It is always fascinating to watch a child learn language, and many academic disciplines have extensively studied the systematic way that children learn to communicate. I wish I had documented the process with our boys better – it has been a fascinating process to watch.
It’s been a two-fold experience, given that S had already acquired two languages (we think) – his mother-tongue, Sidaminyo, which his family of origin speaks, followed by Amharic, which he learned, if not fluently, at least with a working knowledge, during the 8 months he lived in the orphanage. It’s possible that his exposure to Amharic was not the full 8 months, since he and J were initially housed at the orphanage located somewhere closer to their birthplace where other children and caregivers may have spoken Sidaminyo to both boys. We have been unable to determine how fluent his Amharic is, as he has refuse to speak Amharic to anyone since he gained control over English (more on that later).
In J’s case, language development has been more like what one experiences with biological children, since he was preverbal when he arrived. We had him evaluated by a wonderful program available in our county, MCITP, and the only area that he came up delayed on was communication, but our suspicion is that he was delayed because of the serial exposure to multiple languages he was exposed to – assuming that he was around 6 months old when he entered the orphanage, he had those 6 months of exposure to Sidaminyo, then 8 months of Amharic, followed by immersion in English (a total of about 8 months before he started talking). So the MCITP worked with J for about 4 months total (discontinuous, because we started in the spring, and then had the summer off), by which time he finally started talking and then his language skills took off!
So, back to S – during the first 4-6 weeks, we used a simple Amharic phrase book specifically for adoptive families which covered useful topics like “are you hungry/thirsty?”, are you happy/afraid/sad?”, and “do you need to pee/poop” (this latter topic really just boiled down to “Shint” = pee and “kaka” = poop)! R and I were delighted with the way what we came to term the “magic phrase” worked, that phrase being “Yeh-ihn-KILF seH-AHT nohw.” which means “it’s naptime”. We would feed the boys lunch, and then speak that phrase, and S would trot off o his bed and take a nap!! No arguments, no fuss! It was amazing, until it stopped working about 2 weeks into out life as a family. In retrospect, the efficacy of the first week’s scheduling of naptime was due to jetlag (see post on sleep), and then the second week was due to orphanage exposure and the effect of institutionalization, but by week 3 S was clearly ready to start making a stand, and without the peer pressure of being in an orphanage, he was not interested in taking naps anymore. He was ok with transitioning to “quiet time”, and initially would look at books. Now, that time is usually his TV- watching time – which works out to an hour of Dora, Diego, or Sesame Street (although he now lobbies for cartoons like Scooby-doo).
Back to language – so, we had some words in Amharic, which allowed us to understand him a bit, and allowed him to understand us, at least about the important stuff, like “stop!” (koom), “slow down” (koy). His favorite words were “machina” (car) and “allopinahn” (his own mispronunciation of airplane). As a result, one of his favorite books initially was the very simple boardbook “Planes”, by Byron Barton, which served as a launching point for starting to put together both english vocabulary and also the notion of how books work.
By 4-6 weeks in the US, S had acquired enough comprehension to demonstrate that he could follow complex multi-step instructions, like “take this toy, go up to your room, and put it away”. He had acquired a few words, and held onto others (like the beloved machina” and “allopinahn”). And a month later, he was talking enough for us to understand him (most of the time). And, by the summertime, about 4-5 months into his time in the US, everyone could understand him clearly. It was at that point that he gave up “machina”, in favor of car or truck, and he favored the English “water” over his version of the Amharic “oowah”. And now, he talks a mile a minute, and his accent is fading slowly. He mispronounces some words – for some reason, he seems to need to add an “oh” sound after any word ending in “L”, so we get school-oh, and pool-oh, and rule-oh, etc.
So, what about his retention of Amharic? Well, the first week after returning from Ethiopia, we took the boys to a local Ethiopian restaurant. It was mid-afternoon, so the place was fairly empty, and the owner came out and talked with us. She spoke to S in Amharic, and his response was to dissolve into inconsolable tears…we think he may have thought someone was going to take him back to the orphanage. That happened for about 6 months, anytime anyone spoke Amharic to him he would either cry, forget angry, and refused to speak to the person speaking Amharic. Now, he declares that he doesn’t understand Amharic, and doesn’t want to speak it (although he is fine with the idea of learning Hebrew at his preschool). We are trying to encourage him to speak with the nanny we have them with in the afternoons – we specifically sought an Ethiopian who could maintain their connection to language and culture. It’s an uphill struggle for her, but thankfully she’s tough and really loves the boys. So, we’ll see…