issues for international adoptees and adoptive families
Published in: T. Tepper L. Hannon
D. Sandstrom (Eds.). International Adoption: Challenges and Opportunities,
pp. 98-108. PNPIC, Meadow Lands, PA.
Boris Gindis, Ph.D.,
"One who masters the language
rules the universe".
An ancient Greek saying
LANGUAGE AS A PSYCHOLOGICAL FUNCTION is one
of the most powerful and comprehensive humans abilities. At the
same time it is one of the most fragile and vulnerable of humans
attributes. It is deeply rooted in our biology, yet, as no other
psychological capacity, it depends on social/cultural milieu for
its very existence and development. One of the most radical and
shocking discoveries of the neuroscience of the current decade is
that our brain literally, that is biologically, takes shape under
the influence of social/cultural artifacts, starting with language
(Locke, 1993). Language is a leading psychological function that
mediates practically all other psychological competencies such as
perception, memory, cognition, goal-oriented behavior, and others.
From the psychological perspective, there are three major domains
of direct language application: communication, self-regulation,
and cognitive operation (thinking) (Vygotsky, 1986).
Language as a psychological function is known for
its distinctive "schedule of development" within the overall process
of human physical growth, physiological maturity, and psychological
progress. In child psychology there is the notion of sensitive periods
of development. This is a time of optimal and crucial growth of
the neurological foundation of different psychological functions.
Development during sensitive periods sets the stage for everything
that follows. Less than optimal use of this period will result not
only in delays and distortion in the evolution of the particular
ability, but also in many other related capacities as well. It was
a common understanding for many years that the sensitive period
in language development is age 3 to 5. Advances in contemporary
neuroscience have changed our view dramatically: it is now a well
established scientific conclusion that sensitive periods in language
development are the first two years of a child's life. (See Locke,
1993, in particular "The Neural Specialization for Linguistic Communication",
pp. 217-255 and "Development of the Neural Capacity for Linguistic
Communication", pp. 256 - 347) The rate of early learning - literally
the first months and years of life - determines the child's level
of functioning for many years to come. That is why in relation to
language, there is, in fact, no such thing as "delays": what has
not been mastered within certain developmental ranges may not be
totally compensated for in spite of heroic efforts in the future.
Inevitably, questions are generated: are there universal
norms of language development, applicable to all children in all
countries? In all socio/economic groups? In both genders? It is
a well known fact that children do not reach the same milestone
in their language development on exactly the same schedule. Their
developmental rate can vary by several months or even a year and
there is no evidence, for example, that "late talkers" end up as
less fluent than "early talkers". Nevertheless, there are certain,
although flexible, markers of language acquisition applicable to
all cultures with the following major milestone: between ages 3
to 5, a child is bound to use language as her primary means of communication,
self-regulation, and cognitive operations. General norms that exist
in this country are roughly applicable to children adopted from
Russia or any other country. For example, regarding expressive language:
a child speaks a few words at her first birthday, six months later
her vocabulary increases at least ten times, by two a child is routinely
stringing words into simple sentences, and only a year later (at
3) a child may have a repertoire of a thousand words, normally producing
functional, purposeful verbalization that is understood by strangers.
If a child at three can produce only about three dozens words that
only his mother can understand, and grunts, points, and gestures
to get what she wants - we consider this child as having language
problems. Doctors in Russia feel the same way when they indicate
in a medical report: "delay in language development".
WHAT DOES THE TERM DELAY IN LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
MEAN in Russian medical records of children from an orphanage?
This is the most common diagnosis found in medical records of children
age 3 and up. I would call this condition a "standard feature" of
any child from a Russian orphanage. Sometimes a specific diagnosis
is postulated, e.g. dysarthria (which means faulty speech articulation).
Sometimes speech remediation is mentioned as provided or recommended
by a "logoped" (which means "speech therapist"). In the majority
of cases, however, you may find only a general statement about developmental
language delay with no specific data. A psychoeducational and language
assessment, if it is done properly upon the child's arrival in this
country, may find a wide range of language and speech deficits that
sometimes require immediate attention and remediation efforts. When
Russian doctors put "language delay" into the child's medical record
they do not do so lightly: the fact that this is a common diagnosis
does not mean that it is given automatically and carries little
weight. Language problems, unfortunately, are the most common
deficit in children from an orphanage.
In a book published in Moscow by a group of Russian
psychologists (Dubrovina, at. el., 1991) the authors describe what
they call a "temporal delay in psychological development" as typical
of children raised in orphanages due to the lack of stimulation
in early childhood. They specifically point to delays in speech
and language development . The common picture for many orphanage'
children at the age of 3 is incomprehensible speech with only a
few phrases used, very limited vocabulary, poor understanding of
what was said, and slowness in learning new words. At the age of
4 the same problems persist with attempts to use somewhat longer
sentences usually with faulty grammar. In one study described in
the book, it was found that about 60% of all 2-&-1/2-years-olds
in a Babies' Home (an orphanage for preschoolers) had no expressive
language at all. A year later, only 14% used two-words sentences.
Our colleagues in Russia suggested that this situation is not only
due to a severe lack of quality and quantity of verbal interaction
between a child and an adult during the so-called "critical periods
of development", (ages 1 to 5), but mostly because of the very context
of the communication. For babies in an orphanages the goal of communication
with an adult is physical contact and attention from this adult.
Mutual object-related activity and cognitive learning activities
are very limited. And this has a detrimental impact on the language
maturing. In fact, a child does not need language to attract a smile,
a hug, or a pat on the shoulder: for this it is enough to approach
to an adult and establish eye-contact with her. It is when a child
wants your help and cooperation in opening a box to see what is
inside, or your skills in turning pages and reading a book to her
that is when language emerges as a means of communication and regulation
of behavior (Dubrovina, 1991, pp. 101-123).
In light of the latest finding in neuroscience, it
is understood that children in orphanages are likely to have some
neurological predisposition for language-related problems due to
the lack of specific social/cultural mediation normally provided
by the grown-ups. The longer a child stays in an orphanage, the
higher the probability of language-related problems.
SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION AS A SPECIFIC PROBLEM
FOR AN INTERNATIONALLY ADOPTED CHILD. Of course, this is not
the only problem that a newly adopted child faces. She has to adjust
to life in a family Vs life in an institution, to a new physical
and technological environment, to a new cultural and social milieu,
sometimes to new school settings. But all children have to start
with language, because the whole process of adjustment to a new
life is mediated by language. Therefore, language acquisition is
the most crucial skill to be learned in her first year in a new
Eventually all children - some sooner, some later
- will learn to communicate in the English language. And it is only
natural for them in the process of language acquisition to exhibit
negative emotional and behavioral patterns clearly related to communication
problems: frustration/anger, acting out, temper tantrums, etc. Developmental
and personality factors as well as the degree of their native language
proficiency may influence the dynamic of language acquisition. On
the other hand, the rate of language acquisition is not a direct
indicator of general cognitive abilities. Language acquisition is
a very complex process where intellectual abilities are only one
of many factors, and by no means is the process of second language
acquiring a straight reflection of intelligence. Practically all
adopted children will learn to speak English without an accent:
there is solid scientific evidence that 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 picked up a language before
puberty tend to lose their accent, while after puberty the tendency
is to keep an accent.
The limited amount of English shown by adopted children
should never be the only or even the decisive factor in their academic
placement. On the other hand, school placement should always take
into consideration the factor of language acquisition. Language
does influence behavior: a child who appears shy, withdrawn, and
tense in an English-speaking milieu turns into a vivacious and outgoing
girl in her native language surroundings. A 7-year old child who
just arrived three months ago and demonstrates limited English fluency
may appear "delayed" and "slow" to her teachers and even to those
professionals who tested her without knowledge of her native language.
Nevertheless, her "apparent" developmental level of functioning
may be a direct result of her language proficiency/cultural adjustment.
Academic placement should always be a highly individualized decision
based on thorough consideration of many factors. It has been my
personal experience that placement according to age-level, as is
usually practiced with children from immigrant families, may not
work with many adopted children. Academic "promotion" to the age-appropriate
grade level may lead to tremendous frustration in a child and her
new family. Academic pressure against the background of general
acculturation, language acquisition, and possible health and neurological
problems in particular may be a psychological Molotov cocktail thrown
at your family. It seems that over-placement, that is placing in
too high a grade, is usually a more serious mistake that under-placement,
that is placing in too low a grade. It is never too late to make
changes, to reconsider, and to try another option if you feel that
you made a mistake with a school and grade placement.
To what extent is language acquisition in adopted
children similar to what is known about children from immigrant
families? In other words, to what extent is this a bilingual issue?
A common understanding of bilingualism includes functional use of
more than one language within a developmentally appropriate range
of language skills. That is, a 5-year-old who is able to understand
oral English and French and can appropriately (based on his age
expectations) express himself in these two languages is bilingual.
For a 15-year-old to be bilingual means to be literate in both languages:
not only to understand and speak on everyday topics, but also to
read and write in both languages, because that is our society's
expectation for language use in a 15-year-old.
In this respect the majority of adopted children are
not truly bilingual, or they may be bilingual for only a short period
of time. They are monolingual at arrival (Russian only) and after
several months they are monolingual again, this time English only.
There are exceptions with older adoptees (age 10 and up) particularly
in twins and sibling groups, but only a few. It is my experience
that a child between the age of four and eight will lose the bulk
of her expressive Russian within the first 6 months in this country.
Her receptive language for the purpose of simple communication may
last longer, but eventually all functional use will disappear within
the year, if not within a few months.
It has been found in children from immigrant families
that those who - for their age level - have well-developed first
language skills usually acquire the second language faster and easier.
The reverse is also true. The whole notion of bilingual education
is based on this observation. From what I discussed earlier, it
is apparent that the majority of post-institutionalized children
are weak in their first language and, therefore, they are "at-risk"
in learning their new language. The most obvious difference between
second language acquisition in immigrant and adopted children aged
4 and up is in their respective model of language learning. For
children from immigrant families, second language acquisition is
often based on the so-called "additive" model, while for adoptive
children this almost always is based on the "subtractive" model.
Let me explain these terms. In the process of second language learning
there is a dynamic relationship between first and second languages:
they may switch their dominance, their subjective significance,
and their relative mastery. When and if in the process of another
language acquisition the first language diminishes in use and is
replaced by second language we have the so-called "subtractive"
model of second language learning. When the second language is added
to the child's skills with no substantial danger to her native language
we call this the "additive" model of bilingualism. Again, everything
is relative and in many immigrant families with a fully functional
native language one can observe the subtractive model prevailing
over the additive. No wonder: language is a function. And
all functions have one common prominent 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. In an adoptive child (within
the first year in her new home) the Russian 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. But the demand for three language
applications - communication, behavior regulation, and cognitive
operations - is as strong as ever. And that is where systematic
and appropriate actions in helping adopted child should take place.
One false direction, in my opinion, is bilingual education
and bilingual related services, available in many school districts
in NY city. I am against bilingual placement and services for an
adopted child for the following reasons. An adopted child lives
in a monolingual English-speaking family, not in a bilingual immigrant
family. Her Russian has no functional meaning or personal sense
for her, while she needs functional English for survival. Her Russian
will not be supported by her family, but the same family will provide
her with patterns of proper English. Bilingual education or services
(for only part of the day and without family support) will possibly
lead to communication confusion and "mixed" verbal conditioning.
Bilingual education in this case would be a waste of time and resources
as well as an impediment to the child's learning of English.
In terms of language acquisition, the most "at-risk"
group is children between the ages of 4 and 8. Children adopted
before the age of 4 have at least several years of development mediated
by their new language before they enter school. Children older than
8 in many cases have learned to read and write in their native language
and they have an opportunity to transfer some of their cognitive
language skills into their new language. Also, 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 really fall between the cracks. Their language problems are difficult
to pinpoint because they are disguised by the dynamic of second
language acquisition, which is mostly in communication, not in the
cognitive area. Adoptive parents are usually amazed and pleased
by their children's progress in mastering basic communication skills
and they see no apparent reason for any extra language remediation.
The problem is that when it becomes apparent, it may require "heroic
efforts" and may result in a lesser degree of success.
COMMUNICATIVE LANGUAGE FLUENCY and COGNITIVE LANGUAGE
MASTERY. Let me now review the experience of many adoptive parents.
A child was adopted well before her school age. Her Russian disappeared
and her English is practically indistinguishable from native speakers.
No bilingual problem was suspected, so there was no need for English
as a Second Language instruction, and no apparent need for language
therapy. No complaints were voiced by her kindergarten teacher,
and no obvious problems with her academic work surfaced until the
end of her first grade. It was only in the second grade that her
reading and overall academic functioning started falling behind
most of her classmates. Her teacher began reporting that she seemed
not to understand the more complex reading stories, and she failed
to follow multi-sequential instructions, or comprehend conceptual
or hypothetical questions. Finally she failed screening reading
tests and her teacher is now worried about how she will do during
upcoming statewide tests. Tension may escalate to the point when
the word "learning disability" may be heard. Unfortunately, it is
not often that school personnel suggest that the child's conversational
proficiency in English was not enough to ensure her academic success.
I mentioned earlier different areas of language application
and two of them are communication and cognitive operation (thinking).
These two sides, two aspects, two domains of language use are often
referred to as Communicative Language Fluency (CLF) and Cognitive
Language Mastery (CLM).
Communicative Language Fluency (CF) refers to language
skills needed for social interaction in everyday communication within
a practical context and includes basic skills in pronunciation,
vocabulary, and grammar. This aspect of language seems to be acquired
spontaneously with very little, if any, formal schooling. It may
include skills in elementary reading and writing within a context
of immediate experience and familiar patterns of events (e.g., signs
like "Exit"). It is, however, mostly the oral language fluency needed
for social interaction in everyday communication.
Cognitive Language Mastery (CLM) refers to language
as a tool of reasoning, a means of literacy, and a medium for academic
learning. Ultimately, this aspect of language proficiency includes
a metalinguistic element, that is knowledge of the language itself,
for example, understanding such notions as "sound", "letter", "sentence",
"paragraph". CLM emerges and becomes distinctive with formal schooling
and through developing literacy skills. One of the most distinct
differences between these two language proficiencies is the context
of communication. In CF we have context-embedded communication where
the linguistic message is coming within a flow of meaningful context,
supported by a wide range of paralinguistic clues, such as situation,
intonation, gestures, "shared meaning" between communicators, etc.
In CLM (reading a text, writing an essay) communication has a very
limited range of extralinguistic supports, and is said to be "context-reduced".
Acquisition of meaning in context-reduced academic situations (and
during psychological tests) requires specific conceptual and semantic
knowledge of the language itself (Vygotsky, 1986).
CLF and CLM are not isolated from each other and interact
as they develop, enhancing or inhibiting each other. Developmentally
basic CLF is formed earlier than CLM. Quality and quantity of early
communicative experience in the child is crucial in her creating
the foundation of CLM. Certain properties of CLM, such as grammar
structures and lexicology patterns are simply embedded into the
psychological makeup of native speakers through numerous repetition
when they were infants and toddlers, and their parents were talking
to them or near them or reading to them, or through the TV/audiotapes.
Nothing is wasted, indeed: this information goes to a psychological
storage vault and later is activated through the conscious efforts
of school teachers and students themselves. In other words, native
speakers are "predisposed" to cognitive language mastery through
their earlier experiences with the language. For those who were
deprived of this input in their early years (for this matter - not
only children from an orphanage but also many children from the
lower socio/economic groups) this is a much more difficult process.
Some of the readers may be familiar with this theory
in its educational implication promoted by Canadian scholar Dr.
James Cummins (Cummins, 1996). He used different terms, however,
talking about Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and
Cognitive-Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). He reported a particular
pattern of second language acquisition - BICS first and CALP later
- and also suggested that a 9- year-old child needs two years to
master BICS and 5-7 years for CALP. Cummins's findings were based
on research on a poor and uneducated immigrant population and may
not be relevant to middle class and well-educated adoptive families.
All the numbers reported by Cummins were challenged by other scholars
anyway, mostly on a developmental basis. What is important, however,
is that Cummins attracted the attention of many parents and teachers
to the fact that there are two sides, two aspects, two perspectives
in a language, and that conversational proficiency in a new language
is not enough to ensure cognitive-academic mastery of the language.
This will enable you to explain to your school district or a preschool
program that your child is probably struggling with a particular
aspect of language acquisition and needs help in this respect.
STRATEGIES AND RESOURCES FOR REMEDIATION OF THE
LANGUAGE-RELATED PROBLEMS should always be considered
in the family-community-school context. All remediation ought
to start with proper evaluations: medical, psychoeducational, speech/language.
Proper means it is done at the right time and by the right professionals.
Too often pediatricians and school districts assume a "wait-and-see"
attitude regarding a child from an immigrant or adopted family.
Too often the pediatrician recommends "leaving the child alone for
a while" and the school district rejects a request for an evaluation
in order "to wait until she learns enough English". There are, of
course, cases when a "wait-and-see" position is the most appropriate.
It is often difficult to differentiate a genuine language disorder
from temporal delays in language skills in general and second language
acquisition in particular. There are many cases when children just
"catch-up" on their own with no therapy or extra help. The problem
with adopted children is that the neurological base of their development
appears to be weaker than in their peers at large. Their chances
for recovery on their own seem to be slimmer than in the general
population. Therefore, timely help is more crucial for them. We
cannot afford to just lose time without proper remediation for them.
There is no "one-size-fits-all" recommendation: each case is individual,
but statistically speaking, your chances for significant improvement
in your child's overall functioning are higher if you start early
enough and have the right methodology/therapy.
The evaluation is to be done by a qualified professional.
With children older than 4 the number one choice is a bilingual
specialist. Bilingual evaluation is not available everywhere, that
is true. But what is amazing is that, even when it is available,
it is not utilized by parents and many school districts. Bilingual
evaluations are not an option, they are the law in many states.
But you must request them in order to get them and be persistent
in your demand.
THE STRATEGIES AND RESOURCES CHART - SCHOOL, FAMILY,
- School - 1/ESL, 2/S&L therapy, 3/teacher-consultant,
4/special education services and programs.
- Community - private tutoring, private and
state-funded agencies for remediation (e.g. FastForward centers),
other community resources.
- Family - structured and organized tutoring
by parents based on a certain methodology (e.g. "Bright Start").
It is my understanding that the majority of the adoptive
children are in the public school and preschool systems. Those who
are in private school settings are still eligible for special education
services in their respective states. There are two major language-related
services in schools outside of special education: English as a Second
Language (ESL) and speech/language therapy.
ESL is a mandatory program in MANY states for every
non-English speaking child entering the school system. In NY state,
for example, the eligibility is determined by a Home Language Survey
and Language Assessment Battery (LAB) test. The LAB is one of the
most comprehensive and thoroughly researched tests; it takes into
consideration both social (communication) and academic (cognitive)
language ability. The major problem with this test, however, is
that it does not discriminate between a lack of knowledge/skills
and a cognitive disability/language disorder. In other words, if
a child fails the LAB we do not know why: a lack of English, a learning
disability, or serious cognitive impairment. Another drawback of
this test is that it is administered only in English and not in
a child's native language (with just one exception - Spanish). Different
states have different ESL services. In NY city, for example, ESL
is offered on a daily basis, up to 90 minutes a day 5 times per
week for up to 3 years. Graduation from ESL is based on performance
above the 40th percentile according to local norms on the LAB test.
The quality of instruction in ESL varies significantly from school
to school, but most of them do concentrate on the cognitive language
aspects. I also found that in some situations the ESL teacher became
a kind of advocate for her students and a child may feel more comfortable
with her than with the classroom teacher in getting used to school
routine. By and large, ESL means extra help and extra support adoptive
parents should take advantage of.
Speech and Language therapy is available in almost
all school districts. The problem is how to obtain it, that is how
to prove your child's eligibility for it. I am personally convinced
that many children from Russian orphanages ages 4 and up do need
language remediation and sometimes they need specific speech therapy
due to poor articulation.. Language therapy should go on in parallel
with ESL. Again, while evaluations should be bilingual, the service
should be in the English language only for the reasons I discussed
above. It is important that an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for
language remediation be created for your child. This document should
reflect all the domains of remediation (grammar, syntax, vocabulary,
pragmatics, etc.) with practical annual goals and short-term (no
more than 3 months) objective for the remediation program.
In order to help your child effectively at home, you
must have time, motivation, skills, patience, and - very important
- the right methodology. Whether you do it yourself or you hire
a tutor, the question of the right methods of helping your child
at home is the crucial one. There are dozens of self-help books
and parent-oriented programs out there. My point is that you must
have a specific, structured, formal (I am not afraid of this word)
program in order to provide your child with effective systematic
remediation in cognitive and language areas. Any remediational/educational
plan needs a conceptual base to give it internal consistency, that
is, to be sure that the different parts and levels of a curriculum
are not working at cross purposes. I would like to give you one
example of such a program which I use working with children from
adoptive as well as immigrant families.
The title of the program is "Bright Start" (Haywood,
1992) and it is a cognitive/language curriculum for preschoolers,
including those who, on the basis of early childhood deprivation,
are at high risk of learning failure in the primary grades. The
program is appropriate for adopted children from age 4 up to 8-9
and is, indeed, well equipped to help them. "Bright Start" focuses
on language for precognitive, cognitive, and metacognitive operations
that are prerequisites for learning in the primary grades. There
are many useful features in this program, one of them being that
it is designed for teachers and parents to work together simultaneously.
You may ask your ESL and/or regular teacher to include elements
of this program in their curriculum, and do a follow-up at home.
Also it is closely connected with your activities of daily living
and takes advantage of your ordinary daily experiences. The most
attractive feature is a consistent, systematic approach within a
broad cognitive-developmental context, not language in isolation.
The program consists of seven units, each designed to address a
fundamental aspect of the cognitive language functioning of preschool
children. The units may be taught in one-to-one situations or in
small groups of children interacting with an adult (a parent, a
tutor, or a teacher in school), for a period of about 20 to 40 minutes
each day. It is recommended that these units be taught in the following
sequence: Unit 1: Self-Regulation: children learn to bring
their bodies under the control first of external stimuli and then
of internal stimuli (or self control). Children then learn to use
their self control in a social context. Unit 2: Number Concepts:
introduces basic number concepts - amounts, numbers, ordinal relations,
conservation. Starting with one-to-one correspondence, children
learn concepts that help them respond to events in a quantitative,
organized way. Unit 3: Comparison: introduces the concept
that we can identify similarities and differences in a systematic
way. Children learn to define and make comparisons based on such
characteristics as size, shape, and color. Unit 4: Role-Taking:
develops the ability to see different perspectives, first on the
physical, and then on the social, level. Children learn to consider
other people's feelings and viewpoints. This unit, like Self Regulation,
is primarily social in nature. Unit 5: Classification: develops
the function of classifying across three dimensions - color, size,
shape - and evolves into representational classification (classifying
without pictures). Unit 6: Sequence and Pattern: children
learn to identify items within classes according to their serial
position. The lessons focus on number and pattern progression and
finding patterns in groups of stimuli. Unit 7: Letter-Shape Concepts:
children learn to identify and classify objects and events according
to certain prominent characteristics, which will be crucial to the
learning of the letters of the alphabet.
Does this program do wonders? No, but with proper
use and hard work it can make a difference in your child's readiness
for school. Is it good for everybody? Probably not, but ordinary
parents and ordinary children could benefit from it. It is a tool
to help your child become a more effective academic and social learner.
It is a psychological tool for you to lead your child - against
all the odds of her past - to seize the language - this wonderful
gift of nature and culture.
- Dubrovina, I., at. el., (1991). Psychological
development of children in orphanages ( "Psichologicheskoe
razvitie vospitanikov v detskom dome"). Moscow, Prosveschenie
- Cummins, J. (1996). Negotiating Identities:
Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society. Ontario, Canada.
- Haywood, H.C. (1992). Bright Start: Cognitive
Curriculum For Young Children. Charlesbridge Publishing,
- Locke, J. (1993). The Child's Path To
Spoken Language. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Vygotsky, L. (1986, originally published
in 1934). Thought and Language. (Translated by A. Kozulin).
MIT Press, MA.