Friday, February 23, 2018

Language proficiency critical in older cross-cultural adoption

March 17, 2008 by  
Filed under Blog

A lesson learned: Language proficiency is critical when adopting an older child who speaks a different first language.

When first agreeing to a volunteer trip to help a private orphanage in Mexico, I had no initial thought of repeating the experience, let alone of adopting any of the children we met. I did however yield to the opportunities for several repeat visits until, when the death of one of the owners of the orphanage meant it was about to be closed, my hardcore objectivity and control melted me into a pool of blubbering emotion.

Having gotten to know the 120 children, it was heartbreaking to see them being redistributed to other orphanages throughout the state, or being placed with known relatives (who in some cases were not even able to support themselves, let alone the children now being placed with them). While I was vulnerable, the older of two brothers whom I had learned to care about over the last year, approached me with the request that I adopt them. Making a very long story short, after checking into the legalities, I moved to Mexico, brought my mother along to be grandmother to the children and we started the adoption process.

We think the boys were 11 and 13 when we started the process (birthdates had been arbitrarily assigned by the orphanage). They were born somewhere in rural area of Colima, Mexico and had spent the last 8 years in the orphanage.

The new adopting father came from middle class white USA and was still learning Spanish.

Over the next few years, I found the adoption of my two sons to be the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.

While there were certainly differences to be explored, we never had any serious cultural issues, perhaps in part to my having lived in the Southwest and have a high comfort level with Hispanic culture. When, 6 years into our lives together we moved to the USA, we chose a spot with high Hispanic population so the boys would feel more comfortable.

Was there anything that did not “go right”? Yes, and this is my suggestion for any situation where there is a cross cultural, different language adoption of an older child.

While my proficiency in Spanish is about 80%, the empty feeling I have is that I was not able to have the close, personal, important life conversations that are needed between a father and adolescent sons. It is difficult enough when both speak the same language with 100% proficiency. But when the opportunity presents itself for close, subtle communication it will quickly break down if the adolescent senses your lack of clear understanding of the language of the adolescent, and there is no retrieving the moment, that communication moment is lost forever.

While my sons, now 27 and 29, have turned out wonderful (biased father speaking) and I would not trade the experience of them for anything, nor do I regret anything about the adoption process, that communication emptiness will always be with me. My inability to have been there for them to talk meaningfully about their adolescent needs and dreams haunts me to this day.

There is however, a positive outcome that is coming at that cost in my relationship with my sons. My sons have taught me to see the differences between children raised in orphanages vs. those raised in a family. The result of this is the new project to create self-sustaining communities in developing countries where orphans are raised in family groups with surrogate parents and grandparents from that same culture. This will at least do away with any cross-cultural or language issues while raising the children since they will be staying in their own country. To learn more about this project, visit our website at:

If you are adopting an older child who speaks a language different than your primary language, will you be able to be there for them with full understanding?

Orphans Dream Team

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2 Responses to “Language proficiency critical in older cross-cultural adoption”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi Bob . . . From the archives of your former life – a heartfelt Hi, Howdy from Earl & Karyn. We’re still in shock that the boys are in their late 20’s. You’ve walked atop a few fires since our last shared firewalk. Namaste

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Well hello Earl & Karyn.
    Good to hear from you. How about an email to our address?
    And to be exact – 28 and 30 – can’t believe it myself.
    Looking foward to hearing from you.

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