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.