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I’m severely deaf and partially sighted, but have learned 5 languages. Here’s my story

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Recently, I requested some of your success stories and the most inspirational one that came my way by far was from a Scottish lady, Julie Ferguson. She has had a hearing problem her whole life, that has gotten worse with time, and in recent years has started to lose her sight too, being officially registered as partially sighted and needing to use a white cane.

Despite these obvious huge challenges, she has a passion for learning languages that means that nothing can stop her. She has learned French, Spanish, Swedish, Gaelic, and even how to read Japanese!

Rather than let her hearing and seeing setbacks hold her back, and fit into other people's narrow expectations of how she should live her life, she is actually the one that others rely on whenever she travels thanks to her language skills.

Whenever you start listing many excuses that hold you back from learning your language, keep in mind that some people have much greater challenges than you can possibly ever imagine, but come out victorious nonetheless. Julie is a great example that the only true limitation we really have in this life, and what will always decide if we are successful or not is our own will and determination.

No matter what challenge you have, I hope this story reminds you that there is never a good reason to give up! Over to you, Julie!


So, I'm Julie Ferguson and I have nothing on Helen Keller!  I am, however, severely deaf and partially sighted.

My parents realised that I had a hearing problem when I was 2 years old, though I didn't get my first hearing aid until I was 4.  Unfortunately, when I was 4, nobody could understand me babbling away in my version of English, except for my mum and my brother.  Apparently, I was bad.  I couldn't even pronounce my own name (it sounded like Ooee Fehuhoh).

I was sent to speech therapy for intensive work before I started primary school, and I remember working on all those weird sounds especially “spoon”.  My particular hearing loss makes it difficult to hear consonants, especially s, h, and f.  Over the years, I've learnt to get around that by learning to lipread and to extrapolate from what I did hear.

Primary school was… interesting.  I loved learning, I didn't like being bullied for the way I spoke.  I struggled with some sounds for years, such as the “ch” from “church” (I make it sound like “shursh”), and the other children picked on that.  Because my hearing wasn't reliable, I started to depend more on the written word, and I became a great reader.  This was probably helped by having the subtitles on the telly all the time.  Subtitles are great!

Starting with foreign languages

When my older brother started high school, I became aware of foreign languages and I got really excited about starting high school because I would get to start learning something other than English.  I suspect that by this point, communication had become really important to me and I liked the idea of being to talk to people from other countries as well as being able to read things in the original language.

In high school, my class was assigned to the French stream, and I turned up to my first French lesson with glee.  I finished the lesson in floods of tears.  The teacher didn't know about my hearing problem and she did her lesson purely as a verbal lesson with no written cues.  That meant that, to me, all the French flying around the room sounded like meaningless noise.  The teacher asked me a question, to repeat something, I think, and I panicked.  Since then, I learnt always, ALWAYS, ask for new words to be written down.

Despite my bad start in French, I went on to study French for 4 years in high school plus 1 year in university as a fun extra during my Biochemistry degree.  In my second year of high school, I was offered the chance to start studying Spanish as well, which I was delighted about.  I did three years of Spanish.  For both languages, the written word was my starting point and then I would listen carefully to the teacher and repeat as best as I could. I discovered that I was actually really good at languages- I found grammar easy, I liked learning new words and trying out different ways of combining them.

I remember one time, in Spanish, we were told to write an essay about our hobbies and what we wanted to be when we grew up.  I wrote about howling at the moon each month with my dad, and that I was going to become Prime Minister of Great Britain, make Scotland independent, quit as PM of Britain and run for PM of independent Scotland.

Listening was always my sticking point.  Reading was easy, writing was easy, grammar was easy.  Listening?  Uh oh.

At one point, I was sure that every single audio cassette the school had was, “You're in a train station and an announcement comes on over the tannoy (loudspeaker).  Answer the following questions.”  So, extract information from a cassette recording of a tannoy announcement?  I can't even do that in English!  If I'm in a train station or suchlike, I ask the person next to me.

Thanks to my brother blazing a path before me (he has the same condition as me), I found out that I could request that my listening exam in both French and Spanish be done with a real person reading out the script to me.  This allowed me to lipread as well as listen. The readers overcompensated for my hearing and spoke really clearly and soooo sloooowly.  It was hard not to laugh.

My language teachers at school were all really encouraging and supportive.  I ended up winning prizes for being the best French student and best Spanish student in my 4th year.  I worked hard for that success, and I was really disappointed when timetabling clashes prevented me from continuing with languages in my 5th and 6th year.

Speaking Swedish in Sweden

During university I had the chance to go abroad to study for a year through the Erasmus program, and I opted to go to Sweden.

I spoke no Swedish whatsoever, but I had been told that all lectures would be in English and that I would be given Swedish lessons if I wanted them.  I took Swedish lessons for the first 6 months, and made sure that the teacher knew about my hearing from the start.  By this point, I was confident enough to ask for things to be repeated, or written down.  I was also willing to speak Swedish in front of other people to due having any embarrassment about my speech burnt out of me in school.

Living in the country of your target language is so good for learning a language!  Most films at the cinema were subtitled in Swedish, foreign tv shows were subtitled, and people were willing to listen to my Swedish and answer in Swedish.  I picked up a lot of vocabulary from “Sunset Beach” and from university classes, so my Swedish was a mix of trashy soap opera and science!  I also bought cook books for Swedish, Italian and vegetarian food, all in Swedish, which helped as well.  The only discouragement I encountered was when a friend told me that my Swedish sounded like his parents' parrot, which put me off speaking in front of him.

Striving on despite visual problems

By the time I left university, I had learnt 3 languages to varying degrees, with a hearing loss which had worsened over the years.  Just after I graduated, at the age of 22, I was told that I also had a visual problem called retinitis pigmentosa.  This causes night blindness to start with, followed by increasingly bad tunnel vision, and sometimes central vision loss.  I consider myself lucky because I have very good central vision, which is what you need for reading and other kinds of detailed work.  My vision has decreased over the last 12 years, and when I was 31, I was registered partially sighted.

Since I found out about my visual problems, I have studied basic Gaelic for a year and I recently started learning Japanese.  Gaelic is the only language where my Scottish accent has been a boon rather than a bane!

I chose Gaelic because I'm Scottish and I really enjoy listening to groups like Runrig, Dochas, and Capercaillie who sing in Gaelic.  My hearing had the usual impact but my eyesight wasn't an issue at the time. In my Gaelic lesson, I used a tape recorder and listened to the tapes later to help working on pronunciation and vocabulary.

My eyesight does affect reading Japanese, though, because my central vision has been mildly (and probably temporarily) affected by fluid-filled pockets under my retinas, which makes things look a little like I'm reading through a water droplet.  Reading kanji is sometimes tricky, and I usually need to enlarge the text to see it well enough.  Also, Japanese is the first language where I've tried to teach myself.

In the past 7 months, I've learnt to read, write, and say the hiragana and katakana syllables.  I've also learnt the English meanings of about 350 kanji, using the RTK book sample by Heisig.  I'm trying to learn between 5 and 10 kanji a day, but only the English meaning and how to write it.   Later I'll go back and plug in the on and kun readings.  At the moment, I'm mostly using apps on my tablet, and I have the “Genki I” textbook.

I actually found Fluent in 3 Months when I was looking for advice on how to tackle kanji, and the advice is working well so far!  I've also been introduced to a Japanese woman, who has become a friend, and she is mentoring me through the process.  I plan to start practising speaking with her in Japanese by the summer.

I maintain my understanding of my languages by reading fiction, magazines, comics and cook books.  I also enjoy listening to music in other languages, and I'm really liking Akino Arai just now.  I've found DVDs pretty useful because I can change the subtitles to a different language and practice that way, and sometimes the audio track can be changed.  Because I'm currently concentrating on Japanese, my other languages have lapsed somewhat so they're not as good as they were.

I love learning languages!

There's something magical about deciphering the code and understanding what a person means in their own language.  I learned Gaelic to connect with a part of my culture, and French and Spanish for fun.  I learned Swedish because I was living there.  I'm now learning Japanese because I started reading manga, and I became fascinated with Japanese culture.  My goal is to travel to Japan for a month during my summer holiday in a couple of years' time and be able to talk to the people around me.

I've always thought it was rude to go to a foreign country and not even try to learn a few words of the local language.  I've travelled quite a lot, and I use which ever language is most convenient and I make sure that I have a phrase book of some sort.

In France, I've haggled in a street market for French books, and been invited to join a disability protest march in Bordeaux.  In Sweden, I've shopped for tea in a speciality shop.  I've used my Swedish to hack Norwegian and Danish when travelling in Norway and Denmark.  I've translated for pupils, friends and teachers, because they were too scared to do it themselves or hadn't learned the language.

I've reserved tables for 2 days later in Rome in Italian, I've bought coffee in Athens in Greek, and spent over half an hour discussing the state of the world with a little old lady in Barcelona in Spanish.  I've ridden on a carousel in Brussels, gotten lost in Amsterdam, and listened to music that brought tears to my eyes in Estonia.

Why not?

People seem amazed that I've done all this and more, and that in a way is discouraging.  There seems to be an expectation that I don't want to learn languages or travel abroad, even more so since I started using a white stick.  I'm pigeon-holed by other people's expectations.

I have no problem with being a bit of a rebel (such as it is!) but I worry that others with similar disabilities might be put off from even starting by those kinds of attitudes.  I now work full-time as a Science teacher in a high school, and I hope that I can teach more than just Science, that my pupils will learn not to automatically lower their expectations of disabled people, and that they will learn that they can achieve almost anything if they try hard enough.

By the way, my brother speaks fluent German, due to living in Germany for 6 years.  To be honest, his hearing and eye sight are worse than mine, and I've benefited a lot from watching how he did things.  We talk about how things are working for us, and give each other tips.  He's been a big help over the years.  Like me, my brother does well when reading and writing, but runs into a bit of a lottery when listening.

He also tells me that the deaf people he met in Germany told him that he speaks “Schwerhörigerdeutsch”, or “hard-of-hearing German” – in other words, he has exactly the same pronunciation glitches that a deaf German would, just with a Scottish accent on top! Given that the deaf locals do fine, he considers it proof that deaf foreigners can do fine too.

Well said Julie!! If you have your own inspirational story, share it with us here or in the forums, and subscribe to the email list of this site (top right) to get notification of future similar posts. If you have any questions for Julie, or other thoughts to share with us, do so in the comments below!

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author headshot

Julie Ferguson

Science Teacher

Scottish science teacher and language enthusiast. Julie has travelled to 19 countries so far, and she's planning more.

Speaks: English , Scottish Gaelic, British Sign Language, French, Spanish, Swedish, Japanese

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