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  • Writer's pictureNicole

Adoption and a second language

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

Adoption is making me have to revisit a lot of how I anticipated my parenthood would be. Not only in how the children actually come to be with me but in how I will be with them. Things I had just assumed or taken for granted. One of these is linked to my language. This is something I've not seen talked about in any of the adoption information available.

I was born in the UK but my mum didn’t speak very good English at that stage, having only recently moved over and spoke to us in French at home. It was also really important to her that we be able to speak to our family in Switzerland. This became a bit of a chore as my sister and I started school and spoke English all day with friends, and at home with each other and with our dad. English just became easier. My mum would insist “speak French” and although it was a battle for her, we always did speak French with her. I’m so glad she persisted and fought us on a daily basis, because of her, we were fluent. We would have fun conversations switching from one language to the other in one sentence between us, but always French to my mum.

My mum also spoke Swiss German but was told when we were babies that learning two languages would delay our language skills and reduce our vocabulary. As if you only have a set amount of words you can learn and if you learn a certain amount in one language, you can only learn a certain amount in another. Obviously now we know this isn’t true and actually the reverse, learning a second language can boost your vocabulary and language skills, but at the time, that was the advice. Since my family lived in the French Speaking part of Switzerland, she decided to stick to French.

I don’t know my English family, so for me, family = French. I always thought I’d do the same for my children, so they too would be able to speak to my family in Switzerland.

When I was pregnant, I spoke to my babies in French. It was our thing ❤

Now we are adopting. We will have young children, possibly not yet able to talk but certainly aware of words and intonations around them which sound familiar. They will come and live with us. Complete strangers. They will need to learn to trust us. Trust we are constant. Trust we are safe. Trust we have their best interests at heart. Part of this trust is to recognise the language we use. Who am I to then try to bring in something unfamiliar? Something not part of who they are, but part of who I am.

I want my children to feel part of my family. I want to bring them to Switzerland to meet the people who mean the world to me. The people who shaped me and will help shape them. I want them to feel that connection to the family which will become theirs.

Language is a huge part of identity. I think I have a different energy when I’m speaking in French. Its my mother tongue. It’s the first language I was able to communicate in. It’s the language I spoke to my mum in, still speak to my mum in. It feels like home. French is my connection to my childhood, my safety, my past. It reminds me of summer holidays visiting the extended family. I miss hearing it. I will sometimes seek out a French film or radio just to hear it. Its not just that it sounds different, but that it sings a different tune to my soul. I feel almost like a different part of me is awakened when I hear French. This is actually a known phenomenon and research has shown some people may have entirely different personalities when they speak a different language.

I so want to share this special connection, this different part of me with my children but at what point are they ‘settled’ enough for me to bring in a whole new language which they’ve not heard before? Will that make them feel unsafe? Will they feel a change in my energy and feel I’ve somehow betrayed them? That I’ve not been honest and congruent in who I am? In which case I need to introduce that part of me to them straight away, so it doesn’t then become a hidden part of who I am which they won’t recognise.

Languages are also so much easier to learn before you realise you’re learning them. When you are just immersed in it. So the younger the better.

There is so much emphasis in adoption on supporting your child to understand their heritage, which I absolutely will. My heritage may not be part of theirs, my DNA may not be theirs, but they will be my children. They will be members of my family. A family I want them to be fully involved with. A family who are waiting impatiently to welcome them.

This makes me sad. That I even need to question at what stage I will be able to speak my language to my children. Part of me is also scared that if I don’t do it straight away, then I won’t. Its needs to become a habit quickly because introducing it would be harder. Much like when I was at school and continuing speaking the same language was just easier. I speak English to my boyfriend. I speak English to my friends. I speak English at work. I speak English if I go to a shop or the dentists or the hairdressers. Its easy. Sometimes if I’ve not spoken French for a few months its rusty. For the first half a day I struggle to find the words because my brain is in English mode.

My children’s wellbeing has to come first, but I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. I think I’ll know when its right when I’ve met them. Perhaps it will be fine straight away to bring in a few words, maybe a story at bedtime. Or maybe it will be a slow introduction after some time with us. I suspect their French may not be as fluent as mine and that is something I need to make my peace with. I have not carried them, they won’t have heard French from within the womb. The first time I speak to them will be in English. They will need to grow accustomed to the sound of it, but also to me speaking it. It is also down to me and how much I’ll have the energy to push and argue for them to speak a language which won’t come naturally, not even to me anymore.

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