Your Questions Answered: Overcoming Language Barriers

By: Jen Sloniger
Your Questions Answered
is a blog series which addresses Project HOPEFUL blog readers’ most burning questions. Please submit your questions to:

QUESTION: How does a family deal with the language barrier of adopting an older child who doesn’t speak English? Is that even possible?

ANSWER: Kendall that is a great question, and actually one we’ve been asked several times before. I’m not sure how it is we hadn’t addressed it until now.

Language is a big deal. We use it for self-expression, for emotional release, for building relationships and so much more. For the older adopted child it can be difficult to lose the ability to express themselves. Especially at a time when major life-change is taking place.

Research indicates a child’s native language skills are the best indicator for their success in learning a new language. So, it’s very important parents ask their child’s caregivers whether their child is doing well or delayed in the first language. Parents should gather as much information as possible about their child’s language abilities.  This is especially true for adopted children who need to begin school soon after arriving home. A helpful checklist of questions which should be asked can be found HERE.

For anyone interested in doing more reading there is a helpful article on

There are public services available to families which help English language learners which many families tap into through their school district.

The truth is language can be a challenge for parents and children first arriving home. There are lots of tricks adoptive families use to overcome the language barrier.

Learn some key phrases and vocabulary words
If we think about this it’s pretty unfair to ask our kids to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to learning a new language. Parents should do everything within their power to ease the burden for their adopted kids.

Taking time to learn a few key phrases for daily use and as many vocabulary words as you can will help your child immensely. (Plus it’s a great way to keep yourself busy during the wait to bring your child home.) There are many resources available to parents to help them learn languages. There are even some resources created specifically for adoptive parents.

Even if it’s just enough to get you saying some basics, taking time to learn your child’s language will undoubtedly speak volumes to them about how much you care. Think of it as a bonding exercise.

A picture is worth a thousand words
You know the saying. And it’s true. When I was preparing to pick up my son from Ethiopia I found photos of items I knew he wouldn’t be familiar with. Things like car seats, airports, airplanes, etc. I also collected photos of daily activities like a child brushing his teeth, a father reading a story to his son, a family at a dinner table. I laminated the photos and stuck them on a ring for easy flipping. During the day before a certain activity I’d show him the picture card and say the word first in Amharic and then in English. He quickly learned the English words for those activities. It came in handy the first time my son had to be placed into a car seat since he was familiar with a picture of the contraption and a smiling boy buckled in safely. (Oh yes, friends! My 3-year-old child was used to riding freely in the back of a cab to and from his doctors appointments in Addis Ababa. You should have seen my face the first time I saw him pull up sitting in the back of a cab ALONE. Two words: culture. shock.)

Another helpful tool is to create a laminated poster board for daily activities. Use velcro to attach picture postcards to your child’s activity poster. Throughout the day have your child stick the picture on the board after each activity is complete while saying the English word. Once they have their daily routine down and can follow simple directions in English you can trade out the activity pictures for vocabulary words. If you do a minimum of 10 words a week (or more based on your child’s ability) your child’s vocabulary will rapidly expand.

Music is Magic
For real, kids love music. If a child can memorize a new song it gives them a sense of mastery. Use educational songs or make up motions to everyday songs to help kids gain an understanding of what they are saying. Makes games out of learning by choosing a song (for example: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star) and changing the lyrics for an activity you are trying to teach your child. Maybe you’d sing:  Bath time, Bath time for my child, Washing hair and scrubbing bodies. (I don’t know… I just made that up on the spot. I’m sure you could to better with more time)

Practice Makes Perfect
I make an effort to repeat certain words my son has a hard time saying. I will slow down and enunciate each syllable for him. Then I’ll say it faster three times. Each time I say the word I ask him to repeat after me. I don’t tell him he’s not saying it correctly or anything. I just do it as a matter of course.

I’ve also gotten into the habit of having my boys repeat things after me by saying phrases differently. Maybe I say something in a serious voice first. Then, I’ll tell them I’m going to do a silly voice, and ask them to repeat after me using their own silly voice. I’ll cycle through happy voice, or a sad voice, etc.  They LOVE this game.

So, Kendall, those are just a few tips. I hope you’ve found them helpful. I’m sure our readers can share ways they’ve managed to bridge the language gap with their older kids too.

If you’ve learned something about how to teach kids a new language or have a story to share please leave a comment. I’m sure Kendall would appreciate it. I’m curious too, since I’m still working on this.

One response to “Your Questions Answered: Overcoming Language Barriers

  1. I love this post 🙂 Those are some great ideas for helping them learn the language. And I agree; we should be learning their language as much as possible while we wait 🙂 Love it! Thanks~

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