Hello folks! Given we are in the midst of a global pandemic, it is entirely possible that some of you may read this post and think “wow, that was poorly timed.” I quite understand that reaction because this post is about being in a country with a native language different to your own. To be honest, I don’t know if this is a universal feeling amongst autistic people; I don’t even know if such a thing exists. All I can do in this godforsaken place we call home is ramble on about things that have been on my mind… then edit it and upload it.
Throughout this post, I am going to use the example of Germany, simply because it is the most relevant to my life. My native language is English and the native language in Germany is Dutch. Just kidding! It’s Polish. Just kidding again! It’s German. (Although I have since been corrected and told to say that it is not German, it is Deutsch!) What I talk about should be applicable to any place where you do not speak the language or have only the most rudimentary grasp of the basics. For some context, I took GCSE German 4.5 years ago and then dropped it like a hot potato. That is if I was being careless and had picked up a hot potato without any heat protection. (Fun fact, in year 7, I did not wait long enough to pick up a tripod stand after using the Bunsen burners in school, and also picked it up by the wrong place. It immediately started burning my hands but, worried about dropping it and it bouncing at an unusual angle and thus hitting someone, I decided to carry it across the room to where the cupboard was. So, I suppose if I were to do the same with a hot potato, then perhaps it isn’t reflective of my attitude towards German at all? *)
Rest assured, my hands have recovered. I ran them under cold water for an extremely long time while my teacher panicked and asked me why I decided to carry the stand so far rather than placing it back down. The blistering didn’t quite go down to his satisfaction though, so I was sent to the school office to get my fingers bandaged before being sent home. In a surprise twist of fate, I managed to miss my school picture, leaving my mum sad that she couldn’t get my picture in my first year of secondary school, and me secretly quite glad for the same reason.
So, the next question you might have is: “Sarah, how much German do you still remember?” The answer my friend, is very little. I have been practising in the last few months and so, on a good day, can follow fairly basic conversations, and possibly even join in from time to time! I have also discovered my favourite German word: Knabberzeug. It is very fun to say and means ‘(savoury) snacks’, something I am a fierce advocate for. I have recently been trying to learn some grammar rules, such as the 4 cases (in German there are 4, but other languages may have different amounts), as well as what different conjunctions do to the sentence structure. This is going fairly well, and it helps that I have a few people that I can ask questions of if needed. I am also trying to learn new vocabulary, along with the articles of the nouns. Why anyone decided that inanimate objects need genders is beyond me. I have never looked at a table and thought “you know what, this is boring. I want to force it into seemingly arbitrary rules about masculine/feminine/neutral objects.” Hey ho, that’s just how it be I suppose. (it is der Tisch for reference, as tables have been deemed male by the magical gender orc.)
I can’t spend as much time as I would like learning the intricacies of German, partly because I dislike languages and so I get bored, and partly because I have to do things like cooking, showering and my actual university work. In an ideal world, I would already know German and be completely fluent, but I have been informed that this is “not how it works,” and so I am left having to actually do the work myself. I am also trying to learn the pronunciation of words, as I am having to attempt to train my mouth to make sounds not used in English. The current bane of my existence is my apparent inability to make the ‘r’ sound required for words such as “rechts” and “Streichholzschächtelchen.” I am hoping that with practise it will become ‘easy peasy lemon squeezy’, but currently it is ‘difficult pifficult lemon squifficult’.
With this background done, I want to talk about being in the country (Germany) where I don’t speak the language well. It really scares me sometimes. I am not talking about fearing other people. Most of the time there is someone around who speaks English if I really need help, and I can usually make myself understood if I need to: albeit with the occasional wild gesture. On average, I would say everyone is quite kind, and takes pity on the clearly confused but well-intentioned Brit trying as hard as she can to buy a loaf of bread in German. Occasionally people are slightly rude to me, but if you are a shop keeper and have had a long day at work, then I imagine it might get tiring having to listen to me attempt to construct a coherent sentence on the fly. I always try to start any conversation I have in German and will practise what I need to say beforehand. Sometimes they can hear from my accent that I am from England, and so will start speaking in English, giving me an amused smile as I stutter out “oh, Danke… I mean, thanks. Sorry, uh… Entschuldigung.”
There is a metaphor I have heard a few times about what it is like having autism, and it goes like this: Imagine you are in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. All you have to guide you is a dictionary and you have to figure out how to do everything using only this. You can ask for help but everyone around you speaks a different language and can’t tell you how to speak it because it is natural to them, and they don’t know your language.
I quite like this metaphor, although I think it would be more accurate if different autistic people are given different numbers of resources. For example, someone might have a complete dictionary and thesaurus set with textbooks and audio tracks, whereas someone else might only have a piece of paper with their name in the language written on it. I am —if I might say so myself— fairly good at communicating now, especially written communication. I’m not great at communicating feelings and emotions, and my facial expressions and body language are sometimes not quite right, but it is still a vast improvement from when I was younger. Now put me in Germany. All around me are street signs that I can’t read or sometimes even pronounce. When I go into the supermarket, I can’t read the labels very easily, and the differences in products makes it hard for me to work out what it is that I am actually looking at. Announcements on trains and buses are difficult for me to understand, and if I am asked a question by someone I don’t know, then I almost always freeze because they spoke to quickly for me to understand what they were saying. It is really scary to be somewhere that is completely unfamiliar to you, especially if you only know one or two people, for whom this is all normal. It’s almost more frustrating if you can understand what someone is saying to you but don’t have the words to reply.
I am aware this is a fairly universal feeling amongst all people, however the key difference that I wish to draw your attention to is that I am not good at the non-verbal communication that most people understand naturally. Being autistic means I struggle to read facial expressions and body language. When I am in England, or another country where I speak the language, I can use signs and language to help me navigate both the physical world, and interactions with other people. Losing this ability leaves me without many options. I cannot easily communicate verbally, nor can I glean information, which I otherwise wouldn’t pick up, from written materials. If I am out by myself then it becomes very scary, because the world is already strange and unpredictable and so it feels as though I have in some way lost the last link I have between my thought process and the world around me.
It isn’t just the language either. Germany has different laws, customs and methods of doing things than the UK. It is illegal to jaywalk in Germany, but not in Britain. In Germany, the main meal of the day seems to be lunch, but in Britain it is dinner. In London, where I grew up, I would pay for buses and trains buy tapping my contactless card, whereas in Germany I need to get a ticket or download an app which is inconvenient for short stays. They might sound quite trivial, but getting on a tram alone with a ticket, and not knowing if / where you are supposed to get it stamped is anxiety-inducing. Especially if you know that doing it wrong could lead to a fine, which means the inspector would come and speak to you in German in a scary voice, and you might not be able to understand what is going on. Staying in a place other than your home is also tiring after a while. My room at home is set up in the way that suits me best. It is very tidy with almost all of my possessions away and out of sight. I don’t leave things on the floor if I can help it and I don’t have too much on the wall. This helps keep my space organised, stimuli free and systematic. I have a space between my bed and drawers where I can sit on the floor in a more confined space, and all my clothes are organised by type, colour and formality. Being somewhere without these systems that I have created to make myself feel safe and comforted is always going to be more difficult.
I don’t just want to talk about the negatives without offering practical solutions though. I like Germany a lot, and think it is a really nice country which I enjoy being in. I would like to share some of the ways I have come up with in order to help me manage the hard parts, so that I can properly enjoy the parts that I like. If you feel the same way as I do then perhaps they could also benefit you:
- Try to learn the language. – Ultimately, this is the only way that will properly ease anxiety around not understanding your surroundings. Learning a language is a fairly large task to take on, so even just learning vocabulary that you see in the local shop can help. As wonderful as it would be to know the word in German for “Antidisestablishmentarianism,” the word for “pear” is more useful.
- Find the local shop and take a trip there where the whole purpose is to take your time to look around and get to know the layout as well as what is available without the pressure of having to look for specific items.
- Try to keep your normal schedule at first, even if it is slightly different than that of those around you, e.g. mealtimes. If you are going to change it, perhaps try making small changes over time, so you can get used to the new adaptations slowly.
- In terms of transport, ask someone you are with or watch someone else going through the process of getting a ticket and getting on the bus, tram or train. You could also google how it works, and hopefully there will be information in your language.
- There are sites that will give tourist information for different countries which might help to lift some worry about different customs. For a start, I would recommend looking up tipping rules, jaywalking laws, opening times of shops (also, whether they are open at weekends or not), and insect precautions (e.g. mosquito nets)
- False friends are more like true enemies. Some words will be written in the same or similar way across two languages but will have completely different meanings in each language. This is extremely confusing, and I highly recommend looking them up beforehand. There are lots of lists online and how they have come up. For example, I spent a few months thinking my girlfriend’s mum and sister were angry at me when I had a meltdown. It turns out, they were actually just confused what was happening until it was explained that I have autism. ‘Irritated’ and ‘Irritierend’ do NOT have the same meaning.
- Consider bringing something that reminds you of home. For me, I bring a small jar of marmite because I have not been able to find it in Germany and it is something that reminds me very strongly of home. When I get homesick or overwhelmed from not understanding my surroundings, I make some marmite toast, drink a cup of Yorkshire tea and read a book (in English). It is comfortable and relaxing and makes me feel more secure.
After that nice long ramble, I think it is best if I leave it here. The point of this post was not to recommend everyone stay where they are and never go anywhere that makes them uncomfortable. Instead, it is ways to make it easier to travel to places that might otherwise be too difficult to go to. Even things as simple as going with a friend that you trust can make it easier, as you can ask them to help you if or when you need it. As I said before, I like Germany a lot, but that doesn’t override my autism and communication difficulties. It often makes my anxiety around them worse because I can’t read body language very well, so if I can’t read or speak the language then I understandably feel quite stressed and sometimes even isolated or lonely. I suspect this is true for many neurotypical people as well but the bonus of not being able to read people’s faces just adds to the challenge.
Anyway, I hope you are all well and safe and having a good pandemic!