I’ve loved languages since I was a child. First I wanted to write stories or letters to my friends in English, then I developed an interest in other languages too. French and German were two of my best subjects at school, though unfortunately I’ve forgotten all of my French now.
As a learner who can’t see, my goals are the same as any other language learner’s goals, but the way I get there is often a bit different. It’s the same with many things – whether I’m cooking dinner, training a dog or running my business, I look at what other people are doing or what advice they are being given, then I consider how much of it would work for me, and what things I would need to do differently in order to get the same results.
I hope that this post will help visually impaired adults, or parents and teachers of visually impaired children by giving them ideas about useful resources for people who can’t use some of the options available to sighted learners.
At school, I followed the same curriculum as everyone else. Texts were made available to me in Braille or on my laptop. When we watched videos, I usually sat with a friend who whispered what was going on and I whispered back what I could translate from the dialogue. We worked it out together.
After leaving school, I decided to continue with my German. Learning on my own was a slightly different story because I couldn’t assume that all of the materials that I would need would be readily accessible. Having studied German at school, it was easier for me, because I could understand materials that weren’t just intended for language learners.
Two libraries for blind people in Germany kindly allowed me to borrow their Braille and audio books, which meant that I could pursue my love of books in another language.
It’s important to realise, however, that each language has its own system for Braille. Braille takes up a lot of room, and often symbols are used for groups of letters. However, the same symbol does not denote the same group of letters in each language. The English “CH” sign means “AU” in German, and the German “CH sign” means “TH” in English. So, if a blind person wants to learn Braille in another language, they will be learning a new writing system as well as a new language.
I also looked for interesting articles online, joined forums (the first one was a forum where people chatted about their dogs), and looked for language exchange partners online.
Sometimes my visual impairment came up, such as when someone sent me a picture and I couldn’t see it, but I never make it part of my introduction because I don’t think it’s the most interesting thing about me. In the dog forum, I was there to improve my German and talk about my golden retriever.
I became active on a German networking site called Xing, which is similar to LinkedIn. I joined a group in which people can look for language exchange partners and after a while joined the moderation team. I often wrote to new members to welcome them, and as a result, I started chatting to someone called Sarah. Sarah and I became friends and when I heard that she was coming to London with her partner, we decided to meet and go for dinner.
Much of my tandem exchange experience has been online. It’s much easier to chat by email or on Skype than to go and meet a stranger somewhere! However, I did meet a couple of my exchange partners after I’d had a chance to speak with them and get to know them a bit. I took precautions, went somewhere that I knew and told someone where I was going.
Anyway, back to the meeting with Sarah…We had a good evening and we also decided to have a language exchange trip – I would spend a few days with Sarah in Berlin and then she would come back to London to stay with me. We had a lot of fun – chatting, going horse-riding, visiting a museum where I was allowed to touch the exhibits, cooking, going to the cinema and of course shopping!
Whether or not websites are accessible, if you find the right tandem partners, one-to-one communication with other people is something that anyone can do.
Some websites for learning German were accessible, others are designed so that you have to click correct answers with a mouse and you can’t just select them with the enter key. This rules sites like this out for people who don’t use a mouse. However, some website designers get it right and label their graphics, don’t use elements on the page that you need to activate with the mouse, and label any fields correctly. It’s really just something you have to try and find out which websites work for you, which can be used with a bit of effort and which are a complete waste of your time.
The same applies to further education. I had a really good experience with the Goethe Institute, who emailed me the materials for the course that I did with them and worked together with me to find the best way to comment on my work. I had a terrible experience with another training provider for long-distance learning. I’ve found it doesn’t depend on whether or not the organisation has had experience working with blind people before, but how willing individuals are to try new things and to find solutions to accessibility problems.
My most recent language-learning adventure is to learn Romanian. I went to a business-networking meeting and two of the first people who made me feel welcome were from Romania, so I decided that as I was looking to learn a new language anyway, I’d try to learn theirs! That was in 2021. Now it has become my second additional language and I am already starting to use it at work, as well as in my day-to-day communication with friends and people on my social media channels.
One of the biggest challenges was finding materials for beginners. There are not as many of them around as there are for people who want to learn languages such as German, but also finding accessible materials that didn’t rely on visual content because complete beginners do not know much of the language. I knew that this period was going to be the hardest, so it was a good incentive not to remain a beginner for long. Now that I can use materials (articles, podcasts, videos etc) that were created for Romanian speakers, I have a lot more to choose from.
I decided to sign up for private tuition. I know that not everyone is in a position to do that, but for me, it gave me the best opportunity to have an accessible course. Learning materials are emailed to me. We don’t use an inaccessible whiteboard, but we can use online chat. It is very important for me to have access to the written word and to write things down myself – hearing is not enough. If there are pictures in the materials, the teacher describes them. We adapt questions that ask students to draw on experiences that I don’t have. As long as the learning outcome can be met, it’s ok if we take a different route to get there.
I went to my local school, so it was completely normal for me that any teacher with whom I work probably hasn’t taught a blind student before. In fact, sometimes this can be a really good thing, because they won’t be influenced by what has worked with another student, and what may not work for me. We have to talk about how we want to do things, how to fix any challenges that come up – and most of all, it’s good to be open and to give the teacher the chance to ask questions. I don’t expect them to know how my software works or which materials I’ll be able to access.
For me, one of the best things about this journey has been the people I’ve met along the way. Some have become close friends. Certain apps or websites may be inaccessible, but human connection doesn’t depend on good structural design! People can meet and help each other. With one friend, we use a series of typed and voice messages to give the other person an insight into how the language is used. We didn’t follow a plan, but as she told me about her family, her job, her dog, her Christmas preparations, her holiday … I learned new words, I gained listening practise, and I experienced authentic language in use.
If you’re learning another language, it’s good to build it into your day. So once I’d got past the basic level, I started looking for groups or content connected with my hobbies so that I could learn new words and find like-minded people. You don’t need to be able to see to do that and online dictionaries give you an accessible way to look up new words.
Now my biggest challenge is my perfectionism and reluctance to speak, not my inability to see!
Some years ago I decided that I also wanted to learn Turkish. This was slightly more difficult – partly because I would be starting right from the beginning, and partly because it’s a bit harder to find resources for learning Turkish than it is for learning German. I knew that I didn’t want to join an evening class because most of them referred to working through books. Therefore I went off in search of a private teacher. This is more expensive than a group course, but I knew from my brief experience with learning Hindi that it’s worth the extra cost if you can find a teacher who will make the lessons accessible.
Again, the teacher whom I found online had never taught a blind learner before, but she was willing to give it a go! We did use a book, but she read the exercises to me, or sent them to me by email. I took copious notes on my laptop, and when I needed help with pronunciation, we recorded words and phrases. I submitted my homework by email and she emailed back the corrections.
If we did exercises with multiple options, I wrote them down, so that I didn’t have to try to keep all of the options in my head. If a sighted learner doesn’t have to keep all the information in their head because they can see the options, a blind learner shouldn’t have to either.
I found a number of tandem partners online, with whom I practised my Turkish. Some of the apps that are designed for this purpose can’t be used by people who use speech software because the labels and app controls are not labelled correctly, or they don’t work with VoiceOver, the speech software on the iPhone. Therefore I looked for tandem partners on more traditional sites, or social networking sites such as Facebook, where there are many groups and pages about language learning. I even found someone who lived virtually round the corner from me, with whom I learned to make some Turkish dishes!
I also found a Facebook group for people who were learning Turkish. Sometimes I couldn’t understand the posts, because people posted pictures of text, which my software just recognised as a graphic. However most of the time people posted questions or links, so I could learn from the things that they wanted to know or share. Sometimes people knew that I was there and described the pictures or typed out the text.
Many of my friends recommended Turkish soap operas, but this was too much work for me. I use the dialogues in films to try and work out what’s happening on the screen. If I have to struggle with the dialogue as well as to try and remember who’s who and figure out what they’re doing, the whole thing becomes a chore! It’s easier when you’re more familiar with the language – I could do it in German, but if you are likely to miss key information because you didn’t see what happened, the whole experience can become quite frustrating. The same applies to films. I can’t use subtitles, but then I think some people rely on them too much! I did watch some videos, but they were usually factual ones, because people generally speak more clearly and the visual element is not so important.
Everyone is different
I think it’s really important for people to know themselves and how they learn best. Listening is important to me, but if I’m going to remember a new word, I need to write it down. One of the biggest mistakes is to think that all blind people just need the same material as everyone else, but in audio form.
In conclusion, I would say that it’s definitely possible for a blind person learning on their own to find a lot of accessible materials. The internet has opened up so many possibilities now and we don’t just have to rely on materials that have been especially designed for us as blind learners. The internet also means we can make connections with others, wherever they are in the world, and gain access to content that was created for speakers of that language – as long as you can stick with it long enough to get past the beginner stage!
Most of my customers who want to learn English are sighted, but I do have some blind and partially sighted customers and followers on social media. I’m happy that I can offer accessible learning materials – after all, the materials have to be accessible for me, too, but each person is an individual, and just because something was the best solution for me, it doesn’t mean that the same way of doing things will work for everyone.
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