Wednesday, July 4, 2012


dedicated to all you great ESL teachers...

One of the most common questions about our adoption are: How about English? Does he speak English (before the kids came home?) How will he learn English? Will it be hard to communicate? How are you going to teach him English? What about English?!!!

One reason for this may be that as Americans we tend to be a bit foreign language phobic. We like English and we get stressed out when we can't communicate in our own language. So, those questions above, while totally valid, tended to be asked in a frantic, worried tone that was totally unnecessary.

Frankly, Daniel's English skills have never been the most pressing issue we deal with as a family.  We were prepared.  First of all, I teach in a very diverse school, and I've taught many young children English as a their second (or third or fourth) language.  I knew some "tricks", and I knew he'd have great teachers with the talent and creativity to help him.  Second of all, our son is pretty smart, gifted with language skills and was very, very motivated to learn!

Here are some of the things that worked for us teaching our newly adopted son our language.

In our first days in Ethiopia

1. We started with safety words. Stop, Come, No, Go.  We played endless games with the toy cars in the courtyard... saying "1,2,3 GO!" then yelling "Stop!" We gave endless praise when he responded to commands, and used only 1 or 2 words along with gestures to communicate.

2. We relied on the translators available. Especially for the "big topics". Like, explaining that he would have a new name. (!)  And making sure he understood that he was leaving Ethiopia, forever.  Going through our travel plans in detail, so he would understand this epic trip we were about to embark on.

3. Family Words/Family Photos. Daniel had been looking at our photos for several weeks. He knew "Mommy" and "Daddy".  We also brought extended family photos and short home videos. He loved to go through the photo book and practice everyone's names.  When all those people were at the airport to greet us, he knew who they were!

4. Before we left, with the help of the social workers and the guest house staff, we made sure that Daniel knew some crucial English words (hungry, no, stop, come here, go,) We also learned some important Ahmaric words (car/mekina, toilet/shintah, bread/babo) that Daniel used often.

In our first days Home

1. We kept using the Amharic words as we introduced new English words.  So long as we all knew what we were trying to communicate, it didn't matter which language we used.  Here is when my son showed us his gift for language. He figured out quickly how to combine gestures, simple phrases and facial expressions to get his message across. He would take my hand, pointing to a photo or object, or mime what he wanted.  There were only a few instances of communication between us breaking down.  Those were moments when a deeper, more complicated idea was impossible for him to put into a gesture or two word phrase. But somehow, I knew from his frantic, sad tears the words he couldn't say. I mean, what would you say if you were suddenly transported to a new family, city, continent!?

2. We focused on the here and now.  Food words, words for things in our house, places we went. Park, car, TV, book, stroller, pool.

3. We introduced feeling words. Andrew was the best teacher of these; he would make sad/happy/mad/scared faces really exaggerated and quiz Daniel on them.

After school started, and beyond

Daniel's formal ESL education begin just weeks after he came home.  He quickly picked up words from classmates and soaked up the language of his teachers.  We used pictures from books and familiar stories to teach him new words and concepts.  He begin asking, "What's this? What's this called?" His first full question was "Where is the car!?"

We gradually (reluctantly, on my part), begin using only English instead of Ahmaric.  After about 2 months, we noticed that Daniel no longer understood the waitresses at the Ethiopian restaurant.  He spoke English, just like that.  I've been told that his accent sounds just like the Kenyan boy Dora meets.  It is a lovely lilt, and I dread the day he sounds just like every other New York kid.

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