Interview with Dr. Boris Gindis,
conducted by Jackie Lawson.
This is our second out of three-part
interview with Dr. Boris Gindis.
Tell us about the process of the English language learning
in internationally adopted children.
For an internationally adopted child the entire
process of adjusting to a new life is mediated by the new language.
This is a difficult task for many children who have a wide range
of speech and language deficits in their native language. There
are three factors that may influence the ability to master the
English language by adopted children: age, personality, and the
degree of children's native language proficiency. As you see,
I did not mention intellectual abilities. I have to stress, that
the rate of English language acquisition is not a direct indicator
of general cognitive abilities. Language learning is a very complex
process where intellectual aptitude is only one of many contributing
factors. By no means should the process of new language acquisition
be considered a direct reflection of intelligence.
eventually -some faster than others - learn to communicate in
the English language. Practically all adopted children will learn
to speak English without an accent. Keeping or losing one's accent
is related to the developmental stage in language acquisition,
where puberty (the period of becoming first capable of reproducing
sexually) is the dividing line. Those who learned a language before
puberty tend to lose their accent, while those who learned after
puberty tend to keep an accent. According to research done by
Dr. Jay McClelland of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition
(Carnegie-Mellon Research Foundation), only a few people can learn
a second language without an accent after the age of 10.
Why do some children learn to speak so quickly, but
then have problems with language-based activities in school?
There are two domains of language
usage that are often referred to as Communicative Language and
Cognitive Language. 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. 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.
Adoptive parents are usually amazed and pleased by their
child's progress in mastering basic communication skills and see
no apparent reason for additional language remediation. However,
at some point, teachers begin reporting that an adoptive child
might not understand more complex reading stories, may fail to
follow multi-sequential instructions or may not comprehend conceptual
or hypothetical questions. Frustration may escalate to the point
where the word "learning disability" may be used. A
child may be then tested by a school psychologist or learning
specialist and found to have basically normal intelligence. What
is the problem? Unfortunately, it is rather seldom that school
personnel suggest that it is a language acquisition issue. It
is not a common understanding for teachers that the child's conversational
proficiency in English is not enough to ensure her mastery of
the English language needed for age-appropriate academic functioning.
Research and practice show that for children in the situation
of circumstantial bilingualism, it is relatively easy to master
conversational proficiency in a new language. However, it is much
more difficult for them to obtain age-appropriate mastery of the
same language in its cognitive-academic domain. The chances are
that an adopted child will be struggling with cognitive language
acquisition and may need educational help in this respect. From
the school's perspective, the greatest "at-risk" (cognitive
language-wise) population is age group between 4 and 8. Children
adopted before the age of 3 have several years of development
mediated by their new language before entering school. On the
other hand, children older than 8 years may be literate in their
native language and have an opportunity to transfer some of their
cognitive language skills to their new language. Also, cognitive
language problems in children older than 8 are relatively easy
to identify and remediation strategies are likely to be straightforward.
Those between 4 and 8 fall between the cracks. Their language
problems are difficult to pinpoint because they are disguised
by the dynamic of second language acquisition that is mostly in
communication, not the cognitive area.
As I mentioned before,
in an internationally-adopted child, the native language gets
extinguished rapidly and English takes over. The tempo of losing
and replacing language, however, does not coincide. Losing a language
occurs much faster than mastering a new one. In some children
this "linguistic gap" may lead to a period of "communication
regression" (e.g.: "pointing", "gesturing")
and "functional mutism" (not using any language for
some time) as reported by many parents and professionals in the
child's first several weeks in the new home. What is more important,
many academic difficulties found in school age children may be
formed or consolidated between the time of losing the functional
use of their native language and the time when English becomes
the functional language for them.
What is the overall pattern and the general
time frame for English language acquisition for an adopted child
and in what respect is it different from what we know about a
bilingual child from an immigrant family?
The pattern of mastering "social"
(communicative) and "academic" (cognitive) aspects of
the English language is different in a bilingual and in an internationally
Adoptive parents, as a rule, do not know the
language of the country they have adopted from and adopted children
do not know English at the time of adoption. For the first several
months the issue of communication is one of the most pressing
in adoptive families. The motivational urge to acquire language
is much more intense in adopted children (and adoptive families)
than in bilingual children. For adopted children, learning the
English language is akin to the natural ways in which their first
language was developed. They are completely immersed in the language:
their new families, peers, media, and the culture at large are
influential sources of language, not school instruction alone.
According to some researchers, it takes a school-age immigrant
child about 2 years to reach native speaker proficiency in "social"
English. In my clinical experience, it is not the case with international
adoptees: depending on the age and on individual differences,
communicative fluency is usually fully functional within the first
6 to 12 months at their new homes. Reportedly, many IA children
use more English than their native language after only a few weeks
with their new families. This does not mean that s/he has sufficient
mastery of the more abstract aspects of the English language to
do well academically. It has been empirically demonstrated that
communicative fluency in adopted children in many cases is not
directly transferable into cognitive language mastery, resulting
in reading/writing problems years after being adopted.
to the same researchers, it takes a school-age immigrant child
from 5 to 7 years to reach "cognitive" English as compared
to the native speaker. This time frame of 5 to 7 years allotted
for bilingual children for acquiring academic English may or may
not be applicable to internationally adopted children. Currently,
no reliable data exists. What we do know is that certain aspects
of academic/cognitive language (e.g. vocabulary and basic grammar
structure) are formed faster than others, such as conceptual knowledge,
comprehension of word meanings, or mastery of writing/reading
skills. The fact is that the deficiency in cognitive language
leads to learning difficulties that may persist, failing to match
the comprehensive and relentless efforts of both the adoptive
parents and educational professionals. A big question is why some
adopted children suffer from a cognitive language deficit, while
others in the same age group are able to master cognitive language
successfully. More studies are needed to construct effective remedial
strategies to reverse the detrimental trend in academic performance
related to cognitive language deficiency.