Some Adoptees Lack Their Native Tongue

by Barbara Free

     Many of us have lost our ancestral languages, through immigration and assimilation of our ancestors. Various of my own forebears spoke Welsh, Gaelic, French, no doubt some Native American languages, and even Cornish, which no one speaks now. I took French in college, but cannot speak it at this time, don’t know a word of the other languages except English, and don’t even know what Native American tribe I might have had ancestors in. And I’m not even adopted! The feeling of loss of those connections is like a void in my knowledge of who I am. My rudimentary knowledge of French, Spanish and Latin doesn’t give me cultural connections.
     For many adoptees in closed adoptions, even the knowledge of who their ancestors were, or what their ethnic identity was, is unknown to them. Some know that they were adopted from other countries, but may not have any knowledge of their birth parents’ language. Many adoptive parents now are making great efforts to help their children retain their native culture and language, realizing that those are important to one’s identity and self-image. Some adoptive parents have chosen to retain their children’s original name, or have given them names they might have had in their country of origin, or they have kept those original names as middle names. Some are now making efforts to go back to those countries to visit.
     Many others, however, were born in this country and have no particular ethnic heritage that they know. That is not to say they don’t have any ethnic heritage, they just don’t know what it is. This no doubt contributes to that feeling that so many adoptees describe, of feeling they have no roots, or feelings like they weren’t born, but somehow came out of a file drawer at an adoption agency. Most of us in this country, adoptees or not, have lost a great deal of our ancestral knowledge, and the earlier our ancestors came to this country, the more we have lost. The need to learn about ourselves has led to a huge interest, and even an industry, about genealogy. If this need is so prevalent among non-adoptees, how much more crucial it must be to adoptees? Yet the laws in many states present great obstacles to their quests. Some of the very groups which encourage people to search for knowledge of their ancestors and relatives are the same groups adamantly opposed to opening records for adoptees and birth parents, further contributing to that feeling that they are not “real” people.
     It might be tempting to dismiss much of this by telling adoptees that their native tongue is English, or whatever their adoptive parents speak, but the very lack of knowledge of their origins amounts to the lack of a true native tongue for adoptees in closed adoptions. Many respondents to the research this writer is currently conducting have mentioned that finding out their true ethnic heritage has been very important to them in terms of finding their identity, and having a reason at last for various interests, such as a woman loving bagpipes and learning that her birth heritage was Scottish. Others have found they had Native American ancestors, or African. They report feeling more connected, more grounded, just having that information. They may never learn to speak their ancestral languages, but at least they can know that they really do have a native tongue, and perhaps more than one.

Excerpted from the July 2002 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2002 Operation Identity