Pros and cons of keeping the native language of the adopted child
If adoption is on your mind, you should think through your strategies on native language issues of your future child well in advance. Indeed, the preservation of the first language of their child is a "hot" topic for many adoptive parents. The stories, like the one below, are very typical:
We adopted our 7 year old daughter Katerina two months ago. She has been an absolute joy thus far -- bright, beautiful, vivacious, and full of life. We plunked her right down into mainstream first grade and she is doing amazingly well. Her math has been at the top of her class from the start and she is now spelling along with the rest of them and doing quite well at basic reading. The question is: what can we do to help Katerina keep and develop her Russian language skills? I speak basic Russian, but not enough to help her maintain the language forever. This weekend, when our Russian baby sitter came over and helped Katerina write letters back to the detsky dom, she noticed that Katerina was already starting to lose her recollection of written Russian: she was using English letters rather than Russian, and mixing them up. Obviously, my first priority is that Katerina becomes proficient in English, but if there's any way to keep her Russian as well, I'd love to do that. We have quite a few Russian language schools in our town (there's a big immigrant population) but I'm worried that if I send her to Russian school now, it might make learning English even more complicated. Any advice? Can we wait on the Russian until she has English under her belt? Or will the Russian be completely gone by then?
Some parents hire a tutor to maintain the native language skills, or send their children to a Russian language school, or at least a Russian-speaking summer camp. Sometimes the sincere desire to preserve the native language and native country's cultural affiliation in their children motivates the adoptive parents to think about bilingual education. While in the majority of cases, these attempts are doomed to fail anyway, the question remains: is it still worth trying?
In several states (e.g. NY, NJ, CT, MA) bilingual education and bilingual related services in the native language may be available for internationally adopted children. Great caution should be exercised in making a decision in this respect. A short-term transitional bilingual program or related services, such as speech therapy or counseling, when provided by bilingual professionals, may be quite appropriate for, say, a 7 year old child who has just arrived in the country.
As a long-term option, however, it may be a step in the wrong direction. An adopted child lives in a monolingual English-speaking family, not in a bilingual immigrant family. Her native language does not have a functional meaning or a personal sense for her. She needs functional English for survival. Her native language will not be sustained by her family; however, the same family will provide her with patterns of proper English. Bilingual education or related services for only part of the day combined with a lack of family support may lead to communication confusion and "mixed" verbal conditioning for a circumstantial bilingual child. Bilingual education in this case may impede the child's learning of English.
One more important thing to remember is that for many older adoptees, forgetting the language seems to have a positive therapeutic value, while externally imposed demands to keep the language may traumatize them.
As for hiring a native-speaking tutor for a newly-arrived preschool or even school-age child, this is a risky action. It can make life easier for a short time by easing the communication strain, but it may complicate life immensely in the long-run. Parents and only parents must be a source of comfort, security, and information for an adopted child from the very beginning and for many years to come. If you place another adult between you and your newly adopted child, this other adult is essentially taking over some of your basic functions as parent (without malicious intent, of course) - and then you are only inviting attachment issues and other related problems to arrive. The best course of action is just to go together with your child through the difficult phases of adjustment and language learning and to emerge from this difficult period with strengthened attachments and naturally acquired language skills.
In developmental and educational perspective, bilingualism is a two-edged sword: it may be a blessing for some and a curse for the others. Generally speaking, for a healthy, well-adjusted, normally developing child, dual language mastery may facilitate his/her cognitive, language, and social development and functioning.
For a child with developmental delays, language impairments, a background of educational neglect, cultural deprivation, and possible emotional trauma - the second language learning may inhibit and complicate the development. For most adoptive families the preservation of the first language is not a major priority: on arrival, the main concerns are about learning English, child's health, attachment, initial adjustment, education, and remediation (if needed). There is no place here for preserving native language as the first-order priority. By the time when adoptive parents are ready to take care of this issue, the native language is gone. This is a typical scenario for most adoptive families. There are exceptions, of course. Those exceptions may occur naturally, even without special efforts, or may be the results of planned and well-executed heroic efforts. With international adoptees who are older than 9, physically healthy, have age-appropriate language development and grade-appropriate literacy skills, have positive attitude towards their native language, have an opportunity to use it for practical reasons and receive an encouraging recognition of their special skills from peers - the maintenance and development of their native language are possible, and bilingualism is a real option. But exceptions only confirm the rule: in general, bilingualism and international adoption are not compatible. Any attempts to preserve the native language in a child who has language delays, is emotionally/behaviorally immature, or has learning disabilities of any sort may lead to an undue strain and emotional/behavioral problems. External reinforcement of the native language for a child who has negative attitude towards that language, who resents the status of a "foreigner", and who has no need for this language for immediate survival purposes - may be a recipe for a disaster. The bottom line is that bilingualism is not an option for the majority of international adoptees.
Dr. Boris Gindis is a child psychologist specializing in psycho-educational issues of older internationally adopted children. He is the chief psychologist at the Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation (www.bgcenter.com), the lead instructor at Bgcenter Online School (www.bgcenterSchool.org), the author of many publications on international adoption issues and a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.