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Wisdom Wednesdays: Language Acquisition

Two years ago we welcomed beautiful Emma Kate YuXiao into our family. She was five and a half years old at the time and spoke a dialect of Mandarin. We were strangers to her, and to her we sounded like ducks!  While we had worked to learn some Mandarin before being united with her in China, for all intents and purposes we really knew nothing of her language. Her courage and bravery still leave us speechless.

We had a few key tools in our toolbox to assist us with communication in those early days and months, and they served us well.  While this list includes only a few of the things we did, it highlights some of the ways in which we all communicated:

1) When we met Emma, our guide asked her nannies from the orphanage for some specific phrases she knew that related to daily living. Phrases like, “I need to go to the bathroom,” and “I’m hungry.”  Because she spoke a local dialect, we knew we needed to get this information immediately as our guide would not necessarily know how to say these things. We made a copy of our list of words and phrases and kept it with us at all times, referencing it often. As in, really often.

2) We brought two things along to assist Emma in telling us what she wanted or needed which helped us communicate with her. One was a set of cards with pictures on them. The pictures were categorized into sets including verbs that described daily tasks such as sleeping, eating, and running, and images that showed emotions like happy, sad, laughter, and crying. Emma would often look through these to tell us something. We kept them on a metal ring for ease of use. We also brought along a translating device that we accessed from our phones. This translation tool made a huge difference for us. We used it in China, and also at home in those early weeks on a daily, even hourly, basis. Even though she spoke dialect, she usually understood what the translator was saying. This was invaluable for Emma and I once everyone went back to work and school and she was so very scared and confused. I had phrases I would play each morning as we dropped the kids off at school reassuring her that everyone would come home and that daddy was going to work and would be home at dinnertime. These small lifelines helped us make it through the early weeks where there was a huge divide in communication, and we were really strangers getting to know one another. That…and charades. Never underestimate the ability of charades to convey a myriad of things! And don’t waste a second wondering if you’ll feel ridiculous in public acting out your pantomimes…because you won’t!

3) The real truth is that the heart needs no specific language. It has its own tone and tenor, and rings true regardless of English, Mandarin or dialect. There was so much communicated with gentle eyes on my part or scared eyes on hers. Her daddy touching her shoulder carefully in reassurance or holding her when she was afraid spoke more than any words ever could. Staying available and connected emotionally to Emma kept us in tune with the context of her needs and wants. There were so many times we didn’t even need words to communicate, even initially. Over time, as we’ve come to know each other deeply, that still holds. We can readily speak with our little chatterbox now, but often our best and deepest communication comes from a hand squeezed in understanding, or a long comforting hug, or the sheer joy of loving her shining from our eyes. What still takes our breath away is seeing love reflected back at us. We, who were unknown to her, are now known. And more than any words we have ever spoken to her, it is the act of showing up each and every time, each and every day, always and forever with steadfast love that helped her learn the language of family. Love wins. Emma has taught us that in such beautiful ways.

We have sweet, treasured memories of the early days of being together as a family of seven and the warp and weft of learning about one another, even as Emma learned English. Moments of hilarity mixed together with times of great grieving and sadness for her. During all of that, it wasn’t the words that got us through. It was the love in our hearts for her, and the goodness of enfolding her into the care and comfort of her family. For that, there is a language all its own, and it doesn’t involve a single word. She understood us loudly and clearly, and we heard her right back.

~Sara Silburn, Co-Cordinator of LWB’s Believe in Me Jinjiang school

We would welcome comments or suggestions from any of our readers who have also found themselves facing this challenge with their newly adopted children!

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  • Beth says:

    Thanks so much for this beautiful post. We also adopted an older child, and it was so difficult to know she wanted so badly to communicate with us, but had no language to do so. Lots of hand gestures and motions! I agree that charades is a way of life for those first few months.

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