Christine Rhyner

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Will He Speak English?
Friday, October 11, 2013 by Christine

When we returned home to Long Island with our Vietnamese born ten month-old son, we had lots of visitors.

Our friend Jeff sat on the couch holding Lucas in his arms. Jeff looked up at John and me.

"When he speaks will it be in English or Vietnamese?" he wanted to know.

One may find it difficult to believe that my husband and me were asked this question. Amazingly, it was asked by more than one person! And yes, the question was posed to us by adults with educations and jobs and the abilities to run their lives!

We must assume there is a misconception out there, shared by more than a few, that language is something inborn or so deeply etched in the brain from birth on that it can't be forgotten. The fact that my son had been spoken Vietnamese to and heard this language for the first ten months of his life was enough for some people to imagine that this language would be the one he would attempt communication with us months later when he began to talk.

As adoptive parents we're often asked some strange questions. This one made me laugh a little. It's a question that just doesn't apply to a foreign-born baby who really isn't verbalizing yet. To think that when Lucas began to speak he wouldn't be parroting back whatever words we were speaking and teaching to him is a little funny. Children learn to speak what they are taught.

Had he been speaking at all, he may have been using some very basic Vietnamese words at ten months-old. But, we found he really didn't say much.

Yet, he caught on to English well, even though we were told by his doctors to get him some early intervention with the language.

Thinking about the myriad of things people have said about my adopted child has given me insight into people's prejudices, ignorance and misconceptions--including my own. It's not a bad thing to realize that human beings just don't know certain things if they've never been exposed to them. But I believe within us all is a desire for understanding about all kinds of things.

Just ask anybody what he or she thinks about any topic. Even if he doesn't know much, he'll likely give you some sort of an opinion. Everyone likes to have a little bit of a grasp on things--whether it's a political issue or the subject of God or any number of topics--even if they don't have all the facts or information necessary to make an accurate assessment of it all.

I have to remember the teachers I've had who said, "There's no such thing as a stupid question," when it comes to others questioning me about my kids. In those classes I felt reassured  that in my genuine desire to understand something I didn't have to fear looking foolish or just plain dumb by asking a question that may have been apparent to nearly everyone else.

Unfortunately, I've also had teachers, primarily in Catholic school that discouraged questions. For instance, when I wanted to know things about God or the Bible--like more information about the sixty "mortal" and "venial" sins we had to memorize at the age of ten for the sacrament of Confirmation--I found myself abruptly silenced as though I were an impudent heretic. I distinctly remember the humiliation I felt for asking a "wrong" question, and therefore need to give grace to those who ask of me silly or uncomfortable questions. And I should give answers, even if that's difficult.

I know that it can be terribly frustrating to ask a question that never gets answered. I remember asking my mom when I was seven years-old, "Mommy, why does Janie pull her hair out?"

How does a mother explain trichotillomania to a second-grader? But I persisted, "Does she pull it out one at a time or all together?" Obviously uncomfortable and maybe not sure herself back then when this kind of condition wasn't as well known as today, she didn't provide an answer. I can still remember our little exchange so many years later and the thought I had asked a BAD question.

With all these situations as part of my own experience, as an adoptive mom I've got to give grace to others and their questions even when they seem silly or unworthy of an answer.

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