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Q: I speak Spanish (native) and English, my husband speaks only English, and the children (siblings) we are planning to adopt will speak Russian and would be 3-8 years old.
I understand that if I only speak Spanish to the children and my husband only speaks English to them that they will learn both--however these children already speak Russian and we don't. Should I ignore that they speak Russian--teaching them the two new languages, or should I get a Russian language tutor for them and drop Spanish? I would like to do what is best for them in the long run. I am aware that they may not want to "experience" Russian due to sad memories, but in my experience, children who lose their first language and replace it with another don't always do well academically.

A: You have quite a complex situation in terms of language acquisition of your adopted children. Again, a lot depends on the individual circumstances of each child, which have to be assessed on arrival, before the native language is gone, and while the picture of their cognitive potential and the level of native language development (which is the best predictor of the future progress you have) can be established.

Let's start with the known things first.

1. It's absolutely impossible to save a 3 year old child's native language, if you do not speak it in the family all the time. Even with the immigrant families, where all the members still speak the native language, it normally takes a lot of efforts on the part of the parents and the child himself to save the language at least on the level of casual conversation. So this is not an option for your younger child. Pretty much the same will go for the older one. He (or she?) will forget it, no matter what you do. It will just take a little more time than with the younger child. Any tutoring in the native language will only add to the Language Confusion situation. And I do not even mention their native language as a possible trigger of post-traumatic stress - quite often internationally adopted children just do not want to hear it any more.

2. Given the fact, that your children will have to stop using the native language and start learning a new one, they will automatically be thrown back in their language development and everything else based on language skills. They may not do well academically from the start, as you have pointed out yourself and they will need an intense remedial help with learning language-based skills and their academic application. That's a very difficult task in itself, because their peers are not going to wait while these skills are advanced in your children, they will continue developing at a normal pace, and so will the school requirements. So your children will compete against time.

3. With the institutional background and developmentally non-stimulating environment, it remains to be seen if the children are developmentally on target at the start, not overly delayed in the native language and do not have learning disabilities. So, given all these circumstances, it will be prudent to suggest that one and only one language should be used in the family at least in the beginning (the one they will be using in school), while the children need every support they can have to catch up with the peers. And only then (several years later) and only if everything is going well, I would introduce the 2nd language in the family - it will probably coincide with the school curriculum too.



Psychological services for internationally adopted children. Copyright ©1998-2018
Last update on May 8, 2018



More info can be found in the online course
Online course on language issues
School Issues of Internationally Adopted Child: Language