Autism and Multilingualism: A Parent’s Perspective


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 like to answer. 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’s sometimes the best way to express what we think or feel. My daughter who is ten, is equally comfortable in all three languages, highly skilled at grammar and has a very rich French, English and Turkish vocabulary.


To our son, until last year, we would speak mostly Turkish. Now it’s become mostly French although he still occasionally addresses 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.D.s, dealing with some circumstances that are not all that common, and at least which 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 me. 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 a language, only to lose it because they spoke it so little. So we decided we would speak French at home. We feel that was the right decision.


The kids were learning Turkish at nursery school, at home with their nanny, and pretty much everywhere they went. By the time our daughter entered kindergarten, she was fluent in both French and Turkish. We put her in an English-speaking school and a couple of 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. By age 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 acquired to communicate with him, and by reading to him in Turkish every day. When his Turkish was communicable enough, we 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 spoken at dinner. 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 borrowed words and 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, our daughter got top grades on 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 away from home, I felt, if we ever left Turkey.


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


I’m sure you can imagine what kind of criticisms we received over the years and how we’ve 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. Maybe we’ve even caused him to become autistic. 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 freezes up or I spill hot tea on myself. Of course all this was nonsense! Autism has nothing to do with how many languages he speaks. His particular strand of autism is linked to environmental changes that trigger crises, which was suggested can be attributed to all the languages. Again, nonsense as he was born in a trilingual environment so there were no environmental changes due to language.


One woman once told me that a child could not develop emotionally unless they identified with their mother tongue. This woman was the 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 entirely unqualified to make any such judgments (and possibly to be headmistress, but that’s a different matter). She felt she could pass judgment and assign blame with no basis whatsoever.


A few months ago, we were considering moving 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 people speaking several languages around them but only one at them, than by learning to speak another language later on. The technicalities of having to learn another grammar structure and set of words were nothing compared to wrapping one’s head around the idea that you’re allowed to communicate in one language but not another.


It is simply not the case that autism is a deterrent from multiple language acquisition. It’s just another one of the many misconceptions that people have about autism. As Temple Grandin puts it, language itself is a second language for many autistic people who tend to think in pictures rather than words. So what harm is one or two more going to do to them? And just think of the good it could do!


  1. Thank-you. That was fascinating. My son just has some language problems, and we get the same sorts of misinformed “advice”. He was born into Mandarin (though never spoke it he could understand it, as much as a child of 22 months living in an orphanage can understand… some people seem to think that they never learned their first tongue: that a 22 month old who is unilingual has the same language knowledge, ie “knows it” as a 25 yr old phd). And then moved here to Quebec where my first language is English, and I speak mostly English at home, but the common language, like your Turkish, is French in the streets, with neighbors and friends, at daycare and school.

    I get really tired of long explanations of “what do you speak at home” (english, some french, chinese), what is his “maternal tongue” … frankly, now, Mandarin is his worst language both for understanding and speaking, so is it his “Mother tongue”? If he never ever spoke it even as a child? Though for his receptive language skills it was his first. English is now his mother tongue (and he has rejected French and Chinese, to reclaim French now as he speaks it in preschool all week) and people keep trying to tell me he needs speech therapy as he is confused. As he is learning too many languages.

    I am not sure what they think I should do? Speak only mandarin? Hire a mandarin nanny and send him to chinese school full time? Not send him to french karate class or have him speak with his anglophone grandparents and friends?

    But yes, a child is autistic no matter what language, and has expressive language problems no matter what language. And my son, like yours, is not confused…. he is actually way ahead almost all of the adults who express just such “opinions”.

    thanks again.

  2. Thank you – this makes me feel more normal … we are only bilingual, German and English, living in California. I have heard the same comments over and over (one parent one language), but I speak both to my children – mostly English in English speaking company, German, when I am alone with them, at home or in German speaking company. They both (2.5 and 6) are not confused, and they understand both languages very well, speaking mostly in English to me. German speaking comes slowly, as they are in an English speaking environment for most of their day, but the older one is able to express himself now very well in German when he feels like it. They have both both been tested and have exceptional language skills. I am not sure though whether this comes from the fact that we are a very language-oriented home with many books and no TV (writer and lawyer), from the bi-lingual education, or simply because they are who they are. They both also spoke earlier than average. I would also like to emphasize that we did not “force” either of them to speak German (the second language for them) if they did not want to. I thought it would keep them from learing to enforce something. I was disappointed when my son did not speak German, after going to German Saturday school and reading German books to him in addition to the speaking, but I think he needed to do this on his own pace, and now it is completely endearing when he speaks German.

  3. As a multilingual child I say don’t give up! Your children will be grateful someday! I am 16 and fluent in 4 languages – Catalan, Spanish, English and Portuguese – as well having passable Greek. I love languages and want to work for the foreign office someday – using my languages practically. Also, I’ve noticed some parents worry about code switching; starting in English, ending in Spanish etc. Don’t? It’s not necessarily that we don’t know the correct word in the language we begin in, just that the alternative may feel more ‘right’ in one of the other spoken languages. For example; excitement/emphasis = Spanglish, discussions about my day / the world in general = Catañol, orders in the kitchen = Greek, work / school = English only.

    I feel it enriches my speech rather than stunts it, and though I occasionally pronounce things wrong, I find my speech is quite eloquent for my age – especially in English.

    Keep working at it! 😀

  4. My son has really resisted his Dads language. We haven’t followed ‘one language one face’. And when our son started speaking it was only in English. He would get very angry with his Dad for speaking Tibetan to him. He has terrible aggressive tantrums. Now it turns out he has ASC, and has issues with language, but it’s not clear how. He likes to repeat sounds over and over and recite whole stories. But doesn’t engage in conversation well.
    I think we may have messed up by not doing ‘one face one language’. My partner mostly speaks English around him. In fact I’m not sure Tibetans engage in chat with their children much at all.

  5. My son is 4 years’ old and he’s autistic. I grew up in a bilingual environment (Greek and Polish) and enjoyed switching languages, mixing them up, creating new words and adapting to suit the occasion. I can now speak fluently five languages (Greek, Polish, English, Spanish and French). My husband is bilingual (Spanish and English) and we live in Wales.
    We are raising our son in a trilingual environment (Greek, Spanish and English). My son and I speak in Greek; he tolerates me when I speak Spanish but won’t let me speak in English. However, if English speakers are present, we both switch to English. My husband speaks to him in Spanish and although my son’s Spanish is not as good, he makes great efforts to reply in Spanish. My son’s teacher has said that because of his autism and learning difficulties, he is delayed but he has no problem understanding them and his speech is coming along fine. He’s pronunciation is poor- in all languages though!
    My son loves all three languages and makes new words as a ‘game’. His teacher says he’s picking up Welsh better than he’s classmates (we live in Wales) and I have been singing to him few songs in Polish (and singing the translated version in Greek or English :-P) which he thoroughly enjoys and asks me to sing them over and over again.
    Just because he’s autistic, it doesn’t mean that his life, learning, experiences should be ‘plain’. I let him decide what he wants, I’m there to encourage him and if one day he asks me to learn Polish or French, I’ll be more than happy to oblige!

  6. @astarte Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is beautiful all the languages you are raising your son with. May I share your story (without your name) on our Facebook page? I would love more people to hear it! Do you have a photo or your son I can include?

  7. Hi, of course you can share my story, but no photos please. I enjoy the anonymity. You can get in touch with me if you need a chat or any more information. All the best!


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