Boris Gindis, Ph.D. 
Article Title
What should adoptive parents know about their children’s language-based school difficulties? Part 3. 
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The dynamic of English language learning in international adoptees: cognitive versus communicative language

Let us look at this situation more closely. There are two major domains of language usage, often referred to as communicative (or social) and cognitive (or academic) language.

Communicative language refers to language skills needed for social interaction in everyday communication within practical and familiar contexts. It includes basic skills in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. This aspect of language seems to be acquired naturally and without formal schooling. Communicative fluency is highly contextual and is supported by extra-linguistic means, such as gestures, facial expressions, intonation, body postures, etc. A lively informal discussion of the latest baseball match at a family picnic table is an example of communicative language use.

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 development of literacy skills. Reading a scientific text about a volcanic eruption and writing an essay about the warning signs of a possible volcanic eruption for a 4th grade science project is an example of using cognitive/academic language.

Developmentally, communicative language emerges much earlier than cognitive language. The quality and quantity of a child’s early communicative experience is crucial for forming the foundation of cognitive language. Certain properties of cognitive language, such as grammar structures and word meaning, are simply embedded into the psychological makeup of native speakers through frequent repetition when they were infants and toddlers. Nothing is ever wasted, indeed: this information goes to a psychological storage vault and later is activated through the conscious efforts of parents, school teachers and students themselves. In other words, children are "primed" to cognitive language mastery through their earlier experiences with the communicative language.

While a native speaker has 4 to 5 years of intense language development before her academic language begins to emerge, an international adoptee has hardly half this time. Fully functional communicative fluency in the new language is usually achieved by international adoptees within the first year in the country. However, the speedy learning of basic communicative skills in the English language and speaking without accent with the age-appropriate lingo do not mean that international adoptees will master the cognitive aspect of the English language equally well. In some children communicative fluency has not been transferable into cognitive language mastery, resulting in reading and writing problems years after being adopted.

Unfortunately, neither adoptive parents nor school personnel realize that a child’s conversational proficiency in English is not enough to ensure the mastery of the English language needed for age-appropriate academic functioning.

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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