When Adoption means Changing a Child’s Birth Language
Adopting a child from abroad can be a long and difficult process, and children have a lot to deal with including losing their birth language and learning a new one. Dawn, a British native married to an Italian living in Italy, tells her story of how the couple adopted a little boy from China. A toddler, who initially spoke only Mandarin, is now being raised bilingually in English and Italian with hope that he can also keep his heritage language. The adoption process wasn’t an easy one, but they have an inspiring story.
How it all began
My husband and I met in Naples 22 years ago when I was teaching English as part of my degree in modern languages. When I stepped off the airport shuttle bus in central Naples I could barely string a sentence together in Italian. He spoke only a little English so I had no choice but to speak halting Italian with him. I put the amazing progress I made that year down to our long chats and his patience. We then had a long-distance relationship for about 7 years before I moved to Italy permanently, settling near Rome.
Our Adoption Journey
Last year we adopted an almost 2-year-old boy from China, Peng Peng. The adoption process was long and difficult, with many hoops to jump through. We were open to adopting from any country, however, when our agency suggested adopting from China, I was excited. We had visited China a few years before, and I was actually taking a Mandarin language course at a cultural centre at the time.
Our son had (unaided) unilateral hearing loss, and we were warned beforehand that he would probably start talking very late. When we met him at 21 months, however, he was already a little chatterbox. All in Mandarin, of course. I began speaking to him immediately in English. With my husband, who is native Italian, something quite odd happened. It was such a new, overwhelming experience, that I think he took his cue from me and spoke mainly (bad) English to our son from day one.
For anyone, suddenly being unable to communicate in your language must be incredibly frustrating. Children adopted from abroad not only have to contend with the loss of their birth language, but of everything familiar to them – people, food, smells, places, routine. All at once. My son experienced extreme upheaval and loss, but showed remarkable resilience and openness to the changes he was undergoing. This included language.
We spent the required 3 weeks in China completing the adoption paperwork and visiting that incredible country. By the end of our time in China, PP was saying his first English words: bus, Peppa and turtle. I remember also realising that he was starting to understand English in China when I offered him a toy, said “go and show it to Daddy”, and he held it up in front of my husband. While the idea of looking after a child with no common language might seem quite daunting, this truly did not prove to be a problem.
Being advised to drop the birth language
Most children adopted from abroad forget their first language. Generally, in their new families, they no longer have access to their birth language. It is rapidly substituted by the language of their new country. I should point out that not all adoptees wish to maintain their birth language and in fact actively reject it – it may remind them of bad experiences in their birth countries, so it can be a sensitive area.
Before we left for China, we talked to the adoption agency’s psychologist about the issue of language. We stated that we wished him to keep up his Mandarin, but she explained that he must drop his birth language completely in order to gain what would be his new mother tongue, Italian, since we were living in Italy. This was necessary in order to acquire one sole mother tongue, and thereby avoid any identity issues. We did not talk at length about my wish to teach him English; in fact, the discussion made me doubt I would be doing the right thing.
At the time, I accepted her advice as a professional. But later, after PP had been with us already for a while, I questioned the wisdom of this approach. I began reading more from adult adoptees’ perspectives about the importance of maintaining birth languages, and about bilingualism in general.
I sang to my son in English A LOT, especially at bedtimes. He quickly picked up words from routines such as mealtimes, bedtimes. We pored over picture books, him moving my finger over and over to point to the various objects, so that I would tell him their names. He had an absolute thirst for vocabulary.
The Criticism, The Self Doubt
As PP started speaking less Mandarin and more English, my husband Alberto got more frustrated at his lack of expressive Italian. Until recently, my son has been with me at home all day so his exposure to English has been high. My husband continued to mix English and Italian when speaking to him as it still felt natural to speak English to his son.
After a few months at home the criticism started: from my husband, his family, Italian friends, health professionals, our adoption social workers, random strangers we encountered.
I was put under pressure to speak Italian to PP since I was with him all day long and he was still only speaking English (with some residual Mandarin such as ‘yes’, and ‘pick me up’).
I explained my instinct that I wanted it to always feel natural for us both to speak in English to each other, and that my husband, school and the other 60-million-odd Italians could take care of the Italian!
I was told that first I should teach him Italian, and after he had a solid grip on that, then I could perhaps think about another language.
I was warned that he would have a hard time and be behind at school. At his lack of expressive Italian, one friend told me outright: ‘See, I told you from the start you were in the wrong.’ It seemed everyone had an opinion!
I was sometimes tempted to speak to him in Italian, especially since I felt he was missing out on opportunities for interaction in that language. In fact, I tried. But it was weird for both of us. It felt… forced, as though I was acting a part. So I stopped, and when I look at him today I feel confident that it did no lasting damage to his Italian.
Sticking with it and motivating my husband
After several arguments, I finally convinced my husband to stick to Italian. I made an effort to increase his exposure to Italian cartoons. It was natural for Alberto to speak to him in a mixture of both languages, and initially he found it difficult to remember to keep to Italian when PP was replying to him in English. I tried to be supportive and remind him, and encourage him to use any situation as an opportunity to talk about what they were doing and feeling.
We saw results after just a few weeks.
We spent the summer with my husband’s family and this exposure possibly coupled with his age (now 3) meant that he consolidated further the concept that with Daddy he speaks in Italian, and with Mummy he speaks in English.
His Italian Now
PP started Italian preschool a few months ago. He speaks Italian with the other children, though the other mums have told me that their children sometimes come home with various English phrases and numbers they have learned from my son!
We follow OPOL. My son hears me speak Italian with my husband but he speaks with me exclusively in English.
With my husband, their conversations are now almost exclusively in Italian. During family conversations, we stick to our respective languages, with my son switching according to who he is addressing.
With others, I find things a bit awkward sometimes. Many Italians try to speak to him in English. (I found it quite ironic how I was being pressured to speak to him in Italian when the Italians themselves were using English!).
In social situations, I often speak in both languages especially if there are other children present. Peng Peng has never been upset with me if I speak in Italian at these times (though he tells me to speak English if I ever speak in Italian when we are alone). I look on these interactions as an opportunity to show PP how we can switch languages according to the situation.
Re-introducing Mandarin, The Birth Language
When I have dared say to anyone that I am looking into how to keep up Mandarin, his birth language, I have been met with responses such as: ‘The poor child’ and ‘Why?’ Interestingly, the social workers here mentioned that he should maintain his birth language while dropping English and concentrating on Italian.
I am firmly convinced of the importance of maintaining PP’s Mandarin as a bridge to his heritage.
He will shortly be starting Mandarin lessons in a nursery school. In the future, I hope that he will attend a Chinese Saturday school to maintain links to his original language and culture, and to make friends with other Chinese children. I also intend to learn myself too.
At the moment, his only exposure to Mandarin is cartoons, songs etc. I also occasionally use a bilingual picture book with Internet pronunciation, but it’s a bit cumbersome.
I believe he still understands Mandarin to a certain degree. If someone has the patience to talk to him in Mandarin he sometimes answers ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but in English. As a family, we enjoy singing along to Mandarin songs in the car. I was quite moved when he sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in Italian, English and Mandarin at a party some months ago.
Our Little Linguist
Recently I have also started to introduce French, mainly through bedtime stories and music cds. French songs have become part of our daily family life now, and music has been fundamental. I started not expecting much, maybe just some passive understanding of a few words.
PP sometimes tells me the French word for such-and-such, and he interacts a little in French during stories and knows his numbers. He identifies with a book character and this seems to fuel his interest in French.
There is absolutely no language confusion. I feel I am nurturing an interest rather than making him do something he does not want.
At bedtimes, I often tell him goodnight and I love him in various languages. He will tell me ‘that’s German!’ and so on. We laugh. We play with languages. We enjoy them. I don’t want to force anything. I try to make it fun and natural.
Not Always an Easy Journey
It has been quite difficult. I have felt very lonely with little support on this journey to help my son become bilingual, but I feel we are on the right track. He has a language delay compared with his peers, however given his background, his hearing issues and that he has been with us only a year and a half I think he is amazing, and am not worried about it as long as he is continuing to make progress.
Many people assume that he will be overwhelmed, that it’s too many languages to cope with. Also, I think lots of people don’t grasp the importance of maintaining his heritage – he is now Italian, living in Italy so what’s the point?
I believe that the earlier he starts hearing and speaking Mandarin consistently again, the easier it will be for him. Hopefully it will feel a natural part of his life as he gets older.
I am generally keeping our French chats under wraps as I can’t deal with even more judgment and I don’t need other people’s blessings as to what and how I teach my son!
Some language is better than none
I feel very sorry when people feel discouraged or like failures when bringing up their children to be bilingual. So many people wonder whether it is ‘too late’ but my son can prove them wrong.
I have had a lot of criticism and moments of self-doubt, but I’m so glad I stuck with it. I don’t presume to tell anyone else that our way is the right or only way, but I would encourage parents to follow their instincts and not let other people dictate how they talk to their children.
To anyone who is feeling criticised or discouraged, stay strong, know that it will take time and effort. Even some language is better than none. For us, raising our son to be bilingual, but also keeping his birth language is important, even if others disagree. Just do what is right for you and your family.