Bgcenter logo
Center for cognitive-developmental assessment and remediation
Psychological services for internationally adopted children
Psychologist Dr. Gindis Newsletter Archives Online School Articles Directory Publications of Dr. Gindis

Language-related 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.,
NYS Licensed Psychologist

"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 family.

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.


  • 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 Press.
  • 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, MA.
  • 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.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button


Psychological services for internationally adopted children. Copyright ©1998-2022