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Because I am legally blind, I had to find ways to be as productive with my language learning as my non-disabled and passionate counterparts. So, for those interested in taking on a new language, here are some tips that might help.

My early childhood was spent in the Philippines. Growing up, I often thought nobody understood me. People weren't educated about disability, and they often equated visual impairment with incapable or stupid. I was treated much better when I moved to the United States. However, I was still trapped in my disability barrier. The list of things I couldn't do that my peers enjoyed grew as I matured. I was desperate to find my niche wherein I could evolve to be the person I really am.

In middle school, joining groups like robotics or the debate club didn't seem like the thing to impress people. Being caught trading Pokemon cards was a one-way ticket to getting an appointment with bullies. Playing musical instruments or sports were for the talented. I didn't have a celebrity personality to star in the daily school hallway drama specials called "He Started It" or "You Did What with My Boyfriend?" Instead, I found a love for something not many kids my age thought interesting: languages and culture.

My early contact with Japanese media had a momentous impact on my life. Anime gave me the courage to stand up against bullies, the motivation to be a proactive, top-performing student all the way through college, and I opened my mind to a new dimension of the world through languages. Unfortunately, no matter how much I wanted to speak Japanese at the age of 13, the materials for learning the language on my own at the time were not accessible for people who are visually impaired. So, I channeled my curiosity for languages to French. It was a Romance language, so reading and writing wasn't difficult, except for the occasional accent marks I would misplace or overlook.

My time with French was enjoyable but short. When I began high school, I wanted to continue my French as well as start Spanish, but credit restrictions pushed me to choose just one of the two. So, I took my chances with Spanish, and I genuinely fell in love with it. I was attracted to the way Spanish sounds and the fact that it was accessible enough for me to seriously self-study ahead of my class and entertain myself learning dirty words. My first Spanish teacher was a huge inspiration to me that I decided to pursue the language in university. However, after high school, my relationship with Spanish began to resemble Katy Perry's "Hot 'N' Cold."

I had a professor who was passionate about Spanish, but her teaching skills were as low as her exposure to people needing special accommodations. She conducted the class with authoritarian behavior and burdened us with an unusually heavy load of homework. A daily assignment that would take several hours for a sighted student took me days to complete, and I'm not exaggerating. By the time I could watch "Maria la del Barrio" without reading subtitles, I decided to divorce Spanish, drop my major and switch universities.

While I was learning French and Spanish, I never gave up on my first love, Japanese. Sometimes, I would do the only thing I could to learn the language--immerse myself through its media like music, drama, and videos. Reading subtitles was a lot of work for me, but the torture was worth every new word I caught. It wasn't until I switched universities that learning Japanese became achievable. My new university had a Japanese department. I noticed the internet began to have accessible self-study resources and random PDFs of reputable textbooks. The university also had a study abroad program to help improve my Japanese. It was time to take my relationship with Japanese to the next level.

My connection to and ability in Japanese grew stronger every day. I've also picked up two more languages along the way. The little ones I taught through my online ESL job have tugged at my heartstrings and led me to learn Mandarin. It feels good to know that families are not talking about me before class while the cameras are off in the virtual classroom. Likewise, as a longtime fan of Korean drama, I felt like it was a crime to put off learning the language for 10 years, especially when much of its grammar and vocabulary resembles Japanese.


I'm not here to write about how easy learning a language is just by following steps XYZ. It is a tricky and very time-consuming process, regardless of how gifted you are in acquiring languages. However, I will assure you that you will enjoy the fruits of your labor, especially after getting to the intermediate level. Because I am legally blind, I had to find ways to be as productive with my language learning as my non-disabled and passionate counterparts. So, for those interested in taking on a new language, here are some tips that might help.

Putting in a lot of time and effort towards learning vocabulary and grammar concepts is necessary to reach a high level of proficiency in a foreign language. When I started studying Japanese vocabulary, I used to hand-write the words on flashcards as I did with French and Spanish. However, I quickly realized that this method did not work for me when learning languages with pictogram writing. Japanese has three unique writing systems: Katakana for words from other countries adapted into the language, Hiragana for either phonetically spelling out words or combining them with the third system, Kanji. These are characters derived from Chinese to use as the stem of the word. Kanji characters have multiple strokes, many of which are too tiny for me to see or notice on paper. Spaced repetition software (SRS) saved me from the torture of squinting to examine strokes.

An SRS is like an electronic flashcard application, but smarter. It uses an algorithm based on your responses to classify which cards need more practice. It deter mines the best time for you to review these cards again to set in your long-term memory. The best part is, most of the similar software applications are available across all devices. You can use an SRS for any language, but some are dedicated to a specific language. The SRS I personally like to use is Anki because it is the most flexible application. I use it for all the languages I am learning. With Anki, I can either make my own deck of cards or download free decks on the website. Furthermore, I am free to modify my cards in any way I want by changing the font color and size, the background color, how my cards are formatted, adding audio files or pictures, and more. I have Anki on my laptop, my phone, and my iPad to memorize vocabulary, phrases, and grammar anytime and anywhere.

Before I discovered SRS applications, I had no choice but to use index cards. Initially, organizing them drove me crazy. Fortunately, I found a way to manage all my cards. I used to buy clear page protectors for trading, or recipe cards to keep them in place and combine the pages into one folder or binder. To make memorization easier, I would group words into sets such as "food vocab" or "school stuff." This way, I don't have to spend time sorting out the cards I don't need at the moment, and easily reference ones I need at that time. I always have my cards organized with the English words faced down. This is so that I could spend as long as necessary remembering meanings for all the foreign words face up. This way, I can resist the temptation to flip a card. Later, I look at how much of the words in a page I remember by going through the same cards and checking my answers with the English on the back.

Many visually-impaired people have trouble writing on lined paper, but I didn't have this problem until I started learning Asian languages. I need to write characters bigger than the space the lines provide. Because of the multiple strokes of the characters, the lines just made my writing harder to read. If I write the characters small enough to fit the space, I wouldn't be able to read them at all. That's why I ditched the lined paper and started using unlined notebooks or sketchbooks. With these, I am the master of the space. I could write things as big as I please and organize my notes in a way my brain can process things better. I even use the notebooks in a landscape orientation because it's easier to manage and see what I'm doing up close. I also don't use normal pens and pencils. I prefer fine-tip brush pens with different colors because it makes my writing clearer and easier to see, even the smaller strokes. The set by Prismacolor is my favorite, not only because the ink comes out nice, but also because it makes me feel like an artist.

Recently, I said good-bye to the days of flashcards and unreadable paper materials. Today, I have multiple devices to rely on for my language learning. Having a tablet is a game-changer. My iPad Pro is literally a computer I can hold up to or place close to my face. With a good notetaking application such as Microsoft OneNote or GoodNotes, it can also be the perfect notebook that I can write my notes on legibly with my Apple pencil, and zoom in to read what I have written in different languages. Because I have the 12.9 inch iPad, I have enough real estate to simultaneously open multiple applications and see them easily. When I study Korean, I make use of the iPad's split view function. I have my GoodNotes app ready on the left side of my screen to write down new things I learn from the Webtoon comic or eBook I am reading on the right half of the screen. If I want to look up a definition or grammar explanation, it only takes a simple gesture to look up what I want in another window, then go back to my reading. Once I reach my learning goal for the day, I free up the right half of my screen to open Anki to study my newly acquired vocabulary and grammar. When I want to read something that does not have an electronic copy available, I can easily scan the material with my iPad and convert it into a PDF file I can either read or import to my notebook app. Having a widescreen tablet like the iPad Pro or Surface Pro is very useful and accessible, especially for reading and writing practice.

There were times in my formal language classes that I felt like I would learn better if I had the teacher's attention focused on me alone. Unfortunately, I couldn't see what they were pointing to in class. More hateful are times when a professor constantly refers to the board and, all of a sudden, calls me out for an answer. Luckily, I don't have to put up with language teachers who refuse to understand people's special needs.

With online learning on the rise, there are now ways to find tutors for a reasonable price. I use italki, a website platform that hosts thousands of professional and community language teachers. You can find the right teacher based on your needs and budget and switch teachers at any time. I meet with professional teachers at least once a week to sharpen my skills, and I'm not even paying more than 15 dollars per lesson. I've informed teachers about my visual impairment, and they have all been very accommodating.

There are countless ways to make studying more accessible to visually-impaired individuals who wish to learn a language. However, the majority of techniques and resources that work for one person may not work for another. You also have to take into account what language you want to learn and your circumstances. Regardless, I hope that these general tips would be useful to people who want to make a big leap into language learning.


Usually, most people just know either the simple words or explicit sayings of another language. I draw inspiration from J.M. Coetzee who said, "It is a world of words that creates a world of things." There is a massive difference between just knowing how to say the word "apple" and knowing how to say what you want to do with that apple. A language is a powerful tool. It can not only impact your life but others' as well. I can't drive from Charleston to New York. Still, I was able to inform and influence people's lives across the ocean and build strong connections with them all because of my ability to converse in other languages.

Speaking another language also protects my privacy. A few years ago, I switched my phone to Japanese. My brother, who usually hacks into my phone for funny pranks, found it impossible to randomly change my phone settings. It was entertaining to watch a mad tech struggling to navigate a simple iPhone. On another occasion, my father, who usually reads everything he touches, looked at my Japanese notes with such concentration for a while as if he understood them. After a good while, he said in frustration, "Ah, I don't understand anything."

Finally, I will always treasure my heart-warming experiences as a result of knowing other languages. Several times, I cheered up my Japanese best friends in their language. Encouraging children who were upset in my internship validated my speaking skills. You couldn't believe how wide my smirk was when I realized how hard my Chinese student was trying to please me. He asked his mother in Mandarin what he should do during class to prove he is practicing his English. These moments are why I continue to study and take on languages.

Jem Mabalot, born with aniridia and legally blind, is a fresh graduate of the College of Charleston with a B.A. in International Studies. Her passion is teaching the youth and learning languages such as Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. She loves exploring different cultures and wants to be a media influencer to inspire and lead the youth from different backgrounds and abilities to pursue their dream. Her calling is to establish a nonprofit organization for talent development and empowerment for children in Asia. Currently, she is teaching ESL online and working on her Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA). She is planning to launch her YouTube channel soon.
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Author:Mabalot, Jem
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Sep 1, 2020

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