Sometimes it’s good to put yourself in an adopted child’s sandals. I try to imagine moving permanently to another country and culture with no knowledge of their language. Add to that having to learn what family life is all about, odd cultural behaviors and how you fit into this strange new place.
It is normal to expect some delays in gaining English language skills when bringing a child home from Ethiopia. Most internationally adopted children evaluated by a speech therapist test significantly below age expectation for language skills. Their native language has been ‘prematurely arrested’ and depending on their age, development and attachment, learning English can take quite a while. Having said that, many parents are really surprised at how quickly their Ethiopian children pick up and become fairly proficient in English.
While there is a great deal of scholarly information about second language acquisition available on the internet, I wanted to provide a place here for families to share some very practical ideas for helping a child make the transition from Amharic (or Oromifa in the case of YWAM’s orphanages) to English. Leave a comment and answer one or all of the following questions, being sure to give your child’s age at the time you brought them home:
- What did you do to prepare in advance for helping your child learn English?
- What worked for you? What didn’t?
- How long did it take for you to be able to effectively communicate with your child?
We are only in month two, so I am no expert with communicating with my five year old, but (when we remember) we have taken language back to the toddler stage, especially when I have a big idea to express.
Real conversation from this morning…
"Baby hit Abdi. Tell Mommy. Abdi no hit baby. Abdi hurt baby. Abdi big. (hand up high) Baby little. (hand down low) Be gentle to baby."
I then stroked the back of his hand and asked him to "show Mommy gentle."
I was trying to tell him that if his two-year old sister hits him then come tell me. Don't hit her back.
It's easy to forget (because he chatters all day long) that he doesn't really understand everything I'm saying. He's only practicing the fifty English words he knows by saying them over and over. And over. And over. 🙂
One cute thing. He adds "es" to every word to make it possessive. We've all picked up the habit.
Reagan-es ball. Aiden-es car. Cute!
Our son was about 2 years old when we brought him home. One thing that really helped in the first couple of weeks was sign language. We used baby signs with our biological kids so we already knew them. Z picked up signs the first time we showed them to him and could communicate with them faster than words at first. We always said the english word too (or the oromifa or amharic word if we knew it), so it never got in the way of his verbal development. He only used them for a couple of weeks but they really helped in that critical time period.
Like Dawn mentioned, we also used very simple language – 2 word sentences. I would encourage parents to narrate everything they do, even if you have a baby – just keep a running monologue of what you're doing to saturate their environment with speech. The more they hear (with context) the quicker they'll learn. Linguistics was my field of study in college, so all of this is so fascinating to me!