Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Language and foster kids

I am a language nerd.  I've studied linguistics.  My career involves language.  So, naturally the language of my foster children interests me, and in some issues, I've found myself fairly opinionated and passionate.

On the level of just interesting, having a child join your home (if they're old enough to talk) involves finding a common vocabulary.  People often talk about what children call foster parents, but beyond that there are words for favorite movies and songs, words for parts of the body and bodily functions, words for favorite foods.  And sometimes there are words you didn't know toddlers could know, possibly shocking your friend who is babysitting for the night.  With any kids there are surprises of "where did you hear that?" but with foster kids, it's to another level.

Now onto the level of opinionated and passionate for me. If your foster or adopted child is from a minority racial background, having a child join your home might involve a new dialect at some point.  The tricky part is that many people don't recognize these dialects as dialects, but just incorrect ways of speaking English.  Children are corrected in school, and sometimes at home.  Well-meaning parents want to make sure they are learning the "right" way to speak.  However, African American Vernacular English (AAVE, also known as Ebonics), for example, is a systematic way of speaking.  It is not the standard in many parts of society, but it is not just wrong English.  AAVE achieves many things: passing on cultural traditions, strengthening relationships, creating unique art, telling stories, preaching the gospel, etc.

So, my discussion with B was about whether to correct AAVE or not, assuming we had a foster child who either brought AAVE with them from family or chose it as they made Black friends and identified with them.  Some would argue that even if AAVE is valuable, it could limit them in education and employment.  My response is that if their teachers are mostly white (and even in the diverse school our kids attend, they mostly are) and if their foster parents are white (and we are), they will have extensive exposure to "Standard English" or "General American English."  They may need to be explicitly taught when to use it to their advantage, but they will have a pretty good idea of what it is.  As a foster parent, I would want to be intentional about painting AAVE in a positive light, even if it's different than how I speak.

If you have never thought about this issue, I highly recommend this video.  The guy's voice grates on me a bit, but the explanations and thought-provoking questions are excellent.  When I learned this information about AAVE years ago, I listened to people who spoke it with completely new ears.

And then there are foster children who don't just speak or adopt another dialect but speak another language.  And very few foster parents available who speak multiple languages.  How can foster children maintain another language if the foster parent speaks the language, and if they don't?  I am fairly fluent in one other language, but I haven't raised my children to be bilingual.  We did have one infant placement who had family that spoke the language I know.  I did talk to the baby occasionally in that language, but I wasn't sure if that was enough.  Should I be speaking only in that language?  Did it matter if the placement was short-term or long-term?  I'm still pondering a lot of those questions.

What issues of language have you encountered?

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