Friday, November 20, 2009

What I'm Learning: Older Child International Adoption and Language

It's the question I'm asked most often these days: "Does Wenxin speak English?"

My answer: "Not yet."

So we're doing a few things to prepare. I have a close Chinese friend who speaks Mandarin and has a heart for adoption. She's going to work with us over the next few months, helping us learn some basic Mandarin phrases. And better still, she's willing to come to my house and translate for us when Wenxin first comes home.

We're looking into buying Rosetta Stone Mandarin (the homeschool edition) so the whole family can take a stab at learning Mandarin.

And I'm reading, reading, reading about language acquisition in older adopted kids. To be honest, a lot of the research is surprising.

For example, everyone -- from our social worker to all the experts in the books to my Chinese friend -- believes that Wenxin will forget how to speak Chinese within 3 months of coming to America. That blows my mind! If Julia Grace was adopted by a Chinese family tomorrow, would she really forget English in 3 months? The "experts" say she would.

It's called "Subractive Bilingualism." What that means is that as he's learning his new language, he'll totally forget his first language. It's what happens with internationally adopted kids unless they are adopted into a home where there are native speakers of their first language. These kids are different than the children of immigrants who learn English as a true second language while still speaking their first language at home.

Subtractive Bilingualism brings with it a unique set of challenges. I read last night that kids ages 4-8 are the most at risk for problems. Wenxin should pick up conversational English very quickly because he'll be totally immersed in a home where other kids are speaking English all day long. The problem comes when trying to do higher level reasoning -- the kind that's required in school -- in English. Many kids adopted internationally from ages 4-8 have problems in school.

I'm glad to have a homeschooling mindset and background. I plan to keep Wenxin home for a couple of years. I hope that with one-on-one attention I can help him tackle any problems he may face with language and reasoning.

And then there's the issue of his birth language. Mike and I are having a hard time swallowing the fact that he will most likely lose his Chinese. We value language. We believe that speaking Chinese will be a real asset to him as an adult. It's on my list of questions to ask our adoption counselor. But the more I read, the less I'm confident that he will retain his Chinese.


  1. I just say your comment above mine on the "A Bushel and a Peck" blog. It looks like you may have some wisdom I'm looking for on helping an older adopted child through the language struggles. I'm off to bed, now, but I'll be back to browse tomorrow for more information on this subject. We're bringing home a 9 year old girl from Ethiopia in a month or two.
    Looking forward to following your story more!

  2. Thanks, Grateful Mom, for the kind comments. Maybe we can figure it out together as we go. I look forward to following your story as well.

  3. I brought home an 8 year old and 13 year old from China. They do converse in Chinese. But I do find they speak together less and less. Still, I am hoping they retain language.

  4. Thanks to the power of Facebook, I have just stumbled across your blog. I am so thankful to be able to read other families stories to encourage us on our own journey. I will be bringing my almost 7 year old son home from China very soon. Which book(s) would you most recommend concerning language?


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