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Language Development In Internationally Adopted Children

Published in: China Connection
(A newsletter for New England Families who have adopted children from China),
Volume 10, Issue 2, 2004, pp 34-37

Boris Gindis, Ph.D.,
NYS Licensed Psychologist

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 native language.

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 Language

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."

  1. 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.

  2. 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 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.

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

Consequences of Rapid First Language Loss

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 Difficulties

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.

One method, 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, 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 development.

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.

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