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How learning languages has levelled life’s playing field for me as a blind English teacher

Most people don’t know that I’m unable to see. I don’t often talk about it. I don’t want to be defined by the challenges that I face, but at the same time, I know that these challenges have helped me to develop and discover new things. So I decided to share part of my story today and some of what I’ve learned so far. Maybe doing so will help someone else!

Learning as a little child

I could start by talking about my first contact with other languages, but really the story starts before that. When I was little, my Nan spoke to me a lot. She couldn’t point things out to me because I wouldn’t see them. But she described things. The dogs that we saw on our walks. The objects around the home and the sounds that they made. I couldn’t watch what she was doing, but she explained the household chores so that I knew what was going on. If we went out, she talked about what that she saw in the shops and the people and animals – especially the animals!

That helped me, not only because it compensated for the things that I couldn’t see, but I developed a good vocabulary and I was able to read and write fairly well before I started school.

Language has always been important to me

In some ways, I’ve always had a special relationship with language. It helps me to express myself. Listening to others, and really listening, means that I pick up on the things that other people often miss. The hesitation. The words said with a smile, but no real conviction. The things that people don’t say. The things that don’t fit with what someone has already told me.

I forget where I’ve put my keys sometimes, but I remember the little details from conversations because I really listen. Sometimes people say that telephone conversations are harder because you don’t have any visual clues, but when the spoken words are all that you have, you can learn to make them work for you!

I miss a lot of visual clues, and sometimes that’s really annoying, but language levels up the playing field again because I have access to additional or different information. It’s not true that I have a better sense of hearing, but if you don’t have one sense that people usually rely on, you can learn to develop another sense to compensate for it. So I developed my active listening skills.

Languages helped me to feel useful

When I started to learn languages at school, they excited me. I liked to work out the patterns of how the language worked. I realised that you don’t need to be able to see in order to learn languages. Maybe someone could say the same about maths or physics, but I’ve always had a better relationship with words than with numbers!

I don’t know if we like what we’re good at, or we’re more patient to develop the skills to do the things that we like, but I liked French and German and I did well in the exams. I’ve abandoned my French, but I use German most days at work now.

I also learned something else. When I was helping to translate for some visitors of friends who came to England, even with my basic GCSE German, I suddenly felt a sense of usefulness that I hadn’t experienced before. Yes, we were doing sightseeing and I needed to ask for help to negotiate unfamiliar places, but each time someone asked me to translate something, I was contributing something. I was helping people to understand and be understood. That was exciting and rewarding at the same time!

Finding a way to use languages at work

This continued as I got older. I didn’t want my languages to be a purely academic exercise and I sought out people with whom I could communicate or situations in which I could use my languages. I had, and continue to have, a lot of fun with language exchanges because they bring you into contact with people and give you a cultural, rather than a purely linguistic perspective.

In terms of my career, I ended up working in communications, but only using English. All the multi-lingual roles I saw were working with children (and I didn’t want to be a teacher in the traditional sense) or in sales (which I would have hated!) I grew to realise that I got more fulfilment from working with friends who were learning English than I did from my paid employment. Also, they were developing, understanding, and using what they’d learned. This made me happy and it’s how the idea for English with Kirsty was born!

It took me until I was around thirty to discover how I could use languages in a meaningful way at work, but on the other hand I’m glad that I did other things before setting up my own business. I can also use the experience that I gained during this time.

Adults need trainers too and especially working online, some of the challenges related to not being able to see also disappeared. I used to trek across London every day, but I don’t miss those 3-hour commutes! Making online contact with people in multiple countries from the comfort of my own office is so much more efficient, but it also takes away some of the dependency and uncertainty that I felt at face-to-face events where you network and meet people for the first time. I got to design my job and my office environment in a way that works for me! The materials, processes, systems, and tools are all accessible ones!

I don’t highlight the fact that I’m unable to see because it’s not relevant to how well I can teach English, how I relate to my customers, and ultimately I don’t think it’s the most important or interesting thing about me! Having said that, it’s not a secret either and most people find out sooner or later, usually when they send me pictures of children, pets or food and I need to explain that I can’t see them!

Being unable to see has made me resourceful when looking for creative solutions

Once I was out of the sheltered world of education, I learned something – that many courses aren’t designed to be accessible for people who use software to read the information on their laptops, and that some of the advice that people will give you about the “best ways to learn languages” won’t help you at all if you can’t learn in the same way as them! You need to be resourceful! You absolutely don’t need to be able to see if you want to learn a language, but that also means that you need to find less visual materials. You need to try out new things and accept that you might take a different road to get to the same destination. That’s ok as long as you get there!

For example, watching films doesn’t help me. I can’t see the subtitles, and even if I understand 100% of what’s being said, if I miss information because I can’t see what the characters are doing, it’s not an enjoyable experience for me. So I use other materials, but often my listening skills develop faster because I have to use them to understand what’s being said. Ultimately that’s a good thing, because there are no subtitles in real-life conversations!

I can’t use some of the language learning apps, especially when the app designer didn’t label the buttons, so my software announces “button” for all of them and I have no idea what they do. It doesn’t apply to all language learning apps, but it has happened, and it’s annoying. But I can use apps that I know are accessible to make contact with people who speak the languages that I want to learn. I can build relationships, have conversations, learn from them and develop my skills.

Now I’m learning Romanian. What started out as a plan to learn something new because I was spending a lot of time at home during the lockdown, soon turned into an exciting new adventure. It’s brought me some of my best friends, new challenges at work, and although there is so much more that I need to learn, I am happy that I can attend business networking meetings in Romanian and understand most of what is said – even if I don’t always have the confidence to contribute very much. That will come.

Many of the resources for beginners are very image-based and not at all useful for me. This is unhelpful, but it’s also an incentive not to remain a beginner for very long! For example, as soon as I could understand materials created for Romanian speakers, and not just learners, I had access to many more things to listen to or read.

Learning take-away

I’ve had to find different ways to achieve the same goals, but in doing so, I’ve got to know myself better as well. We are all different and we learn in different ways. Some of us have clear preferences, or obvious challenges or limitations in terms of accessing some materials, but this process helped me to discover exactly how I learn and what I’m looking for in a language course.

I hope that this understanding helps me to be a better language teacher as well and to create a more personalised learning experience for my customers. It’s boring and wrong to assume that we all need the same things or learn in the same way.

Not everyone loves languages or learning languages as I do. But they’ve helped me to learn more than different words to use when I want to communicate.

And my additional challenges? Well I’ve discovered more about myself and sometimes this means that I now have skills or even advantages that I didn’t expect! Also, I’m happy if I can use these problem-solving skills to help others to learn how they want to learn as well.

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