Friday, September 25, 2015

Language & Loss

Cava is doing really well in school this year. He was elected to his fourth grade student council. His interim report was three "A's" and one "B."  That is no small feat.

Today, as I was leaving from having lunch with him, I ran into a woman who works at the school who stopped me to tell me how excited she was that Cava had gotten elected to student council and how she tells people who don't know, just how far he really has come in just under three years. And it's true. Amazingly true.

When I think back to when Cava first arrived here, I think about how hard it must have been to be caught between two languages. Everyday words and their meanings becomes lost, the person disconnected, and the world around them becomes strange and unreal. All your life you've thought and spoken in one language and now you have to shift gears and not only translate your thoughts from one language to another, but you must also speak them. How humbling it must be. And there is a hesitancy to speak because you're not sure of the right words or if you are pronouncing them correctly or using them in the right context (and I'm learning more and more about how important context is for Cava to learn and understand his new language). To not be understood and feel like you are stupid because of that must create a lot of internal anger and frustration. Add this to their struggle with identity, rejection, acceptance, and being uprooted from everything they know and it's a volatile mix adding to their sorrow, confusion, loss and anger. When language and communication are gone, one is left without meaning; stumbling to say what one thinks, what one feels, and what one wants. It's harder to trust those you don't understand.

I can't imagine coming here as an older child and no longer be able to speak my birth language: the language of my identity. As Dr. Sharon Glennen wrote on the subject, "The loss of the first language before the new adopted language develops leaves the internationally adopted child in a linguistic and educational limbo."  Essentially, until the adopted child learns the new language, they have none. And it negatively impacts "cognitive and linguistic development."  As Glennen goes on to write:

Consider these facts. The typical 6 year old understands over 20,000 English words (Owens, 2000).  A 5 year old child adopted from another country would need to learn an average of 54 new words every day in order to fully catch up in language comprehension abilities by age 6.  If the catch up timeframe is stretched out to 2 years, the adopted 5 year old would still need to learn an average of 27 new words every day to fully catch up by age 7.  However, while the adopted child has been playing catch-up, his 6 year old friends have also added an average of 5,000 words to their vocabulary.  By age 7, the typical child understands 25,000 words.  In order to fully catch up within a 2 year window, the adopted 5 year old needs to learn an average of 34 words per day.  In summary, expecting older adopted children to develop proficient English language skills within 1 or 2 years of adoption is unrealistic. 

Yet aren't those expectations put on these kids?

And they must feel it as they have to learn a new language by sink-or-swim method. How much pressure and stress must that cause them?  

Is it any wonder that Cava was so angry when he got here?

We have worked with him in not only learning his new language, but helping him understand meaning and context for all the new words he's encountering.  Going to speech therapy has been a big help in equipping us, as his parents, to ways we can help him do this and succeed. Because of Cava's hard work and determination, he is beginning to see the fruits of his labors. He is making good grades and this is also impacting behavior. He is able to understand and be understood. More importantly, he is finding acceptance. How much greater are his strides going to be with all of these in place this year?

I cannot wait to see what this boy can accomplish.

To read more of Dr. Glennen's writing and to find more resources on the matter of language development in internationally adopted children, go to the following website:

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