This is our first out of three-part interview with
Dr. Boris Gindis, a child psychologist and expert on international
adoption. Our interviews will be about language development in
internationally adopted children. English language acquisition,
bilingual issues, and attempts to "save" the native
language are common topics of discussion among parents of adoptees,
particularly older children. The first interview is focused on
a well-known dilemma that many adoptive parents of older children
face: Shall we try to keep the first language alive? Is it possible
at all? How can this be done?
I would like to start with the very basic understanding:
what is bilingualism and are our children bilingual?
A common understanding of bilingualism includes
a functional use of more than one language within a developmentally
appropriate and socially expected range of language skills. In
this respect, the majority of adopted children do not belong to
a bilingual category at all, or they may be bilingual for only
a short period of time. They are monolingual upon arrival (for
example, in Russian) and after several months, they are monolingual
again, only this time in English. There are a few exceptions with
older adoptees who may be literate in their native language, particularly
in sibling groups, but even with them it is only a matter of time.
Nevertheless there is a tendency, particularly in school settings,
to consider internationally adopted (IA) children as bilingual
and to apply to them insights, knowledge, and practices that have
accumulated regarding language acquisition in bilingual persons.
I doubt the validity of this approach and think that IA children
constitute a specific group that is rather different from bilingual
population at large.
In developmental and educational perspective,
bilingualism is a two-edged sword: it may be a blessing for some
and a curse for the others. Generally speaking, for a healthy,
well-adjusted, normally developing child, dual language mastery
may facilitate his/her cognitive, language, and social functioning.
For a child with developmental delays, language impairments, a
background of educational neglect and cultural deprivation, the
induced bilingualism may inhibit and complicate his/her development.
How do IA children learn the English language
that is different from children from immigrant families?
A second language is usually acquired
based on two models. "additive" and "subtractive".
When the second language is added to the child's skills with no
substantial detraction from the native language, it is called
the "additive" model of bilingualism. When and if, in
the process of second language acquisition, the first language
diminishes in use and is "replaced" by the second language,
we have the so-called "subtractive" model of second
language learning. The "subtractive" model is usually
typical for the so-called "circumstantial" bilinguals:
those individuals who, because of their circumstances, must learn
another language in order to survive. They are forced by circumstances
to acquire English, and they do so in a context in which their
own first language has no use at all. Internationally adopted
children are, by definition, circumstantial bilinguals. The subtractive
nature of their bilingualism is quite amazing.
Why are children losing their Russian?
One of the most shocking discoveries
that I have made for myself while working with internationally
adopted children is the swiftness with which they lose their mother
tongue. Thus, it is not atypical for a six-year-old internationally
adopted child to lose the bulk of her expressive native language
within the first 3 months in this country. For the purpose of
simple communication, her receptive language skills may last longer,
but eventually, all functional use of the native language will
disappear within 6 months to a year in an exclusive English-language
environment. For a 9-year-old child with age-appropriate literacy
skills in her native language, the process of losing language
may take longer, but still within a year the functionality of
the language will be dramatically diminished. It not surprising,
since language is a function - and all functions, be they physiological,
psychological, or social - have one common predominant feature:
they exist only if they are in use. "Use it or lose it",
as the phrase goes. If a language is not in use, it disappears.
There are several factors that facilitate the native language
loss in internationally adopted children in comparison to their
peers from immigrant families. These are: a low level of native-language
skills, no motivation to continue to use native language because
there is no opportunity to practice it, no "prestige' is
attached to the mastery of their native language, and no support
of the first language in their family or community at large. Finally,
there is one more specific factor not usually found in immigrant
children but rather common in school-aged adopted children: their
negative attitude and adverse emotional reaction to their mother
What can we do to preserve
and develop the native language in our children? I heard that
some parents hire a tutor to maintain Russian language skills
or even send their children to a Russian language school or at
least a Russian-speaking summer camp. Children are often so resistant
to these attempts to save their native language!
Indeed, the preservation of native
language is a "hot" topic for many adoptive parents.
However, I would like you to step into your children's shoes for
a second and consider this issue from their perspective. Many
adoptive parents are sure that talking in a child's native tongue
or seeing souvenirs or other artifacts from her native country
is a pleasure for an adoptive child. However, this is not always
the case. I am not surprised when I hear that a child runs away
in a panic when someone suddenly greets her in her native language.
Experts in the treatment of disorders stemming from traumatic
experiences have long since identified language (even the mere
sound of language) as a powerful trigger of Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder. It should not be a surprise, as language is the single
most powerful representation of a person's individual life history:
it is the powerful link between the present and the past. Older
adoptees in particular have experienced traumatic pasts. They
came from abusive families and have experienced tremendous neglect
and deprivation. An orphanage, as an institution, is not a place
normally associated with a happy childhood. Therefore, language
for some older adoptees is a constant reminder of their suffering
- a past most of them are desperately trying to overcome. The
easiest way to cut bonds with the past is to sever the most obvious
link with it, namely language. For many older adoptees, forgetting
the language seems to have a positive therapeutic value, while
externally imposed demands to keep the language may traumatize
them. For example, once a Russian visitor in school was introduced
to a recently adopted 8-year-old girl. The child became hysterical,
refused to talk, cried, and finally ran away from the office,
fearing that this woman had come to bring her back to Russia.
This is an extreme example, of course, but one cannot assume that
when a child listens to her native language, it will be a pleasant
experience for her.
Sometimes the sincere desire to preserve
the native language and native country's cultural affiliation
in their children motivates the adoptive parents to think about
bilingual education. Sometimes, for the same reason, parents hire
a tutor to maintain Russian language skills. Since in the majority
of cases these attempts are doomed to fail anyway, the question
remains: is it still worth of trying? In the state of NY bilingual
education and bilingual related services may be available for
internationally adopted children. Great caution should be exercised
in making a decision in this respect. A short-term transitional
bilingual program or related services, such as speech therapy
or counseling, when provided by bilingual professionals, may be
quite appropriate for, say, a 7 year old child who has just arrived
in the country. As a long-term option, however, it may be a step
in the wrong direction. You see, an adopted child lives in a monolingual
English-speaking family, not in a bilingual immigrant family.
Her native language does not have a functional meaning or a personal
sense for her. She needs functional English for survival. Her
native language will not be sustained by her family; however,
the same family will provide her with patterns of proper English.
Bilingual education or related services for only part of the day
combined with a lack of family support may lead to communication
confusion and "mixed" verbal conditioning for a circumstantial
bilingual child. Bilingual education in this case may even impede
the child's learning of English.
As for hiring a Russian-speaking
tutor for a newly-arrived school-age child - this is a very risky
action. One can make life easier for a short time by easing the
communication strain, but it may complicate life immensely in
the long-run. You and only you must be a source of comfort, security,
and information for your child from the very beginning and for
many years to come. If you place another adult between you and
your newly adopted child, this other adult is essentially taking
over some of your basic functions as parents (without malicious
intent, of course) - and then you are only inviting attachment
issues and other related problems. The best course of action is
just to go together with your child through the difficult phases
of adjustment and language learning and to emerge from this difficult
period with strengthened attachments and naturally acquired language
What you said is rather discouraging.
It looks like bilingualism is not an option for many of our children.
As 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 (new language learning first of all). Soon
after, health, education, remediation (if needed), and building
lasting relationships. Everything is mediated, of course, by your
child's progress in new language acquisition. I do not see a place
here for preserving native language as a first-order priority
for majority of adoptive families. Unfortunately, it is often
the case that by the time you are ready to take care of this issue,
the native language is gone. This is a typical scenario for most
There are exceptions, of course. Those
exceptions may occur naturally, even without special efforts,
or may be the results of planned and well-executed heroic efforts.
With international adoptees who are older than 9, are physically
healthy, have age-appropriate language development and grade-appropriate
literacy skills, have positive attitude towards their native language,
have an opportunity to use it for practical reasons and receive
an encouraging recognition of their special skills from peers
- the maintenance and development of their native language is
possible and bilingualism is a real option.
only confirm the rule: in general, bilingualism and international
adoption are not compatible. Any attempts to preserve the native
language in a child who has language delays, is emotionally/behaviorally
immature, or has learning disabilities of any sort may lead to
an undue strain and emotional/behavioral problems. External reinforcement
of the native language for a child - especially a child who has
negative attitude towards that language, who resents his/her status
of a "foreigner", and who has no need for this language
for immediate survival purposes - may be a recipe for a disaster.
An even more difficult scenario is to introduce two languages
simultaneously to a pre-verbal toddler with developmental delays.
The bottom line is that for a vast majority of international adoptees
bilingualism is not an option.