How to Cope with Language Barriers Between You and Your Adopted Child

For a large part of international adoptions completed by American families, their adopted child’s first language is not English. This means that adoptive families often must cope with language barriers. If you find yourself in this position, find comfort in knowing that many have walked this path before you and left breadcrumbs that will make it much easier to find your way.

Here are 8 things to remember if you and your adopted child are facing a language barrier:

1. Learn the Basics

A great place to start is by learning the basics of your child’s first language. Picture the first time you meet your child and learn to say all the simple but meaningful phrases you’ll want your child to hear from you such as, “Hello,” “I am mom,” “I am dad,” “Can we hug?” “I am happy,” and “I love you.” Picture the next few days and add another few phrases to your list such as, “Please,” “Let’s go,” “Sleep time,” “Are you hungry?” “Do you need to use the bathroom?” and “Thank you.” Taking the time to learn 10-20 simple phrases in your child’s first language will be a great jumping off point for early communication and help build trust between you and your child. Tip: Videos for language beginners on YouTube are a great way to learn the phrases phonetically.

2. Use Sign Language

Parents often intuitively use sign language with babies and toddlers for signaling things such as hello, goodbye, food time, sleep time, congratulations (high fives), or reprimands (finger gesture). We do this because of a communication barrier. Sign language can be equally effective when we’re trying to communicate with adopted children with whom we don’t speak the same language, yet.

3. Provide Fun Language Learning Tools

The best way for children to learn a language is to be immersed in it. The way to make that tolerable is if children are learning while having fun. Learning a language doesn’t have to look like an ESL class. It can look like watching cartoons or YouTube videos, playing games using smartphone apps or computers, or browsing on social media such as watching child stars on Tik Tok. In short, electronics are your friends! They can help make language immersion a breeze.

4. Narrate Your Day

Yes, we’re suggesting you talk to yourself! Narrating your day is a great way to help your child learn a language as they can listen but also watch and associate words with actions. Say, for example, “Mommy is making lunch,” “Megan is eating a sandwich,” “Mommy is washing dishes,” “Megan is sitting on the sofa,” and so on. You can complement this approach by reading books out loud or encouraging your child to join you in a sing-along.

5. Applaud Effort (and Mistakes!)

If your child is trying to speak a new language, express how proud you are and help them build confidence in doing so. If they have difficulties or make mistakes, never pressure or shame them. They will learn English much more easily if they are in an environment that helps them feel happy, safe, and secure. Tip: You can reward your child when they use a new phrase for the first time and make the moment memorable.

6. Prioritize Practical Phrases

Some phrases are more practical to know than others. It can be helpful for your child if you choose a few everyday phrases to focus on. Phrases such as, “I’m thirsty” or “I’m hungry” are likely to be routinely relevant for your child, meaning they will use them. Doing so successfully can help build confidence in their speaking ability and encourage them to learn more.

7. Different Skills Develop Differently

If you ever took a language class, you know that learning a language requires multiple different skills. Don’t expect your child’s language skills to develop equally. Comprehension skills differ from speaking skills which differ from reading and writing skills. Some skills will develop faster while others may take more time, and some skills are affected by felt safety. An adopted child may understand you but choose not to respond or to respond sporadically. Don’t be frustrated by differences or fluctuations in their language skills. Patience is the best way forward.

8. Embrace Your Child’s First Language (and Culture!)

Put yourself in your child’s shoes: You’re in a new country with a new family and nothing sounds, smells, tastes, or looks familiar. Wouldn’t you love to hear a song that makes you feel at home? From time to time, give your child an English break and embrace their first language. Let them know it’s as valued and respected as they are. Cook a traditional meal and let them teach you the names of the ingredients. Watch cartoons in their first language and try to pick up a couple of new words. If you can, find them a playmate with whom they can maintain their first language skills or enroll them in language classes so they can further their first language skills. This not only gives your child the benefit of being bilingual but sends a message that all of their story (since before they became part of your family) is a cherished part of their identity.

Families Are Forever offers a class that talks further about language barriers and explores the process of language acquisition. Enroll in “The Importance of Forming Bonds and Cocooning” to learn more!