A month ago we became the parents of a little boy from China. On the day we legally adopted him he spoke no English. Well, that’s not 100% accurate. He could count and sing “Happy Birthday” and the “ABC song”. He also knew how to say apple and chocolate, but that was IT. We had been working towards this adoption for a year. So of course we spent that year studying Mandarin until we were perfectly fluent to aid in communication. Right??? Ummm, no, we knew less Mandarin than he knew English. We tried to learn it before we left, but discovered that it was very difficult if not impossible to learn the tones. It scared me to think that a mistake in my inflection could be the difference in telling my son I am his mom, and I am his hemp or horse. Sooooo we quit after the second lesson. We got to China knowing how to say “hello, how are you, and thank you”.
In China you take custody of a child the day before you actually adopt the child. When we returned to the Civil Affairs Office to complete the adoption one of the ladies asked Kai what he thought of us. He told her he liked us, and we were nice. BUT he was concerned that he “didn’t understand a word we were saying”. It was funny, because he was a little surprised to learn that likewise we couldn’t understand what he was saying. For about the first week he’d repeat himself slower or whisper in my ear thinking it would help me understand him.
Within two weeks we developed a kind of Manglish language between us. One interesting thing about language acquisition is you develop the ability to understand another language before you can speak it. Thus he would say something in Mandarin with am intermittent English word, and I would answer in English with an intermittent Mandarin word. In the beginning he was teaching me more Mandarin that I was teaching him English. When we’d do flash cards together or read picture books he would teach me the Mandarin words for things. I ended up learning the words and phrases for most activities of daily living, and words for many foods. Of course I also learned the words for important things like air plane, police car, fire truck, crash, car, and ice cream. When you’re a five year old boy those are very important words.
Now that we are home we are using less and less of the Mandarin each day. When we first came home he watched his Mandarin cartoons several times a day. We’ve been home for three weeks now, and he hasn’t watched them in several days. Instead he watches English cartoons especially Toy Story. It is amazing how quickly he is learning! Incidentally our other children are starting to pick up a few Mandarin words here and there. The language barrier hasn’t really been a problem with the kids. Play is play in any language. The biggest issue we have is when the boys are playing, and one of them suddenly gets mad over a perceived injury of some kind. They can’t really negotiate the rules of play. For example, they’ll be playing cars. One will grab a car that appears to him to be sitting off to the side thinking it is open for play. Well in reality one of them had just parked it there, and was pretending it was being worked on. These kind of details cannot be worked out so usually one gets mad, and brings their grievance to mom. They are learning each other’s play style, and working it out little by little.
I would have to say all in all it really hasn’t been as difficult of a transition as you’d think. It has really helped Kai and I bond because we have to pay very close attention to each other for nonverbal clues to understand each other. It has taught me a lot about compassion, patience, and picking your battles. I feel like it is making me a better parent to all my children. Kai is an extremely smart child, and I have experience working with kids that are nonverbal. We are making it work.
Last week we were riding the bus. Kai was sitting next to a somewhat inebriated homeless man. I gave him some instructions in English, and of course Kai didn’t respond as he didn’t fully understand me. The man, who was trying to be helpful, told Kai to mind me while repeating my instructions. I explained that he was from China, and only spoke Mandarin. So the man repeats my instructions to Kai in Spanish! Ummmm, he doesn’t speak Spanish either. Lol