Boris Gindis, Ph.D. 
Article Title
Cognitive, Language, and Educational Issues of Children Adopted from Overseas Orphanages. Part II 
Posted Date

The language issue in international adoptees

With all the ethnic, cultural, and individual differences among school-age international adoptees, there is one factor that is common to all of them, without exception: English is a second language for them. The bilingual issues, loss of first language, communicative versus cognitive language dilemma in learning English, cognitive and academic issues related to rapidly losing one language and slowly acquiring another, behavior/emotional problems related to a situation of “language lost – language found” - all these issues are typical for the “older” (5 ages and up) group of IA children (Gindis 1998, , 2001, 2003). From the social/cultural and educational perspectives, IA children belong to a large, mixed, and constantly growing group of the population called "English language learners" or "Limited English proficiency" students, or "English as second language" students, or just "Bilingual students." This category of students consists mostly of children who were born outside of the US and arrived in the country with their families or were born to a language minority group here in the US and until school did not have much exposure to the English language. Most important, these children continue to use their first language in their families and, often, in their neighborhood. Most of them are bilingual children, because the common understanding of bilingualism includes functional use of more than one language within a developmentally appropriate and socially expected range of language skills (Baker, 2001).

Internationally adopted children, though a part of this diverse group, differ from the rest of the English learners in many respects.

First, international adoptees are not bilingual: they are monolingual upon arrival (they know only one language, for example, Rumanian), and after several months they are monolingual again, only this time in English (Clauss & Baxter, 1997; Pearson, 1998; Gindis, ; Dalen, 2001; Glennen, 2002). There are a few exceptions with older adoptees who may be literate in their native language, particularly in sibling groups, but even with them native language attrition is only a matter of time. The fact is that most IA children, within the first year in the US and Canada, use only the English language and cannot be regarded as bilingual. Nevertheless, there is a tendency, particularly in school settings, to consider internationally adopted children as bilingual and to apply to them the insights, knowledge, and practices that have been accumulated regarding language acquisition in bilingual persons (Schaerlaekens, 1998; Gindis, 1998, ; Meese, 2002).

Second, international adoptees learn English in a different way than "typical" ESL (English as Second Language) students. A second language is usually acquired based on one of two models: "additive" or "subtractive" (Figueroa & Valdes, 1994; Baker, 2001; see also Poissant, this issue). When the second language is added to a child's skills with no substantial detraction from the native language, it is called the additive model of second language learning. 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 subtractive model of second language learning. An additive model is typical for so-called "elective bilinguals" while the subtractive mode is typical for so-called "circumstantial bilinguals" (Figueroa & Valdes, 1994).

The circumstantial model of second language learning is typical for individuals who, because of their circumstances, must learn another language in a context in which their own first languages have little or no practical application. That is why their way of learning English is referred to as "subtractive bilingualism": it inevitably leads to slow development, regression, and, finally, loss of the first language (Fillmore, 1991; Cummins, 1991). Internationally adopted children are the extreme cases of circumstantial bilingualism: they have no choice but to learn the language. They do not learn English as a foreign language: they live within this language. School teachers for them are only one source of learning English, while their adoptive families, peers, media, and the culture at large are the most influential and effective sources of language.

Internationally adopted children appropriate their new language with an urge and motivation that cannot be compared to “elective” bilinguals. For them the situation of language acquisition is more akin to the natural ways in which first languages are developed: they acquire their new language in the process of authentic activity and as a byproduct of meaningful communication (Vygotsky, 1987; Locke, 1993). One of the most stunning discoveries that has been made with internationally adopted children is the swiftness with which they lose their mother tongue. Thus, it is not atypical for a 6-year-old internationally adopted child to lose most of his/her expressive native language within the first 3 months in the country. For the purpose of simple communication receptive language skills may last longer, but within 6 months to a year all functional use of the native language will disappear in an exclusive English-language environment. For a 9-year -old child with age-appropriate literacy skills in his/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 (Pearson, 1998; Gindis, ; Dalen, 2001; Meese, 2002; Glennen, 2002). No wonder. International adoptees live in monolingual (English only) families, not immigrant bilingual families. This means that a child needs functional English for survival and does not need his/her native language for any practical purposes.

The family is the primary source of patterns of proper English, while the same family cannot be a sustained source of the native language. Due to this situation, which is very different from that of families where a language other than English is the primary mode of communication, the native language quickly loses its functional meaning or personal sense for an adopted child. For the first several months the issue of communication is one of the most pressing in adoptive families. The motivation to acquire language is much more intense in IA children than in bilingual children from immigrant families. Language loss (or language attrition as it is called among linguists) is not a new or unusual experience: it is often observed in immigrants of all ages (Schiff, 1992; Hinton, 1999; Roseberry-McKibbin, 2002; Schmid, 2002).

The speed and profound nature of language attrition in international adoptees is truly remarkable. There is a quick and total abandonment of the language that has not been described in the scientific literature. There are several factors that facilitate native language loss in internationally adopted children in comparison to their peers from immigrant families. These are:

    • Low level of first language skills;
    • No motivation to retain first language because there is no opportunity to practice;
    • No support of the first language in their family or community at large.

There is one more specific factor not usually found in immigrant children but rather common in school-age adopted children: their negative attitude and adverse emotional reaction to their mother tongue (Versluis-den Bieman & Verhulst, 1995; Gindis, 1998, , 2000). There are multiple and diverse consequences of the rapid language loss in IA children. The word "loss" usually has a negative connotation in our mind; the loss of language in particular. However, this is not always the case with internationally adopted children. 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 (Schmid, 2002). This should not be a surprise, because language is the single most powerful representation of a person's individual life history: it is the compelling link between the present and the past, and it is the most prominent "marker" of belonging to a certain ethnic and cultural group.

Older adoptees in particular have experienced traumatic pasts. They came from abusive families and have often experienced horrible neglect and deprivation. An orphanage, as an institution, is not a place normally associated with a happy childhood; therefore, for some older adoptees language is a constant reminder of their suffering—an experience most of them are trying to overcome. They want to blend as soon as possible with their peers, to look the same, to act the same, and to speak the same language. The easiest way to cut ties with the past and to identify with the present is to destroy the most obvious link with the past, 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 (Gindis, 2000, 2003).

On the other hand, there are negative consequences of the rapid loss of the first language. The tempo of losing the first language and that of acquiring the English language do not coincide: losing a language occurs much faster than mastering a new one. In the school context in particular, rapid attrition of the first language before the English language develops presents a significant educational challenge for school age internationally adopted children: they have to learn a new language concurrently with academic content (Meese, 2002). The overall toll paid for the abrupt loss of the first language depends on the children's age and a host of individual differences. For some international adoptees this factor may intensify cognitive weaknesses and even consolidate them into what is called cumulative cognitive deficit (CCD), discussed in succeeding sections. Language is a powerful tool of regulation of behavior (including self-regulation). If this tool is taken away from a person, inappropriate, immature, or clearly maladaptive behavior can be observed (Fisher, Ames, Chisholm, & Savoie, 1997; Howe, 1997; Rutter, 1998, 1999). 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 (Clauss, & Baxter, 1997; Glennen, 2002; Wilson, 2003).

Dr. Boris Gindis is a prominent child psychologist specializing in psycho-educational issues of older internationally adopted children. He is the chief psychologist at the Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation, a lead instructor at Bgcenter Online School, the author of many publications on international adoption issues and frequent presenter at conferences and workshops. This is the 2nd abstract from the article, published in full initially in the Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, Volume 4, Number 3, February 2005. 
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