Thursday, February 21, 2013

Mother Language: Speaking to the Heart of Your Internationally Adopted Child

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." ~Nelson Mandela

When we first adopted our son from Ethiopia in 2008, he spoke very, very little English.  While I often look back at those initial months and think to myself that language was not "that big a deal," the truth was.  It was everything initially.  The grace of it is, it worked.  It just did.  He understood our hearts more than our words at first, and God knit us together as a family...through charades in. every. sentence.  By me holding up objects trying to guess what he was talking about, by him learning by trial and error which word referred to the cover on his bed, and how if he said it another way we all gasped and called it "the S word."  Bless him.

When he first came home, I had such a learning curve.  And, while I didn't do it all "right," I did what I could.  Thankfully, there are some wonderful resources available to families who adopt older kids.  Because we want to reach our kids' hearts, not just train them in linguistics or simply teach them a new language.  (I can't go another moment without mentioning Simple Language for Adoptive Families.  GET IT.

In 1999, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)  launched an "International Mother Language Day" (IMLD) to be observed throughout the world each year on February 21. According to their website, "This celebration is designed to promote linguistic diversity and multilingual education, to highlight greater awareness of the importance of mother tongue education."

This is a photo of my son in 2008, days after he had come to his new home.  (The original post that goes with this photo is on my homeschool blog here.)  I remember this so clearly!  The book he is reading in the photo is one that I was able to find that was written in Amharic and English.  It was so helpful to him to have resources here, that he could pick up and look at, try to decipher, and feel like he was reading.   

  The book he is reading is Silly Mammo.  Such a cute story, a folktale from Ethiopia.  We adapted the story into a puppet show and performed it at his orphanage on our adoption trip, and since it was written in Amharic as well as English, I was able to read it in English and the orphanage director would read it in Amharic to the kids.  Such fun!  So, this book is a fun memory for us.  That was important to me.  My other kids had "storybook memories" or reading with us...I wanted those for him as well!  And, we were able to start that right in Ethiopia. 

We bought as many books as we could get our hands on, in Amharic as well as in English, that were (as far as I could ascertain, if they were in Amharic) well-written uplifting stories, quality illustrations, or folktales from his culture.  Many are listed on Amazon when you click on Silly Mammo.  Clickety-click around and see what you can find! And...if you find something, snag it.  I am realizing that many of the links in my sidebar are dead links now...things quickly become unavailable.  

It was super important to me, in those early months, to be able to teach him the Bible in his heart language.  Our experience in missions has been beneficial in that way, so I had some picture resources.  But one resource that we have used with great success in Ghana popped into my head one day before we went to bring him home: "The Jesus Film."  As it happens, there is a version of The Jesus Film for children, called "The Story of Jesus for Children," and it is available in Amharic on DVD from the site, or to watch online here. He watched that video over and over.  (Note:  He was 10 years old, and there is, of course, a crucifixion scene.  He could handle it, but for younger kids you might use discretion.), with its 600+ translations, is also another great resource.  We got him a small iPod at first, and just loaded it up with Amharic audio Bible, as well as Amharic praise music (available on great cd's in Addis, ask your translator or agency) and also available at  We did other things, like label the house, and other strategies.  SO much fun!

Four years later...his Amharic is gone.  He transitioned from Amharic/Charades/English, to Charades/English to...English.  I continue to speak it when I can, travel to Ethiopia every year, cook the food every week, play the music, invite Ethiopians into our home, get him around Ethiopians who speak it...everything a "culturally aware" adoptive parent is to do, and more.  But, as I have from the beginning, I am following his lead.  I am listening to his heart.  He doesn't want to speak it now, and that is another post for another day, but I completely understand why.  In the meantime, we still have our resources and our book memories.  And hopefully, when Amharic was his heart language, "Jesus" and "Family" was spoken into it loud and clear.

Blessings on your journey!