La moche americaine

Translation: the ugly American

Me above the rooftops of Lyon, France, 1997

Lyon, France, summer 1997. Seven weeks immersed in French language and culture. It was the chance of a lifetime for a young college student like me! … Or was it?

When I first heard about the seven-week summer immersion program in France, I was excited for the opportunity. I had taken several years of both French and Spanish simultaneously in high school and had a real interest in studying languages further, so the idea of studying abroad held genuine appeal to a young, naive person like me. And at the time I was thinking of majoring in one or both subjects, so I was hoping a study abroad experience would not only improve my fluency, but also steer me in a direction that would suit me both academically and for life after college. It’s difficult to anticipate what an experience like that will entail, but, as with most things in life, the reality wasn’t quite what I had expected.

I went with a group of about 30 other young Americans. During the week, we took classes for college credit on various topics, all of which were spoken completely in French. On weekends, we went on tours throughout France.

We weren’t allowed (more like heavily discouraged) to speak English, even with our fellow Americans. For me, that was not a problem. Additionally, we each lived individually with a different French family in Lyon. I think it’s safe to say my family didn’t quite know what to make of the strange American in their midst.

When I wasn’t in class or out touring the French countryside, I mostly spent my time alone in my room at my family’s home. I felt like a duck out of water and had no desire to be around others. And I was exhausted, so I slept beaucoup, which is saying something because I love to sleep. Apparently having to think, speak, read, and write in a different language for an extended period of time really wears a person out.

It wasn’t until a month or so into the summer that I realized that I really wasn’t cut out for this type of experience. Part of the problem was that I don’t speak very much, even in my native language. I live mostly in my head, observing and thinking. Verbalization of my thoughts is difficult for me, as I’ve previously discussed in the post Say Anything. So plop me down in a foreign country, a stranger in someone else’s home, and what happens? You guessed it – I clam up and shut down. The added pressure of comprehending conversations while simultaneously translating, formulating a logical response, and then verbalizing the response all while trying to have perfect social timing became crippling at times. Which isn’t to say that I never said a word the entire time I was in France. I did speak, but not as often as I would in English. And, as you know, I’m not exactly known as a chatterbox at home.

I got the impression that the family I lived with thought I was afraid to talk because I didn’t want to say something incorrectly. In reality, I had an excellent understanding of the French language and wrote and spoke it very well. But, as I’ve said before, speaking in general is where the difficulty lies, no matter what the language. The family was very understanding and patient, and of course there was no way for them to know what the actual problem was. I certainly wasn’t going to tell them! (And I didn’t know anything about autism back then, much less that I had it.)

On top of that, I was dating someone back home who was not supportive of my decision to study abroad, which didn’t help matters at all. He thought I would run off with a French guy and never return. At age 19, I didn’t have the self-awareness to realize that this was not a healthy relationship, which of course only caused more inner turmoil and complicated my experience that summer.

Inevitably, my fluency and understanding of French did improve greatly that summer, but I was glad to come home. I eventually graduated from college with a minor in French, but haven’t used it much since then, although I do sometimes think in French in my head or know the answer to crossword puzzle clues without having to use google translate.

Although my experience that summer was less than ideal, perhaps all was not lost. A recent study has shown that bilingualism in autistic children allows them to compensate for deficits in theory of mind and executive function and serves as a natural therapy in these areas.

Let’s diverge for just a minute to define what these two terms mean. Theory of mind refers to the ability to attribute the beliefs, intents, desires, and emotions to ourselves and others. Perhaps a simpler definition is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Executive function skills are the mental processes that allow us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. In other words, being able to multi-task effectively.

This makes sense to me. Certainly being able to comprehend and converse in a different language would allow for a great deal of practice in multi-tasking and contemplating other’s perspectives.

I began teaching myself French when I was in junior high because it interested me, and was able to learn and excel at two foreign languages simultaneously in high school. My autistic son is currently taking Spanish, which is the only foreign language his school provides, but is also teaching himself German in his free time. It seems to be something that really interests him. In fact, he has expressed a desire to study abroad in Germany after high school, which quite frankly terrifies me because I worry that will only cause more social isolation for him.

I began to wonder if there is a natural tendency for autistic people to gravitate toward other languages. So this time I did google it. One study I found showed that autistic children can easily become bilingual. It turns out that having great memory and an intense desire to learn all there is to know about something that is of special interest is (dare I say it?) a superpower for those on the spectrum, which is a definite benefit when it comes to learning new languages.

On the other hand, being able to learn a foreign language almost seems counter intuitive considering that, on face value, autistic people appear to have enough trouble learning one language (i.e., their native tongue). But perhaps it’s not the language itself that’s the problem; maybe the problem lies with all the social considerations that go along with language. At least it was for me, but, of course, I’m only one person speaking solely for myself.

When I think back to that summer twenty-five years ago, I have conflicting emotions about it. Was it a great experience? In some ways, yes, and in others, no. Did good things come from it? Yes. Was it difficult for me? Very. Was I able to survive in a foreign country? Yes. Did I learn a lot about French language and culture? Oui, bien sur. Did I learn a lot about myself? Tout a fait!

And, all these years later, I’m still learning. C’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?

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