Abrupt native language loss in international adoptees
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.