Language: Could he have kept the Mandarin?

November 7, 2012 Eileen, HepB+ 16 Comments

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.

16 responses to “Language: Could he have kept the Mandarin?”

  1. Thank you. We adopted a 7 1/2 year old boy back in 2010, and he quickly lost his Mandarin as well. My husband and I both have lived internationally and value language. It grieved us that he lost it, but just like you, we finally admitted that without being native speakers we were powerless to prevent it. Today the only Mandarin phrases he remembers are the ones my husband and I learned in China during our first few days with our son. We’ve all continued to use those at home.

    Thanks again. I’m linking to this post from my blog today. Such an important issue; and something most of us don’t expect.

  2. Stefanie says:

    Excellent post, Eileen. You hit the nail on the head – often the child simply does not want to maintain that connectedness to their native tongue, despite a parent’s best efforts. I think that in the transition of being adopted into an American family, it is difficult to impossible to maintain an allegiance to their first language in their desire to become part of their new family.

  3. Jenna says:

    ABSOLUTELY. AMEN. I could have written this post word-for word. We also adopted our son just two months shy of 4 years old, and our experience mirrors yours EXACTLY! I give people the exact smae advice (since I have little or no video of my son speaking Mandarin).

    Thank you for sharing this. This is my greatest grief and loss in my son’s adoption process, and this makes me feel better to know that others have had the same expereince and have come to the same conclusions I have: That while someday, he may want to learn Mandarin, he’ll have to learn it as an American speaker like the rest of his fmaily! If he doesn’t want to speak it now, that’s ok, because we cannot understand, nor can he express the difficult emotions that it brings up for him.

    Today is my son’s adoption day, and we announced that we will be having Chinese food. He immediately said, “I don’t WANT Chinese food. I want American food.”

    American food it is!

    What does he want, I asked him? Dumplings. 🙂 The American ones. So funny.

    Thank you for this awesome post!

  4. Melanie says:

    Thank you so much for this! We will be bringing our 5 1/2 y/o son home in a few months and assumed that we would give him some time before enrolling in a Mandarin immersion school program. Now, we’ll do it right away, and if he doesn’t enjoy the class or retain the language, we’ll know why. I’ll definitely hold onto to this and pass it on to others.
    Keep up the good work!

  5. Eileen says:

    For more information, Dr. Boris Gindis has researched and written extensively on language attrition in internationally adopted children. This is his conclusion:

    “As with almost everything in life, this issue is a matter of personal choice and priorities. On arrival, the priorities for your newly adopted child are health, attachment, and initial adjustment. Everything is mediated, of course, by your child’s progress in new language acquisition. I do not see the preservation of the native language as a first-order priority for the majority of adoptive families. Unfortunately, by the time families are ready to take a look at this issue, the child’s native language is gone.

    The bottom line is that bilingualism is not an option for the majority of internationally adopted children. It is more productive to concentrate on developing and facilitating mastery of their newly found mother tongue – the English language.”

    For more information go to:

  6. Laura says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. We adopted our son at 27 months, and he babbled away in mandarin, but lost it so quickly. One year later (Sunday was our first anniversary home), he enjoys things that are American and things that are Chinese, he loves to listen to mandarin nursery rhymes, but he did not retain any ability to speak or understand it.

    Interestingly, our daughter whom we adopted from Vietnam at 5 months old, was very traumatized by the changes in her life. During our two weeks there, we would take her to the hotel lobby b/c seeing Vietnamese faces and hearing the language calmed her significantly. Once we got her home, she went through a period where she rejected Asians, wouldn’t let them hold her or play with her, and got profoundly sad if she was spoken to in Vietnamese. I was shocked to see an infant grieve in that manner and for so long, but it made me realize language is a powerful thing.

  7. Eileen says:


    Your daughter’s experience mirrors our own daughter’s. She was adopted at 11 months from China, and although the nannies said she understood them, she wasn’t speaking. In China, and shortly after we got home, she loved to hear Mandarin, When we’d been home just a couple of months, I happened to see a Chinese woman with her daughter at a little play place in our local mall. I approached her and asked if she wouldn’t mind speaking Mandarin to our daughter, as I was sure she’s be thrilled to hear it. NEVER have I seen her react to something so negatively. She screamed, cried, and literally shook. She buried her head in my shoulder, shaking her head and yelling “no!” I felt terrible for this sweet woman who apologized and all I could do was stammer, “It’s not your fault.” I didn’t anticipate that reaction at all.

    It took Maya probably a good year before she could hear the language or even see an Asian woman without crying. She was not even a year old when she was adopted, yet those triggers remained strong.

    • Laura says:

      I think it’s so important to remember these experiences. When I look at my daughter now, I see simply my daughter. Remembering how traumatizing the changes in her life were for her then will help me help her as she processes her loss and history as she gets older. Thanks again for sharing your experiences – and I love any chance to see your sweet boy’s smile!

  8. Judy says:

    This is so so true! It’s kind of crazy, because for several weeks our little CHinese chatterbox was totally silent. She had forgotten her cantonese, and didn’t have enough english to communicate. She understood much much more than she could express. Just like a toddler learning. They can understand what you say, but it takes longer to speak it. Home now for 7 months she chatters and talks in English only. THere is so much she still can not communicate, but she is learning more and more every day.

    The school hired a mandarin speaking lady to come in and talk to her and she totally ignored her! Like she wasn’t even in the room. She did this to anyone who talked to her in Chinese while we were still in China! Like she was erasing her past. This was not our choice but hers.

  9. maggie says:

    Our experience so far has been very different from the other commenters so I just offer it to show that there are different experiences on this topic. Our two girls were adopted from China two years apart but each was close to 4 yrs old when they came home. We are very lucky to have a Mandarin immersion pre-school down the road from us and we enrolled both of them there very soon after arriving home and my older daughter who is in first grade now goes to Mandarin language school on Sundays and we also have a tutor come to our house once a week. Both girls at seperate times have not wanted to go to the various schools – my husband and I think that is mainly due to the fact that the Mandarin schools are focused on academics more than other pre-schools so it is just not as fun for them. It is not because they are rejecting China at all. They are both very excited when we watch TV programs where China is a focus or listen to Chinese nursery ryhmes in the car. In fact they routinely speak to each in Mandarin both inside or outside our home, It is very easy for them to communicate in Mandarin or English and they will use either language at any moment. So they both came with Mandarin language and have managed to maintain it. I would only say that we are very lucky to have the resources available to us to aide them in maintaining the Mandarin language and we are also lucky that the girls want to play together and communicate with each other in Mandarin. It might be very different if there were a larger age difference between them where they wouldn’t want to play Barbies together and so there would be less opportunities to chat together. And while they both have triggers that bring to the surface their grief at adoption – the triggers are not related to hearing the language or seeing Chinese people. So we are lucky in that respect since we live in a diverse community and it could otherwise be very traumatic for them on a daily basis. And for those of you whose children have lost their Mandarin – I am not an expert but I do believe that their ears and brains were trained early on and so if they decided to learn Mandarin later on it may be slightly easier for them than someone who never heard Mandarin before. So don’t despair that they will never speak Mandarin again.

  10. Eileen says:


    That’s fantastic! I love to hear when people have success with maintaining the language–it’s definitely the exception to the rule! I think you’re right that you’ve been lucky with some great local opportunities for your girls. Our local schools only offer spanish immersion programs. If they’d had Mandarin, I would have absolutely signed up both of my little ones, if they’d been willing.

    I’m curious to know if your girls are still fluent in Mandarin or if it’s more that they know some vocabulary and phrases? Are they beyond where the other children are in the class? Can they carry on a conversation in Mandarin?

    I would have totally agreed 100% with your assumption that once a child knows a language, even if they lose that language, it will be easier for them if they ever went back to it. That seems right to me, but according to the research, it’s a profound loss and that these kids have no advantage at all if they try to re-learn it. It’s like they’re learning it for the first time. I guess I have to go with the research, but deep down, I like to hope that there’d be some language memory that would kick in if college-aged XiXi enrolled in Mandarin 101!

  11. Leslie says:

    Our son was 10 at adoption. So I realize mileage varies, age being a big factor.

    But he still speaks and reads Mandarin, and he can understand it as well. He doesn’t LIKE to speak it (I know this is b/c he is rusty and doesn’t have the confidence), but he can. Our 10YO bio son is now learning Mandarin on his own, and our 12YO son (adopted at 10) will be quick to correct our 10YO son in his pronunciations.

    He still loves to watch Chinese language shows I find on the internet (mainly YouTube; can even watch American shows with Mandarin dubbed in on there; who knew?!), he reads Chinese novels every single day, he reads his Bible in both English and Mandarin (side-by-side text), and so much more.

    But. His English is progressing probably more slowly than it would have if we had not pushed him to retain his native tongue. For us though, with him being 10 at adoption, we felt it was a worthy push. He hopes to return to China possibly for work when he is through college, so it was really a no-brainer. But he was older at adoption, and so that made a big difference.

    Our other son from China was 5 at adoption and basically didn’t speak. He understood the Chongqing dialect, which is older brother also spoke and understood, but he didn’t understand formal Mandarin at all. Or at least that is what conclusion we all came to as 5YO son didn’t understand our guide or anyone else besides his new older brother and older brother’s foster Momma, who also spoke to him in the Chongqing dialect.

    As for them remembering, I have to say the research is worth noting and definitely has been proven, but our daughter adopted at 35 months definitely remembers her heart language as we refer to it. I got that term from a friend, who spent 6 years in Kunming where our daughter is from. She visited our area a couple of years ago, which was 2 years after our daughter came home. She had not heard the Kunming dialect in 18 months (had heard it a couple of times via phone after coming home), and yet when my friend spoke to DD in her native dialect it was clear from the expressions on her face that she understood. Maybe she didn’t understand word for word, but she understood it was familiar.

    I hope someday our Chinese-born children can all speak their native tongue, but if not, we will cherish those times when they did. We have no video of either of our middles from China speaking b/c they were both born cleft-affected and neither every uttered a work of Mandarin to us. Our baby girl spoke a little with us, but not much, though I’m certain her reports of her advanced language skills were accurate based on her advanced English skills at just 8 months home and not quite 3 years old.

    Well, that got long! Sorry but this subject fascinates me as well.

  12. Eileen says:


    At 10, I couldn’t agree more, that even if it slows their mastery of English, it’s worth the effort to retain the language. I wish I could find the exact article, but it looks like I’d have to pay to access a journal to find it, but anyway, I remember reading that if the child is writing and reading in their native tongue, that helps immensely in their ability to retain it. I also remember reading that puberty is kind of the magic age for language. It said that after puberty, if they learn another language, they’ll probably always have an accent in the the new language—even if it’s very slight.

    Really, I think at any age, it’s worth the effort to keep the Mandarin, it’s just important to know that with the younger kids, it tends to be a losing battle.

  13. Tammi says:

    We adopted our daughter 1 week after she turned 3 and we LIVE in china and we go to an international school where 1/2 her day is spent in mandarin and half in english. We’ve been here with her 2 years and she still will only sings songs in Mandarin. She won’t speak it, only in class to her chinese teacher. Even if she sees her chinese teacher outside of class and she speaks to her in mandarin, my daughter responds in english. If i speak to her in Mandarin, she says “don’t talk chinese to me mom!” She still loves her chinese food, but her love for the language left a long time ago despite our best efforts.

  14. This was very informative for me since we just brought home our 6 year old son. We have him in private Mandarin classes once a week, but I have already been amazed at how quickly I can tell he is losing some of his language.

  15. Aus says:

    Morning y’all – I think you really nailed it at the end – he doesnt’ “want to” and is old enough to know that as well as resist it! But – and you may end up here some day – our Korean daughter (now 10) has decided that she “wants” her native language (may have something to do with having a Korean exchange student with us last year too) – and so – Korean class here we come!

    In fact – I’m thinking (at least with her) that we’ll see “swings” of wanting to be more “American” and wanting to be more “insert country of origin here” as she grows and develops into the person that she will someday be…and for our part….we’ll just support that any way we can!

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