Natalie Brooks: "I was told dyslexics can't learn foreign languages."
Natalie Brooks is a language learner with dyslexia and founder of Dyslexia in Adults, which helps adults who have dyslexia build strategies that work for them. In this interview, she shares how dyslexia affected her language-learning journey with and her message to inspire people with dyslexia to recognize and nurture their talents and enhanced cognitive skills.
"I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was six or seven. I don't remember a specific day when I learned about my condition. So I can tell I've kind of always known it has been a part of me," Natalie opens up about her experience. The first few weeks of primary school were enough for Natalie's teachers to realize that something wasn't quite clicking for that bright, bubbly, chatty girl. "If teachers asked me questions, I could hold a really intelligent conversation with them. But at the same time, my intelligence wasn't translating into my ability to pick up skills. I was struggling to read and write."
People with dyslexia have different challenges with perceiving texts; here’s how Natalie sees them. "In my case, letters and words don't really move around. For me, it's more like I could read a whole page, and I would have no idea what I've read. I do understand every separate word when I read, but I can't process the sentence. So I need to put a lot of effort into actually getting the information into my brain."
On top of that, Natalie experiences difficulties with spelling and following lines of text. She has to follow each line with her finger or use a piece of paper to cover most of the words in the line and show only the line she needs to read. This method also helps her process what she is reading.
Natalie was fortunate that her dyslexia was noticed when she was so young and that she had a really supportive learning environment. Understanding their daughter's challenges, Natalie's parents sent her to a school that supported learners with dyslexia. "To be honest, that's not a very standard experience, and it's not something that a lot of people with dyslexia would experience," she says.
Nonetheless, being surrounded by what seemed to be total support didn’t help Natalie feel a sense of belonging. "As a kid, I was told people with dyslexia can't learn foreign languages, and even if I tried, it would take too much effort. So I was taken out of all foreign language classes — teachers at school made this decision for me," Natalie reflects. She was never allowed even to try.
And while Natalie was limited in learning languages because of some old-fashioned beliefs, she still had an advantage compared to others with dyslexia: Natalie Brooks is British, and her first language is English. This gave her access to a much bigger pool of information than people with dyslexia whose native language is not English get. But what might seem like an advantage to some was still insufficient for Natalie. She has always felt insecure about not knowing a foreign language in the modern world. So a couple of years ago, she decided it was time for her to conquer Spanish.
"Researchers say languages such as Spanish and Italian are easier to learn for people with dyslexia because of similarities in spelling and pronunciation. However, spelling is the only one component of everything you need to master when learning a foreign language. It's nice to have a language that doesn't feel as overwhelming as maybe it would be learning English for the first time," Natalie says. She has been learning Spanish with a Mexican teacher and with Promova (even before it launched Dyslexia Mode). To get more practice, she traveled to Spanish-speaking countries and spent several months in Colombia and Spain. After two years of on-and-off learning, Natalie successfully reached the A2 level.
"I stick with Promova in my Spanish learning because I found it much more effective and dyslexia-friendly. The app doesn't make you compete with anyone and feel bad for being slow. I like that lessons are bite-sized, so I don't tire quickly. And one of the biggest values is illustrations. I believe dyslexic people love to know the context of things. Illustrations of the words and phrases in the Promova flashcards do a great job of explaining the core meaning and help create a hook for better memorizing. I think Dysfont really complements the whole picture, and Promova's courses became even more dyslexia-friendly."
Natalie is determined to continue learning Spanish as long as it brings her joy. She doesn't set any unrealistic goals for herself. All she wants is to improve her life and push other adults with dyslexia to achieve their dreams.
"Although learning Spanish is valuable to understand other cultures and engage with other people, I'm really doing it for me. It's something I was told my entire life I wasn't capable of. I got so tired of not understanding how to work with my brain, not understanding what it needs, how to manage it, and how to create success with it. This journey helped me to understand my own dyslexia better and embrace myself enough to start my company, Dyslexia in Adults. Today, with my coaching sessions, I help other dyslexic people fulfill their potential and understand how to navigate the reality of the difference in their brain."
Having firsthand knowledge of the struggles people with dyslexia face in learning foreign languages, Natalie wants to inspire them with her own experience: “Learn not to get obsessed with the difficulties and mistakes on your way. Just be okay with being bad sometimes. And I show people in my community that I — someone who's never had a foreign language class, who doesn't have any knowledge of languages, who was told her whole life she wasn't capable enough — can learn Spanish, so they do it too. They can go for a promotion; they can start their own business; they can go traveling. They can do anything if they put their mind to it.”