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Article Title

Abrupt native language loss in international adoptees

Author

Boris Gindis, Ph.D.

Posted Date

1/9/2009

 

This article was initially published in the ADVANCE - e-magazine for Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists: Vol. 18, Issue 51, Page 5.

It is impossible to imagine an evil scientist masterminding an experiment to study the consequences of a young child being forced to forget his or her first language and urgently learn a new language in a state of frustration and intimidation. However, life is often more brutal than any imaginable scientific design. We have literally thousands of children who went through this process due to international adoption. Practically all children adopted by monolingual English-speaking families lose their native language.

The phenomenon of language attrition is not new. In the United States it mostly was studied in immigrant children whose families continued to speak their native language. From the limited research it transpires that language attrition in international adoptees follows the general pattern found in bilingual children from immigrant families: literacy skills disappear first (in older children), then expressive language, and after that receptive language.1,2The study of the specifics of the linguistic mechanism, dynamic and patterns of first language attrition in international adoptees is still in its embryonic phase. The psycho-educational consequences of first language loss in this population have been studied even less, even though these issues have tremendous practical significance. What do we know so far? One of the most shocking discoveries in the field of international adoption is the swiftness with which children lose their native tongue and the profound nature of that loss. A study of more than 800 children adopted from the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union between 1992 and 2004 revealed the time frame of functional language attrition for different age groups.3 (See Table 1.)

The youngest group for which we have clinical data is 3 years 6 months to 4 years. In this age group expressive language usually is just emerging or may be weak and delayed, with pronounced articulation difficulties, immature word usage, and faulty grammar in short sentences. In a situation of full English language immersion, it takes these children seven to 12 weeks to reduce their expressive language to a practically non-functional state. Their receptive language may stay four to six weeks longer, but it is barely functional even in familiar situations with the support of gestures, voice tone, and other non-linguistic means of communication. For 6- or 9-year-olds, we are talking about months, not weeks, but the functionality of their language use still diminishes rapidly with every week of living in an English-only environment. Initially, we thought that children who were able to read and write in their native language could resist language attrition longer. Unfortunately, it is not so. Literacy skills can help maintain the first language when there is motivation to keep it, but they cannot prevent the language from vanishing.

The literature presents identifiable causes of the rapid loss of native language, such as an initial low level of first language skills, a lack of motivation to retain the first language, no support of the first language in the family or community at large, and often an adverse emotional reaction by the children to their first language.3-5The toll paid for the abrupt first language loss depends on the child's age and a host of individual differences, but we are talking about no less than an overall disruption in language development.6Language is a tool, a mediator, a key element in most cognitive, academic and behavioral skills. If the tool is taken away in an abrupt manner, all these skills can deteriorate. No wonder we see regression in behavior patterns, communication, cognition, and academic skills and knowledge. For some international adoptees this factor may intensify cognitive weaknesses and even consolidate them into what is known as cumulative cognitive deficit.7 School-based speech-language pathologists should be aware of a number of consequences of first language attrition in international adoptees.

Internationally adopted children are entitled to a school-related assessment in their native language under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This assessment must take place within the first weeks of their arrival. Each week of delay rapidly narrows the window of opportunity for an accurate and informative evaluation. First language attrition and new language acquisition take place concurrently but at a different pace. Language is lost much faster than a new language is learned. This factor must be understood when considering the behavioral and academic difficulties that might be caused or mediated by abrupt language loss. International adoptees arrive in this country as monolingual individuals. Within several weeks to several months, they again become monolingual by knowing only English. The vast majority of students in our schools who were adopted internationally are not bilingual. Their first language has been wiped out completely within the first year in their monolingual family. Viewing these children as bilingual is one of the most damaging misconceptions that exist in schools regarding international adoptees.

A final consequence to consider is that the language and learning problems of this population should not be attributed blindly to their institutional background, cultural differences, and the process of new language learning. This attitude may result in denying them needed special education services or in-classroom support for years and keeping them in ESL programs instead of providing language and academic remediation. Questions of great practical significance for many adoptive families and school-based specialists are how to address language-based educational issues and what proactive steps can be taken to prevent learning and behavior issues related to language attrition. School-based remediation should include the following:

  • Full psycho-educational assessment of current educational needs, including speech and language evaluation;
  • Appropriate educational classification and an individual education plan (IEP) to receive special education supportive and remedial services, if needed;
  • Systematic monitoring and adjustment of the IEP based on ongoing evaluations of the child's performance;
  • Specialized educational environment and remedial programs (such as the Wilson Reading program), if needed.

Language enrichment also must be a specific goal of home-based remediation. The best intervention is prevention. Adoptive parents have to foster intense cognitivelanguage development in their children from the start. A remedial program that can be used for language remediation at home is SmartStart, which was developed specifically for post-institutionalized children, ages 3-8, who were adopted recently. The program utilizes typical family activities to stimulate cognitive language learning, attempting to breach possible gaps in a child's cognitive language development while promoting attachment through enjoyable interactions. A prominent feature of each unit is a vocabulary section that indicates which words to introduce and how to explain an activity to a child in order to make it more meaningful remedially. School-based educators and adoptive parents have learned that love and good nutrition are not enough to remediate internationally adopted children. They also must apply comprehensive and focused efforts to accelerate language development and promote thinking, learning and literacy in children who have been victims of deprivation, neglect and institutionalization.

References:

    1. Wong-Fillmore, L. (1991). When learning a second language means losing the first. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6: 323-46.
    2. Isurin, L. (2000). Deserted island or a child's first language forgetting. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.
    3 (2): 151-66. 3. Gindis, B. (2005). Cognitive, language, and educational issues of children adopted from overseas orphanages. Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, 4 (3): 290-315.
    4. Gindis, B. (2004). Language development in internationally adopted children. China Connections, 10: 34-37.
    5. Glennen, S. (2007). Predicting language outcomes for internationally adopted children. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 50: 529-48.
    6. Kouritzin, S. (1999). Faces of First Language Loss. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
    7. Gindis, B. (2006). Cumulative cognitive deficit in international adoptees: Its origin, indicators, and means of remediation. The Family Focus, FRUA (Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoptions), XII-1: 1-2 (Part I), XII-2: 6-7 (Part II). 8. SmartStart, at www.bgcenterschool.org/CDLibrary/CDs.shtml.

References

Boris Gindis, PhD, is chief psychologist at the Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation ( www.bgcenter.com), in Nanuet, NY, and the principal instructor at the BGCenter Online School. He can be contacted at gindis@bgcenter.com.

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Article Title

What should adoptive parents know about their children’s language-based school difficulties? Part 1.

Author

Boris Gindis, Ph.D.

Posted Date

11/3/2005

 

From the psycho-educational perspective, language is a human ability with three major functions: communication, behavior regulation, and cognitive operations. Language is a powerful tool that mediates all aspects of our life, either enhancing or inhibiting performance in all domains. Having a solid biological foundation, language, as no other human ability, is sensitive to cultural and social influences. Like any other psychological function, if not in use, language ceases to exist. It is impossible to imagine an evil psychologist masterminding an experiment to study the consequences of a young child being forced to forget his or her first language and urgently learn a new language. However, life is often more brutal than any scientific design: we have literally thousands of children who went through this natural experiment due to international adoption.

Native language attrition in internationally adopted pre-school children

All children adopted by monolingual English-speaking families undergo the process of native language loss or, as it is called in psycholinguistics, language attrition. “What language?” - you may ask. “My daughter was adopted at the age of 18 months and she did not speak a word of Russian. There was nothing to lose!” Oral language exists in the receptive and expressive forms. Receptive – the understanding of spoken language – begins to develop literally from birth and by the age of 2 is fully functional - at the appropriate developmental level.

As for the expressive language – spoken words and sentences – we do not expect it to be fully functional at the age of two in the majority of children, but its foundation has been developed by this age, and words, sensible sounds, and directive reverberations may be heard by age two. In children with a history of institutionalization and deprivation this process is delayed, but an opinion that “my daughter came home with no language” is not entirely true. The older the child the greater chances are that the basis of a native language is there and functioning, assuming that the child has no physical limitations in her sensory development (like deafness or a cleft palate). “Why, then, is my daughter (adopted at the age of 4 years) expected to lose her native language completely? Is not it imprinted forever in her mind?"

Language is a function – and like any function, be it biological or social, if not in use, it ceases to exist. “Use it or lose it,” the saying goes. If a child does not need to exercise this particular tool to regulate other family member’s behavior, to communicate her needs, and to reason, the child’s language base will eventually evaporate. A new tool – a new language – will come in and at first slowly, then faster and faster, take over the linguistic space. The phenomenon of language attrition is not new – it has been known since the Flood. In this country it was mostly studied in immigrant children – so we have some scientific data about the dynamic and patterns of native language loss in children who grow up in the families where their native language has been spoken. Nevertheless, their native language attrition took place in very many cases anyway.

It appears that language attrition in international adoptees follows the general pattern found in bilingual children from immigrant families: first, literacy skills (in older children) disappear, then expressive language, and after that receptive language will go. It is interesting that in oral language first to vanish are intonation and pronunciation of sounds and grammatical rules and syntax; some vocabulary, particularly curses, stays longer. As for vocabulary, as soon as the child learns an equivalent word or expression in the new language, the word in her native language is likely to be wiped out. Although the general patterns of language attrition seem to be the same in immigrant children and in international adoptees, there are two fundamental differences, both crucial for school education:

  • The speed of attrition.
  • The profound nature of the loss.

One of the most shocking discoveries that was made in the field of international adoption was the swiftness with which children are losing their native tongues. My data relate mostly to older children, age 4 and up. The youngest group for which I have clinical data is 3 year 6 months to 4 years 0 months. In this age group expressive language is usually just emerging, or it may be weak and delayed, with pronounced articulation difficulties, immature word usage, and faulty grammar in short sentences. In a situation of full English language immersion it takes these children 6 to 12 weeks to reduce their expressive language to a practically non-functional state. If a child is 4 years or younger, I normally refuse to accept a referral for a bilingual evaluation after the child has been in the country for two months: these children are no longer testable in their native language. Their receptive language may stay 8-10 weeks longer, but it is barely functional even in familiar situations with the support of gestures, voice tone, and other non-linguistic means of communication. We normally do not see this amazing swiftness of language loss in other groups of English Language Learners. The profound nature of loss is also astounding: it is not possible to trace any signs of the native language in the child after only several months in the country, and certainly not after several years. It means that in most cases no effective recovery and use of the native language is possible (as has been described in some studies of immigrant children). If an international adoptee wants to learn her first native language, she must start from scratch, as with any other foreign tongue.

References

Dr. Boris Gindis is a 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. The issues, discussed in this article are covered in greater detail in Dr. Gindis’ online class School Issues of Internationally Adopted Children: Language, Behavior, and Academic Functioning

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10158

Article Title

What should adoptive parents know about their children’s language-based school difficulties? Part 2.

Author

Boris Gindis, Ph.D.

Posted Date

11/3/2005

 

What are the cognitive/academic implications of the rapid first language loss?

Language is a tool, a mediator, a key element in most cognitive and behavioral skills. If the tool is taken away in an abrupt manner, all these skills can deteriorate too. We see a regression:

  • In behavior: when a 4 year-old behaves as a 2-year-old
  • In communication: when a verbal child reverts to a pre-verbal stage using mostly gestures and un-differentiated sounds
  • In cognition: when basic mental skills, such as patterning, sequencing, discriminating, etc., vanish

Second, the profound nature of the loss leads to a situation in which very little or no transfer of skills and knowledge from the first language takes place during the shift from one language to the other. Most internationally adopted children need to start from ground zero not only in language, but in many other abilities that are mediated by language. Third, internationally adopted children have to catch up to their peers from within a situation of overall adjustment, which is very emotionally taxing. They must master a major survival skill - the new language - merely to carry on existence in a new social/cultural environment. And, amazingly enough, the vast majority of them do this! However, among these successful survivors there is a group – and we do not know the size of this group – who, for different reasons, just could not make it.

The abrupt loss of the first language, emotional strain related to the necessity of functioning in a new, slowly emerging language, and regression in cognitive skills and processes are likely to adversely affect their school performance. The danger of this situation is hidden by the fact that language-based learning problems may not be obvious until formal schooling begins. In the family and pre-school environments these children’s language deficiencies may go undetected because the language they use is mostly communicative and used in familiar every-day social situations. It is usually a kindergarten or a first grade teacher who will alert you that your daughter “does not advance” in learning literacy skills and does not respond as expected to the language of academic instruction.

References

Dr. Boris Gindis is a 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. The issues, discussed in this article are covered in greater detail in Dr. Gindis’ online class School Issues of Internationally Adopted Children: Language, Behavior, and Academic Functioning

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7956

 

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