, but that's a different matter). She felt she could pass judgement, assign blame, on no basis at all.

About a year and a half ago months ago, we thought we might have to leave Turkey and go back to England, and I got in touch with a group of people who either care for autistic children or, mostly, are autistic themselves to ask their advice. They unanimously were impressed that our son already spoke two languages and suggested I start him with English flash cards immediately, just in case. One person told me that as a child with autism they had been much more disturbed by the idea that there were several languages being spoken around them but only one at them, than later on, by learning to speak another language. The technicalities of having to learn another grammar, another set of words, were nothing compared to having to get one's head around the idea that you're allowed to communicate in one language but not another.

A year on, we're still in Turkey and Max seems to have picked up some English by himself. He'll greet English speakers in English, and try out words and sentences with his English speaking friends. The ease with which he gets the intonation and the pronunciation right reminds us of his sister when she started speaking English aged five. He's very good at knowing who he has to try speak English to, his choice of language is always appropriate. He's also flexible. If somebody he has pegged as an English speaker turns out to be comfortable in French or Turkish, he'll reply to them in the language of their choice.

He's also learned to read in Turkish and in French. He understands that the same letters have different sounds in the two languages, and, for the most part, doesn't mix them up. He finds reading in Turkish easier, because it is. French has many complicated sounds and spellings. With Turkish, what you see is what you get. He's even picked up that some letters sound differently in English. He knows how to spell some of friends names, working out that an English J sounds like the French DJ and the Turkish C, but that the Turkish J sounds like the French J. We're working on the sounds OI and AU and ON in French. Once he's got those and a few others, we reckon he'll be able to read as well as anyone. Next we'll just have to help him understand what he's reading!

Oh, one last thing. If you liked this post, would you mind terribly clicking on the RSS feed, here, or the Google connect buttons (top left), or by email at the bottom of this page? And if you didn't like it, you might still want to look around. There's three of us, you know, so you're (almost) bound to find something you like. And then, if you've still got time, you could share this post or stumble it, or both and get in touch with your local tv station to sing our praises. We'll love you forever.


Anonymous said...

Your article is very helpfull, I hope that my 3 years doughter will speak in Polish and English one day....
Many thank

Lindsay said...

Hi, Sandrine!

That's really cool that you and your husband were able to teach your son three languages!

(I am autistic and bilingual, though not in the same way that your son is trilingual --- I learned a second language much later, in school. I had similar issues with my speech using just English that he has in all three of his languages, so I tend to agree with you that any problems he's having are just due to atypical development in general rather than you having "scrambled his brain" with too many languages. I do not think that's possible, actually --- children's minds pick up language very easily.)

Anyway, I found this blog by following a link to your Christine de Pizan post --- now that I see that you seem mostly to blog about autism and feminism, I will definitely keep reading! (I like those two topics, and blog about them too).

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