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Bilingualism and Internationally Adopted Children

Interview with Dr. Boris Gindis conducted by Jackie Lawson
published in FRUA New York News, Volume 3 Issue 2, Winter 2003

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?

Q: I would like to start with the very basic understanding: what is bilingualism and are our children bilingual?

A: 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.

Q: How do IA children learn the English language that is different from children from immigrant families?

A: 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.

Q: Why are children losing their Russian?

A: 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 tongue.

Q: 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!

A: 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 skills.

Q: What you said is rather discouraging. It looks like bilingualism is not an option for many of our children.

A: 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 adoptive families.
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.
But exceptions 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.

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