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