Development In Internationally Adopted Children
Published in: China
(A newsletter for New England Families
who have adopted children from China),
Volume 10, Issue 2, 2004,
Boris Gindis, Ph.D.,
Despite numerous individual differences,
all internationally adopted (IA) children have one common task:
they must learn a new language. But there are distinct variations
in this process. One of the most obvious aspects that set adopted
children from China apart is their age -- most children are adopted
before the age of 3 and usually have several years of development
in an English-language environment before entering our school system.
From a school's perspective, children adopted from
China belong to a large and diverse category of students called
"English Language Learners" (ELL). This group consists
mostly of children who were born outside the United States and arrived
in the country with their families or were born to language-minority
families who live here. Most important, these children continue
to use their first language in their families. These are bilingual
children who normally use both English and their first languages
within a developmentally appropriate and socially expected range
of language skills. However, infants, toddlers, and preschoolers
brought from China, though part of the ELL group, significantly
differ from the rest of the ELL population.
They are not bilingual. They are monolingual
upon arrival (Chinese only) and after several months are monolingual
again, only this time in English. Although there are only a few
exceptions to this rule, there is a tendency in school settings
to consider IA children bilingual and to apply to them the accumulated
insights, knowledge, and practices regarding language acquisition
in bilingual persons. This is an erroneous approach.
Additive and Subtractive Language Learning
Models in IA Children
Internationally adopted children learn
English in a different way than "typical" members of the
ELL group. A new language is usually acquired based on one of two
models: "additive" or "subtractive." When the
second language is added to child's skills with no substantial detraction
from the native language, it is called the additive model of language
learning. When and if, in the process of second language acquisition,
the first language diminishes in use and is replaced by the second
language, we call this the subtractive model of language learning.
The subtractive model is characteristic for IA children
who present themselves as an extreme case of "circumstantial"
language learners: individuals who, due to their circumstances,
must learn a different language in order to survive. They are forced
by circumstances to acquire English, and they do so in a context
in which their first language has no use at all. This means that
while learning English for the traditional ELL population is akin
in many aspects to learning a foreign language, for IA children
English language acquisition is more akin to the natural ways in
which first languages are developed. An IA child is completely immersed
in the language and acquires English as a by-product of meaningful
interaction in joint activities in the new family. The motivational
urge to acquire the new language is much more intense in adopted
children (and adoptive families) than it is in immigrant families
and bilingual children.
Most children adopted internationally live in monolingual
English-speaking families. This means that a child needs functional
English for survival and does not need the first language for any
practical purposes. The child's adoptive family is the primary source
of patterns of proper English but this family cannot be a sustained
source of the first language. In this situation, the first language
quickly loses its functional meaning and personal sense for an adopted
child. It results in a peculiar situation where an English language
learner has the English language as the home's only language, and
it leads also to a rapid attrition of the first language. Within
the first year in the U.S. the English language becomes the only
language of an IA child and, from a legal point of view, the child's
The definition of a native language in IDEA (Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act, Part B Code of Federal Regulations:
CFR §300.19) is very clear:
the term native language, if used with reference
to an individual of limited English proficiency, means the following:
(1) The language normally used by that individual,
or, in the case of a child, the language normally used by the
parents of the child
(2) In all direct contact
with a child (including evaluation of the child), the language
normally used by the child in the home or learning environment.
For an IA child , the English language satisfies both
the first and second requirements of the law. Therefore, even though
IA children can be individuals of limited English proficiency, their
native language, shortly after the arrival into the adoptive family,
is defined as English.
Communicative Language and Cognitive
Adoptive parents of a toddler from China
are usually amazed and pleased by their child's progress in mastering
basic communication skills and see no apparent reason to worry about
language development. However, as early as first grade problems
might emerge. Here is a characteristic message I've received from
an adoptive parent:
"Jane joined our family at the age of 26 months.
As a toddler, she developed great skill in speaking and understanding
the English language. At the age of 5 she started kindergarten,
and at that time no one could distinguish her language from that
of her peers born in this country. But her first grade teacher observed
that Jane had problems with remembering lengthy directions and answering
many "why" questions. Jane had difficulties with understanding
stories not related to her immediate experience. In the second grade,
her reading problems emerged. However, nothing was done and by the
middle of the third grade Jane's academic problems consolidated
to the extent that a team of school professionals evaluated her.
Jane was found to have normal IQ, but her reading and writing skills
were well below her grade level. Her comprehension of oral academic
instructions is strikingly below expectations for her age
Are these still language issues?"
Unfortunately, neither teachers nor parents are equipped
to understand that the child's conversational proficiency in English
is not sufficient to ensure the mastery of the English language
needed for successful school performance. There are two domains
of language usage, referred to as "communicative language"
and "cognitive language."
Developmentally, communicative language emerges
first and much earlier than cognitive language. Thus the quality and
quantity of a child's early communicative experience is crucial for
forming the foundation of cognitive/academic language. Certain properties
of cognitive language, such as grammar structures and lexicology patterns,
are embedded into the psychological makeup of native speakers through
frequent repetition when they are infants and toddlers and their parents
talk to them or near them or read to them. In other words, children
are predisposed to cognitive language mastery through their earlier
experiences with the language. Unfortunately, this step is what the
majority of IA children miss in their early development. Moreover,
as toddlers they experienced an abrupt and profound loss of their
first language and an interruption in their language development.
- Communicative language refers to the language skills
needed for social interaction in everyday communication within a
practical context. It includes basic skills in pronunciation, vocabulary,
and grammar. Communicative fluency is supported by gestures, facial
expressions, intonation, body postures, etc. A lively informal discussion
of the latest baseball match at a family picnic table is an example
of communicative language use.
- Cognitive language refers to language as a tool of
reasoning, a means of literacy, and a medium for academic learning.
This language function emerges and becomes distinctive with formal
schooling and developing literacy skills. Mastery of cognitive language
requires specific conceptual and semantic knowledge of the language
itself. A 4th grade science project about volcanic eruptions, involving
reading a scientific text and writing an essay about the warning
signs of a possible eruption is an example of using cognitive/academic
Research, clinical practice, and adoptive parents'
surveys unanimously show that an IA child in the situation of circumstantial
new language acquisition quickly and seemingly without effort achieves
conversational proficiency. However, it is much more difficult for
the same child to obtain age-appropriate mastery of the English
language in the cognitive-academic domain. Chances are that an adopted
child will struggle with cognitive language acquisition and might
need educational help in this respect.
Although the pattern of mastering the English
language is the same in internationally adopted children as in the
rest of the ELL group, i.e. the communicative language develops
first and cognitive aspects of the language second, the dynamic
of learning the English language is different. Due to the urgency
and emotional intensity of communicative needs in adoptive families,
the speed of communicative language mastery is much greater in internationally
adopted children than in those from immigrant families. In mastering
cognitive/academic language, however, IA children may lag behind
their peers in the ELL group. This is especially noticeable in comparison
with native speakers of the language. This delay in cognitive language
development leads to persistent learning difficulties and might
even result in "Cumulative Cognitive Deficit" (for more
details about this, please see the article at http://www.bgcenter.com/CCDPost.htm).
Consequences of Rapid First Language
The China Connection newsletter offers
ample evidence of how central the issue of working to preserve (or
reacquaint children with) their first language is for many FCC parents.
Let us have a closer look at this issue.
One of the most stunning discoveries about IA children
is the swiftness with which they lose their mother tongue. It is
typical for a 3-year-old IA child to lose most expressive native
language within the first three months here. With simple communication,
receptive language skills might last a bit longer, but within the
next six months all functional use of the native language will disappear
in an exclusive English-language environment. This is not surprising
because language is a function, and all functions - physiological,
psychological and social - have one common predominant feature:
they exist only if they are in use. "Use it or lose it."
Language loss (or language attrition, as it is called
among linguists) is neither a new nor unusual experience. It is
observed in immigrants of all ages. What is really unusual is the
speed and profound nature of language attrition in internationally
adopted children: this quick and total abandonment of language has
not been described in scientific literature. There are several factors
that facilitate native language loss in IA children in comparison
to their peers from immigrant families: a low initial level of first
language skills, a lack of motivation to retain the first language
because there is no opportunity to practice it, and no support of
the first language in their family or community at large.
The overall toll paid for the abrupt loss of the first
language depends on the child's age and a host of individual differences.
For most internationally adopted children there is no easily detectible
damage, though for some this factor might intensify cognitive weaknesses
and contribute to Cumulative Cognitive Deficit. Also, language is
a powerful tool used in the regulation of behavior: When this tool
is taken away from a child, a set of inappropriate, immature, or
clearly maladaptive behaviors can be observed.
Recognizing and Working with Language
More and more adoptive parents realize
that their children's cognitive language development requires specific
and intense remedial efforts. Fortunately, there are several methods,
mostly within the field of remedial cognitive psychology, that can
be used to support IA children.
SmartStart Program: Helping Your Internationally Adopted Child
Develop a Foundation for Learning, Toolbox I (for ages 3 to 5)
and Toolbox II (for ages
5 to 8) (see more at http://www.bgcenter.com/smartstart.htm),
was developed specifically for IA pre-school children with their
basic needs and problems in mind. This program offers specific activities
that focus on processes that have been found to positively influence
the cognitive language development of young children.
The question arises: should we maintain the first
language or concentrate on second language skills development? In
other words, shall we keep our children bilingual?
Common understanding of bilingualism includes functional
use of more than one language within a developmentally expected
range of language skills in communication, behavior regulation,
and cognitive operation (thinking). From the developmental and educational
perspective, bilingualism is a two-edged sword - a blessing for
some and a curse for others. Generally speaking, dual language mastery
might facilitate cognitive and social functioning of a healthy,
well-adjusted, normally developing child. For a child with developmental
delays, emotional trauma(s), language impairments, or a background
of educational neglect and cultural deprivation, the process of
simultaneous learning two languages might inhibit and complicate
According to past articles in China Connection, the
more popular means of maintaining bilingualism by parents who do
not know Chinese is to hire a tutor or native-speaking nanny, to
send the child to a Chinese bilingual pre-school program or Sunday
school, or to enroll the child in an ethnic summer camp.
With an IA child, families have to exercise extra
caution in using any of these methods. A Chinese language tutor
or native-speaking nanny/baby-sitter, for example, might bring attachment-related
issues into your family. Experience shows that in the majority of
cases such attempts to preserve the first language are doomed to
fail. There are exceptions, of course, but exceptions only confirm
the rule: bilingualism and international adoption are not compatible
unless the Chinese language is the functional tool of everyday life
in your family. Any attempt at external reinforcement of the first
language for a child who has language delays, is emotionally and
behaviorally immature, or has learning disabilities of any sort
may lead to undue strain on child and parents alike.
As with almost everything in life, this issue is a
matter of personal choice and priorities. On arrival, the priorities
for your newly adopted child are health, attachment, and initial
adjustment. Everything is mediated, of course, by your child's progress
in new language acquisition. I do not see the preservation of the
native language as a first-order priority for the majority of adoptive
families. Unfortunately, by the time families are ready to take
a look at this issue, the child's native language is gone.
The bottom line is that bilingualism is not an option
for the majority of internationally adopted children. It is more
productive to concentrate on developing and facilitating mastery
of their newly found mother tongue - the English language.