Acquiring English

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When parents adopt older children internationally, one of their concerns is about communicating with their new child, and about their child learning English.

All children are different. Below, however, is my experience with language issues. Hannah was adopted from Russia and had just turned six when she was adopted.

Communication tips:

  • Learn as much of your child's language as you can and use it for the basics i.e. "It's time for bed." "Do you need to go to the toilet?" "Come here" "Would you like an apple?" "I love you" "You're my daughter."
  • If your foreign language skills fail in certain situations, point, draw pictures and pantomime.
  • when you're not communicating in your child's native language, speak English to your child constantly even when they don't understand it. For example, when you're going for a walk, just chat in English about what you see.
  • Start reading to her as soon as she gets home and read every day
  • teach him some games where they have to use English like "Go Fish" (I taught Hannah this on her second day home)
  • Resist asking your child to repeat things for you in English, he'll do it when they're ready
  • When your child starts to speak English, instead of correcting her, repeat it back correctly. For example if Hannah said, "Yesterday I eat ice cream," I would say, "You ate ice cream yesterday?"
  • Get one of the phonics games early on, it will help him learn the alphabet as well as sounds
  • Make language fun, play word games and alphabet games
  • As Hannah's English began to take off, my rule was I only corrected one thing per day

Using a translator/tutor:

I had a Russian graduate student who spent a couple hours with Hannah each week for a couple months. They were speaking Russian, but Olga was also teaching Hannah basic English i.e. vocabulary, numbers, a few letters, etc. I also used Olga to translate the "big" issues i.e. safety topics, upcoming Christmas, the aunt she was about to meet who was pregnant, etc.

Notes from my journal as to Hannah's English acquisition:

  • After 6 weeks, could count to 50, knew her alphabet, had a large vocabulary of 2-4 word phrases.
  • After 8 weeks, could count to 100 by 10s (with a few mistakes) and was beginning to forget her Russian.
  • After 14 weeks, understood a large % of everything said to her, used 6-8 word sentences, and was beginning to sound out a few words. Still had a Russian accent but it was diminishing.
  • After 16 weeks, used fairly complex sentences but often used the wrong tense. Mixed up 'he' and 'she.' Asked me why I said "Miss Donna's" when there was only one Miss Donna (figuring out possessives).
  • After 6 months, said things like, "All those kids in after-school care, well... they just drive me crazy." Or, "A long time ago, well, not a LONG time ago, but a little long time ago, maybe 10 days ago, you said. . . . " Or, (after a discussion about the possibility of getting a dog), she turned to our cat and said, "Don't get worried Donegal. We're not talking about getting a dog right NOW." Slight Russian accent on some words and phrases.
  • At 9 months, understood everything although still needed help with occasional new words. Read her first whole book to me - we were very excited! Almost no Russian accent. Occasionally used a present tense instead of a past tense. New people were astonished to find out that she wasn't born in America.
Every child is different - these are merely our experiences.

Credits: Susan M. Ward, an older child adoption specialist, provides parent coaching and resources for adoptive families. Susan's training has focused on adoption issues relating to attachment, grief, and parenting. She's also the adoptive parent of a child healed from RAD (reactive attachment disorder). Her website is

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