Adoption and Language: A Mother's Perspective

Dr. Laurie Weaver is a Professor of Bilingual and Multicultural studies at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Laurie is also a proud single parent of Marisa, a 9th-grader whom Laurie adopted from Guatemala when Marisa was about six months old.

In 2002, Laurie wrote an article for Adoptive Families about Marisa's early language development. We recently caught up with Laurie to learn more about how Marisa is doing today and what advice she has for parent and educators about the language development of internationally adopted children.

Interview with Dr. Laurie Weaver

How did you get interested in the ESL/bilingual field?

I always was interested in languages. As a young girl and avid reader, I loved reading stories that took place in other places or that involved people from other cultures. I had a notebook in which I kept lists of words in other languages that I came across while reading.

When I was in 6th grade in a suburb of Detroit, two students from Italy moved into the school. Several 6th graders were selected to work with these two girls to teach them English. I was one of those selected. I would walk around the school, point to various items, and the students would repeat after me. I loved the experience, and I think that it set me on the way towards working in the field of bilingual/ESL education.

While doing my bachelor's degree in Spanish literature (which led to Spanish certification at the secondary level and certification in all subjects at the middle school level) at Kalamazoo College, I was offered the opportunity to student teach at the Colegio americano in Mexico City, Mexico. I taught 8th-grade English language arts, U.S. history and ESL. Again, it was a very rewarding experience. I was offered the job and taught there for three years.

After that I moved to Texas and taught bilingual education at the elementary level and ESL at Prekindergarten to 8th grade levels. My master's degree is in bilingual early childhood education, and my doctorate is in curriculum and instruction with a specialization in bilingual education.

Tell us about your daughter and her background.

My daughter, Marisa, is in 9th grade. This is the first year that she hasn't been in the school district's two-way immersion (dual-language) program. She was born in Guatemala and came home to the U.S. when she was six months old. She spent those first six months in foster care. Her foster mother was a grandmother who loved taking care of babies; Marisa received very good care while in foster care. Marisa loves animals and hopes to pursue a degree in a field involving animals. Right now, that means she wants to be a game warden. She loves music and is a great traveler. She has traveled with me to Guatemala, Mexico, South Africa, and Southeast Asia.

What was her early language development like?

For the first six months, she heard only Spanish. When she came home, I spoke Spanish to her. Other people in her environment, however, spoke English. The second day she was home, I took her to the elementary school where I had taught to introduce her to my former co-workers. At one point, I took her to the Early Learning Center. There were many women working there who spoke Spanish. One thing I noticed right away is that when the women were speaking to her in Spanish, she turned towards them. When people spoke to her in English, though, she did not turn towards them. I think that at six months of age, she could recognize the differences between English and Spanish.

So I spoke to her in Spanish first and she learned early speech in Spanish. For example, she used "más" for more and "leche" for milk. She could point to her body parts when they were said in Spanish. At 8 months, she began day care. At that point, she was exposed to more English during the day (the care givers all spoke English). As I look back at video tapes of that time period, I can see how I subconsciously changed my speech with her. Since she was being exposed to English at day care, I started to use more English at home.

In some respects, she was a late speaker. By that I mean she didn't speak a lot of words at one year of age or at a year and a half. I attribute that to two factors. First, she was hearing two languages and had to sort out what she was hearing in order to develop language. Secondly, Marisa is a quiet person. She always has been. She is more of a listener than a talker (we are very different in that respect!). I think this personality factor impacted her language development.

How did that change as she got older?

When Marisa was five, she entered kindergarten. She was part of the first group of students in a new program in the local school district that I helped to develop. Called Estrellas, this program is a two-way immersion (TWI) program. Approximately half of the students in the class were English speakers and the other half were Spanish speakers. The goal was for students to be bilingual and biliterate by the time they left elementary school at the end of 5th grade. Marisa entered the program as an English speaker. Although as a baby her first language was Spanish, by the time she entered school, she had become an English speaker.

How does she feel about her birth culture and language now?

Marisa is proud of being Hispanic. Part of this pride, I think, comes from the fact that she attended an elementary school with a large Hispanic population. Then, when she went to middle school, many of the students in the TWI program were Hispanic as well. She has always had a peer group that she looks like which I think has been a great advantage. She is interested in Guatemala and we are planning another visit soon.

As for Spanish, she can read and write well. She even took the state-mandated tests in Spanish in third and fourth grade (and passed). Marisa, however, is a very quiet person, no matter what language she is in. She is still reluctant to speak in Spanish. Then again, she also is not the type of person who readily jumps into conversations in English or volunteers answers to questions in English either.

What are some ways to you've helped your daughter connect to her birth culture and language?

She was enrolled in the two-way immersion program from kindergarten to 8th grade. Her two closest friends are Spanish speakers. Although they are of Mexican, not Guatemalan, descent, Marisa has been exposed to many aspects of Hispanic culture through her friendships with these two girls. For example, a couple of weeks ago, Marisa was one of the "damas" (ladies) in one of her friend's quinceañera.

In addition, we have traveled in Spanish-speaking countries (Mexico and Guatemala). I have tried to find Hispanic professionals with whom we can interact (for example, Marisa's dentist is Hispanic). I think it has helped that in my field, she is exposed to many Spanish-speaking people. Many of my friends are Hispanic. We are part of an adoption group and two of the mothers are Hispanic. With them we have experienced Hispanic cultural events such as the "posada" on Christmas Eve and making tamales.

Marisa has also been exposed to other cultures in general. Because of my job, she has been able to attend events at the university like the Multicultural Evening during which students from many different backgrounds perform dances and sing songs from their countries. Interacting with individuals from other cultural backgrounds is just part of her life.

Why was raising a bilingual child important to you?

First of all, language is an important part of culture. I believe that knowing her birth language gives my daughter a tie to her birth culture. Secondly, I think that knowing two languages is important for all students. Not only does knowing another language give you an insight into another culture, but it helps you better understand your own language and also opens up future career opportunities.

What advice do you have for parents of internationally adopted children when it comes to language?

If possible, continue your child's development of his/her first language. If there is a bilingual program available to you (there are bilingual programs in languages other than Spanish, though Spanish is the most common language in bilingual programs), advocate for your child to be enrolled.

Secondly, be aware that children develop language at different rates. Some children will become orally proficient quickly; others take longer. Individual personality traits also influence language acquisition.

Another important idea is that there is a difference between social language and academic language. If the adopted child is adopted at an older age, he/she may appear fluent in English fairly quickly but still struggle academically. This could be because his/her academic language is still developing.

Finally, a common stage of second language development is when two languages appear to be mixed. This isn't a sign of poorly acquired language, nor does it mean the child is confused. Rather, the child is trying to make meaning the best way he/she can. If the child doesn't yet know something in the new language, the child will use what is known from the first language to try to get the message across. (See additional tips on language and adoption in this excerpt from Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections.)

What is your advice for teachers of adopted ELLs?

I think the information above also applies to teachers. In addition, if the child is older when adopted, there will be influence from education in the first language. Subjects such as math are taught differently. A child may solve a division problem in a way that doesn't appear "right", but will get the correct answer. That is because the child has been taught a different way to do division problems. Attending professional development, such as for the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP), will help teachers not only work with their ELLs, but with all their students.

What are some ways in which adopted kids might differ in their language development from other ELLs?

One difference has to do with the environment. When a non-adopted ELL goes home, more than likely the language at home is the child's first language. This has advantages in that the child and the parent can communicate easily. The parent can ask the child questions and help the child understand class material (depending on the parent's educational level). Through experiences at home, the first language will continue to be developed. The stronger the first language, the easier it is to acquire a second language.

On the other hand, an adopted child will most likely be surrounded by English at home, and the parents and other family members can help the child with English acquisition. This isn't usually possible in the case of other ELLs whose parents generally do not speak English or speak limited English. In addition, an adopted child who is an ELL has some advantages in terms of education. Typically, the adopted child's family has the means and the knowledge to navigate the school system and advocate for the child.

It is important to also keep in mind that an adopted child's language development may be impacted by any experiences that the child has had before his/her adoption. For example, if the child lived in an orphanage with limited interaction with adult caretakers, the child's first language acquisition may be affected negatively.

Can you describe what an effective evaluation process would look like for a newly arrived ELL who has been adopted?

First of all, it is essential to have an evaluator who understands the processes of first and second language acquisition. The child also needs to be evaluated in his/her first language. This is challenging but local education service centers often maintain information about individuals who are qualified to assess in other languages. The evaluation needs to be careful to not compare the student to the performance of other ELLs (even those who speak the same language) because the experience of adopted children who are ELLs is different from the experience of ELLs who are not adopted.

What lessons have you learned about language development as a parent?

Two big lessons are: 1) your child's language development is affected by your child's personality. Quiet kids are going to be quiet kids no matter with which language they are communicating. 2) It is much harder to raise a child to be bilingual than I thought it would be. There is so much English in our environment, that even with education in two languages, English may dominate the child's language production.

Is there anything you would do differently now?

The main thing I would do differently is use more Spanish with Marisa when she was in day care. I would better monitor my own language use so that Spanish would have been a family language as much as English was.

About the Author

Laurie Weaver is a single parent of Marisa, who was born in Guatemala and came home to the U.S. when she was six months old. She was born in Michigan and graduated from Kalamazoo College with a degree in Spanish literature. She has taught Prekindergarten to 8th grade in ESL and bilingual settings both in Texas and in Mexico. She is currently a Professor of Bilingual and Multicultural studies at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

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