Let me start by saying that my credentials for writing this article are numerous. I have a daughter, Olivia (name has been change to preserve her privacy), whom my then-husband and I adopted at the age of two and a half from Bulgaria. I majored in English for my Bachelor of Arts degree. I’ve been issued a temporary (a period of 3 years each) teaching certificate twice in recent years. I worked as an ESOL/TEFL (English for Speakers of Other Languages/Teaching English as a Foreign Language) assistant for a semester at a state college. I taught English in Crete, an island of Greece, during summer several years ago. I also taught English via Skype to both children and adults from a variety of countries for a year or two. I taught English at another state college for almost four and a half years. So overall, I have a well-rounded perspective on teaching English to all ages.
My own daughter was so young that she wasn’t speaking much, and, when we first brought her home, she didn’t speak at all for six months except for “dah” (yes), neh (no), and wordless noises, typically accompanied by pointing gestures. You would be surprised how much language a child learns over the period of a couple of years. Children absorb and understand language even though they don’t speak much, so believe me when I say that a very young child still needs to to make a complete u-turn in order to learn a whole new language, culture, and their new environment, especially if they are from an orphanage–which they usually are.
First and foremost, we made it a point to not talk baby-talk to Olivia. That means no “see the horsey” or “Dat’s a pretty girl!,” etc. Rather we talked to her normally as with an adult. That may sound a bit harsh for parents of a little girl, but we felt it was necessary. Plus, I wanted my daughter to grow up with a good grasp of grammar and vocabulary. I frequently corrected her grammar mistakes. And as a post-script to that, she grew up with exceptional, advanced language skills. She frequently used, and uses, words beyond her years and in proper context. It always amazes me. She also makes A’s in English (she’s 16 now). She often asks me grammar questions. So our technique had a high payoff!
Be sure to read to children. That worked with Olivia, too. Start with books with both words and pictures. That helps the child (even teenage children adopted from abroad) understand language better because they begin to understand vocabulary and grammar in the context of being able to actually see what the words means. It will sink in over time.
It helps that a child from another country experiences the technique of “total immersion.” That is the concept that completely exposing a child or adult to a language and the culture forces the person to learn the language because they have no choice. Fortunately, with foreign adoption, that is a natural and unavoidable provision of immersion. It’s built into the circumstances without you even trying except if you try to mix your language with theirs. That can help them understand, too, of course, so please don’t think that that’s not effective, too, but it’s not the philosophy of total immersion, so know and research your options.
Point to pictures or objects because that helps with association. For example, if you’re looking at a photo of a bear, say something like, “This is a bear. BEAR.” That way your child hears grammar and gets an extra dose of what the word is for what he/she is seeing. You can even stick Post-It Notes to items around the house.
These are, in my experience, some of the top techniques for teaching English, both in a classroom or at home teaching English to speakers of other languages. There are plenty of other successful tools for this as well. Do your research and understand the best ways for your child to learn the language. Just trust the process. Your child will catch on.