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

The patterns and dynamics of English language acquisition by internationally adopted children

Language is a psychological function that mediates practically all other psychological competencies, such as perception, memory, emotions, cognition, goal-oriented behavior, and motivation. From an educational perspective, there are three major domains of direct language application: communication, regulation of behavior, and cognitive operation (thinking) (Vygotsky, 1987). The last two domains are often referred to as communicative (or social) language and cognitive (or academic) language (Vygotsky, 1987; Cummins, 1996; Baker, 2001). Communicative language refers to the language skills needed for social interaction in everyday communication within a practical and familiar context. It includes basic skills in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Communicative fluency is highly contextual and is supported by extra-linguistic means such as gestures, facial expressions, intonation, body postures, etc.

Cognitive language refers to language as a tool of reasoning, a means of literacy, and a medium for academic learning. The mastery of cognitive language requires specific conceptual and semantic knowledge of the language itself. This language function emerges and becomes distinctive with formal schooling and developing literacy skills. (Cummins, 1991, 1996; Figueroa & Valdes, 1994; Baker, 2001). The pattern of English language learning in international adoptees is the same as in other English language learners. They learn the communicative aspect of the language first and the cognitive/academic aspect second; however, the time frame and overall dynamic of English language learning is quite different. While according to some researchers (Collier, 1995; Cummins, 1991, 1996) it takes a school-age immigrant child about 2 years to reach native speaker proficiency in communicative English, this is not the case with international adoptees.

According to parents' surveys (Clauss & Baxter, 1997; Schaerlaekens, 1988; Judge, 1999 & 2004), research data on this subject (Gummar, Bruce, & Grotevant, 2000; Dalen, 2001; Glennen, 2002), and published clinical experience (Gindis, , 2000), fully functional communicative fluency is usually achieved by international adoptees of school age within the first 6 to 12 months of their life in their new country. Depending on age and individual differences, there are, of course, significant variations, but the overall trend is that communicative fluency comes into existence faster in a situation of total language assimilation. It is a strong urge with survival overtones that determines the speed of English language learning for international adoptees.

This is not the case with the children from immigrant families, who may not hear or use their second language beyond the school day. According to contemporary research, it takes a school-age immigrant child from 5 to 7 years to develop cognitive English language comparable to the level of a native speaker of the same age (Collier, 1995; Cummins, 1991 & 1996; Thomas & Collier, 2001). The time frame of 5 to 7 years attributed to bilingual children for acquiring academic English may or may not be applicable to internationally adopted children. Currently no reliable data exist. A recent study by Thomas & Collier (2001) analyzed the data for over 700,000 students across the United States over the period of 1996-2001, although internationally adopted children were not included in the pool of those examined. The authors concluded that it takes typical immigrants with 2-5 years of on-grade-level home country schooling in L1 [first/home language] from 5 to 7 years to reach the 50th NCE (Normal Curve Equivalent - what the average student would achieve at that grade level) in English, when schooled all in English. The authors indicated that there is a category of “disadvantaged young immigrant” the majority of whom do not ever make it to the 50th NCE if they have some or all of the following characteristics:

    • Interrupted education with less than two years of schooling in the home country;
    • A history of trauma (war, severe neglect of basic physical needs, deprivation, torture, assault, persecution);
    • Parent illiteracy and lack of support for standard English literacy in the home

As one can see, the first and second characteristics apply also in some way or degree to many of the older IA children. On the other hand, they have on their side powerful facilitators in their parents: native English speakers, well educated and highly motivated to educate their children. The fact is that a deficiency in cognitive language leads to learning difficulties that may persist, failing to match the comprehensive and relentless efforts of both adoptive parents and educational professionals. More studies are needed to find out the typical "learning curve" and typical “stumbling blocks” in cognitive language mastery by international adoptees. This is the base for constructing effective remedial strategies to reverse the detrimental trend in academic performance related to the cognitive language deficiency in so many internationally adopted children.

Cognitive language incompetence has a strong cultural overtone particularly in relation to the age of adoption. Cognitive language competence requires literally years of practicing this language in a certain cultural context, resulting in what is called in cultural psychology "shared meaning" (Vygotsky, 1987). Such images as Donald Duck or Dennis the Menace, or a tune from the movie Cinderella, are intimate parts of native-speakers' language competency. The lack of these subtle overtones, the lack of commonly shared knowledge of tales, rhythms, songs, stories, cartoons, etc. may impede the language competence of those born and raised outside of the American mainstream. Language mediates social interaction, and those who are less able to understand the subtle meaning conveyed by language or use the pragmatics of language (due to a different cultural/linguistic background or just a neurological-based disorder, e.g. Asperger's) may be less ready for the school experience. Language competency includes the use of the symbols (symbolic representation of objects and processes) that underline literacy, and a child's capacity as symbol user and maker is the best indicator of his/her ability to master reading, writing, and scientific reasoning. Whereas a native speaker has several years of language development before his/her academic language begins to emerge, a school age international adoptee must learn both aspects of the English language almost simultaneously. This learning takes place against the background of a rapid attrition of the first language that prevents a transfer of some linguistic skills from one language to the other. In relation to international adoptees, it should be clearly understood that it usually takes years to reach a cognitive language proficiency comparable to native speakers.

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 3d 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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