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