Learning the language of love


Britt Burnham
Focus on Adoption magazine

Parents who adopt internationally often face a language barrier when communicating with their new arrival. Here are some tips to help.

Older Children

  • Learn important words like food, drink, bathroom, sick, tired, and sad in your child’s language. Develop hand signs, or draw pictures that he or she can point to.
  • Be very positive about your child’s efforts to talk. Don’t overcorrect; instead, rephrase what he or she was attempting to say. For example, if your child says, “I have sandwich?” reply, “Can you have a sandwich? Sure.”
  • Computers can be useful: one mom brought a keyboard home from Russia and used a translation program to communicate with her older child.
  • Try to find someone in your community that speaks your child’s first language. They can help with translation and make the child feel less isolated.
  • Work with the school to place your child at a grade level that he or she can cope with. Consider an intensive summer English immersion program.
  • If your child is fluent in their first language, ask a speech language pathologist whether it is wise to have a break from the first language while the second is learned.
  • Once the second language is learned, help your child keep their mother tongue. Bilingualism will keep the child connected to his or her roots and is an incredible asset in life.
  • Learning a new language on top of all the other adjustments a new child must make is difficult. The process takes time and varies depending on the child’s background, age, and personality.


  • Children are not always quickly responded to when they try to communicate in orphanages; they may stop trying. Therefore, it’s very important to engage with your child when he or she attempts communication with you.
  • Find activities that your child enjoys and that encourage language development. This might include particular games, music, or playing with other children. The latter is a great and stress-free way for a child to learn new words and language.
  • If your child was just beginning to learn their first language, the interruption and replacement with a new language can pose a significant barrier. This may mean that he or she will take longer grasping a new language.
  • For parents about to bring a child home, consider bringing a translated note for the child’s caregivers asking about language development.
  • Younger children pick up language fast--most children will have a grasp of a new language, comparable to their age group, within two years. If you think something serious is standing in your child’s way of developing, take action and seek professional help.

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