We met our son just a few month’s shy of his fourth birthday. He spoke clearly (clearly enough for us to understand many of his basic phrases), he had no speech impediments and was a good communicator. Our guide in his province said, “He speaks well and knows very much.” At home in the United States, a Mandarin-speaking friend spent an afternoon with him, playing cars and trucks on our playroom floor. XiXi counted Hot Wheels (he made it up into the 20s before running out of cars), correctly identified colors, named all of the animals in our toddler books, and showed that in his native tongue he was quite the accomplished chatterbox.
Before we traveled, I’d done some research. How long would a child his age keep his native language if he moved into an English-only environment? My guess was about 8-12 months, with the ability to understand holding on longer. This is what the research had to say:
One of the most shocking discoveries in the field of international adoption is the swiftness with which children lose their native language and the profound nature of that loss. In a situation of full English immersion, it takes these children (3-4 year-olds) seven to twelve weeks to reduce their expressive language to a practically non-functional state. Their receptive language may stay four to six weeks longer, but it is barely functional even in familiar situations with the support of gestures, voice tone, and other non-linguistic means of communication.
Twelve weeks! As I heard my newly-adopted son chat with our friend, a woman he called Ayi, I thought that surely, in his case, he could retain the language. So we arranged for more meetings with Ayi, we sought out others who spoke his language, we even frequented Chinese restaurants.
What we quickly realized was that we were swimming upstream and fighting a tide that was more powerful than our obviously meager efforts. The first few times our son met with Ayi, they chatted away effortlessly. After just a few weeks home, however, I saw a fairly dramatic change. She’d speak in Mandarin, he’d answer with nods or head shakes or answer in rudimentary English. He uttered not a single word of Mandarin. Not long after, we happened to run into Ayi at the grocery store. He loved her and greeted her warmly and she spoke to him in Mandarin. He stood there, stone-faced, and said nothing. She repeated herself and still, he remained quiet. Then she asked him the same sentence in English and he excitedly answered her. We’d been home less than 2 months.
At the Chinese restaurant, our server asked XiXi in Mandarin how old he was, a question even I could understand. Once again, our chatterbox remained quiet. I repeated the question and prodded him to answer. He stuck his lower lip out and looked away. I whispered in his ear, “Say, ‘san sway’.” He shook his head. The waitress asked if he knew any Mandarin. I don’t know why I felt the need to push this, but I prodded him again, “Say ‘san sway, XiXi. San sway.” Finally, he angrily whispered “san sway” and ate his lunch. It was such a little interaction, but it signaled something I hadn’t counted on. As much as I wanted him to keep his native language, he might not be interested. By twelve weeks home, he completely refused to speak Mandarin and was well on his way to becoming fluent in English. Now home a year and a half, I’m sad to say that he can’t understand even the most basic Mandarin words and phrases.
Do I think we could have done things differently and gotten a different result? I honestly don’t think so. If we had a native speaker in the home, we’d have had a shot. If we’d had Mandarin immersion in our schools, maybe that would have helped. But what we learned, was that not only did our son not have enough opportunities to hear and use the language, he didn’t have the motivation. In his new world, Mandarin was not helping him. English was the language of his family; Mandarin was the language of his orphanage. In his eyes, English was the language of his future; Mandarin was the language of his past.
If I could give one piece of advice to families adopting toddlers and older children from China, it would be this: video tape them speaking Mandarin immediately. I guarantee, the language will be gone quicker than you ever thought possible and you and your child will look at those videos like a dream out of the past.