Many parents of internationally adopted children face the complicated task of fostering a child’s heritage, including their native language, while teaching a child new customs and the English language. Parents debating if they should teach an internationally adopted child to speak English exclusively should first consider how children develop language by age.
Internationally adopted children under age 3 typically lose most words from their native language within 3-6 months, according to the Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment & Remediation. This occurs for several reasons. First, children are typically learning the English language. Second, they are not typically practicing their native language. However, children adopted under age 24 months typically develop their English language skills at a normal rate compared with children whose families were English-speaking from birth, according to the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA).
Adopted children who are older than 3 years old typically lose most of their expressive language abilities in their first language within about 6-12 weeks of adoption, according to the ASHA.
Older adopted children who are considered fluent in a native language are able to learn English more quickly than a child who is not. Because a child has a grasp of the first language, he or she is able to make associations in one language to words in English. Younger children, however, are still learning vocabulary words and terms that make the transition from a native language to English more difficult.
One of the biggest roadblocks to continuing to develop a child’s native language is that adoptive parents may not speak the child’s first language. Like many skills, practice does make perfect for children when it comes to retaining a first language. If the parents or siblings do not speak the child’s native language, teaching both languages will be difficult, if not impossible.
Adoptive parents must realize their limitations when it comes to language development. Internationally adopted children will take time to learn English and to communicate with their new family. Taking this into consideration, working to develop and/or maintain another language can be extremely challenging. To truly develop a first language (while also learning English), a child requires frequent practice and exposure to the second language. A few flashcards a day likely won’t be enough.
Parents wishing to further their child’s native language development have several options. These approaches include:
- One Person, One Language. Bilingual parents can have one parent speak to the child in his or her native language while the other only speaks English. This approach allows the child to practice and develop the language without being confused as to when to speak each language.
- One Place, One Language. A variation on the above approach is speaking one language at home and another outside the home. While this usually works as the native language inside the home and English outside the home, some schools or daycares will speak exclusively in a foreign language. Again, this allows the child to practice each language.
- Education Programs. In addition to a foreign language school, schools often offer Saturday language schools or foreign language education programs, even at a young age. Be cautioned: this level of language practice may not be enough to develop true proficiency. However, it can foster a child’s vocabulary in the native language.
- Language proficiency and language learning skills in internationally adopted children depend on their ages and unique learning abilities.
- Children who are not fully fluent in their native language will often lose their expressive abilities in their native language within months of continuous exposure and learning the English language.
- Methods exist to foster a child’s native language. However, this requires constant and consistent practice.