Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How'd You Get Here From There? Part XIII--English Language Learning

Let me preface this by saying that I am by no means an expert in teaching an older child to speak English amidst the multitude of adjustments happening in an international adoption. It just so happens that I have experience in doing so one time.

With one particular child.

From one particular country.

You might even read my painful attempts to speak Amharic and wonder if I know much of anything at all. So, read on, but don't say I didn't warn you.

In a previous post on Language and Adjustment of older adopted children, I opened with the caveat that
"each child will have his or her own unique timetable regarding adjustment and language. This will be dependent on a number of things: age, emotional condition, ease of adaptability in general, and with regard to acquisition of a second language (in this case English) the level of acquisition of the native language (in this case Amharic). "

If you are seeking to understand language acquisition and the theory behind it, that post is chock full of excellent links to people who are much smarter than me giving their two cents on English Language Learning. But today, let's talk about the nitty-gritty "How do you do it?" or "How do you make it through each day communicating with a child you barely know, whose dance you've yet to learn, without (either one of you) going insane?"

I think the first and most important thing to understand is that learning a new language is difficult. It can be easi--ER for some people, but in general, it is a process that takes time. In fact, the average length of time for fluency ranges from between 3 years to almost 7 years! (I like to remind myself of that fact when I am still correcting subject-verb agreement in an eleven year old. I think it makes both of us feel better.)

Another important thing to remember is (particularly if you have other children or have ever been a child) is that people have been teaching and learning language inherently in their families for, well, forever. Unless your family lives in complete silence, moving silently from one moment to the next--in which case, I might like to vacation in such a peaceful surrounding--your home is probably rich with language--spoken and written. So, just as you learned English, and as you taught your babies English, you will also teach your older adopted child English.

  • As you did with your babies, you will start small. Begin with letters, sounds, sight word and rhyming words. Sing the ABC song and read bedtime stories. It may feel quite normal to do all of these things with a chubby little bundle of a 1, 2 or 3 year old, but it may feel mighty awkward at first to do these things with an older child. But guess what? That's one paradigm parents of older adopted children need to break--and break early. There will be moments, trust me on this, when you will be embarrassed in a public forum by the toddler language spewing from the mouth of the 'tween body of your newly arrived child. Parenting is the best slice of humble pie you may ever be served and with older adopted children the waitress just keeps dishing them up!
  • You will worry about having speakers of their first language nearby--like sitting at your kitchen table ready to interpret, explain and reassure your child. We knew a few native Amharic speakers--but not well enough to have regular contact with them. We kept phone numbers from family who remained in Ethiopia and other age-mates from the orphanage who were adopted into American families. After a short amount of time, however, the Amharic conversations were replaced with English and when that wasn't possible, conversations became photo exchanges.
  • You will feel torn between ensuring your child learns English and understanding that in order to do so, slowly her first language will retreat to a less-often used portion of her mind. It will make you wonder if it is a fair trade.
  • And you will be frustrated by their seemingly slow or stalled progress. In case you hadn't heard this newsflash...

The feeling will be--without question--quite mutual at times.

The good news is when progress comes--and it will--you will both understand and appreciate how far you've come.

Another blessing of an older child's language learning process?

An older child will come with a pre-made template that enabled her to learn her first language, which will aid an older child in learning a second language (and will remain in place should your child choose to "re-learn" her native language someday). A child who is proficient in her native language will have an easier time acquiring a second one. Also, one great benefit to our little Ethiopian-English phrase book was that we could point to the word or phrase in English and Hannah could read the Amharic translation to understand what we meant. There were some haphazard pantomimes which occurred, but eventually we understood each other. But these first stories are part and parcel of the process. And they are priceless in creating memories necessary for bonding.

Like I said, language acquisition is a funny thing. It takes years for fluency. And while I fully believe that speaking correctly and teaching our children (whether first or second language English speakers) to speak properly is important, I have come to appreciate not acting as the grammar police on every.single.occasion. Because language is more than a Pygmalion-perfected speech. And sometimes, when you're not paying attention, you learn a little something along the way, too.


coffeemom said...

Thank you! This is so helpful. I will be sure to refer to it again once she is home! And I did already check out your other great posts and have bookmarked those sites. You're the best Jane! Thanks so much! Love m

Barb, sfo said...

Thanks for all those sites! Way back when, I studied methods of teaching ESL, but that has all been forgotten. The interest is still there, though--and maybe some day I will use it to help someone.

Anonymous said...

great post you still have the dictionary and can we borrow it?!


Jane (a.k.a. patjrsmom) said...

We do still have it, AM, and you can definitely borrow it...or maybe we'll just get you your own copy. We actually still refer to it from time to time!