Boris Gindis, Ph.D. 
Article Title
Internationally adopted post-institutionalized students in an ESL class 
Posted Date
Historically, ESL was designed for students from new immigrant families. At present, ESL is a mandatory, federally funded program for every non-English speaking child who enters the public school system. The teaching methodology of ESL programs is for children from families where another language is spoken. Moreover, the acceptance into the program assumes this premise. However, from the time of adoption internationally adopted children live in monolingual (English only) families, not in the families where "other-than-English" language is used. Indeed, we have a unique and paradoxical situation when students, who are legally eligible for ESL, have the English language as their home language! The specifics of English language acquisition by an internationally adopted child should be properly understood in order to modify ESL instructions accordingly. Internationally adopted children, though a part of a traditional English Language Learners (ELL) group, differ from the rest of the ELL population in many aspects:
  • International adoptees are not bilingual International adoptees are monolingual upon arrival. They know only one language (their native language) and after several months they are monolingual again, only this time in English. There are a few exceptions with older adoptees who may be literate in their native language, particularly in sibling groups. But even with them native language attrition is only a matter of time. Still there is a tendency, particularly in school settings, to consider internationally adopted children as bilingual and to apply to them the insights, knowledge, and practices that have accumulated regarding language acquisition in bilingual persons. I doubt the validity of this approach and think that internationally adopted children constitute a specific group of ELL who are rather different from the bilingual population at large and need a modified methodology for teaching them English.
  • International adoptees, as a rule, have delays and weaknesses in their first language It is now a well established fact that the vast majority of international adoptees ages three and older have at least weaknesses (and many of them even apparent delays and disorders) in their first languages. This is mostly due to their early childhood experiences of cultural/social deprivation and neglect. In many cases these delays could be successfully remediated in a relatively short period of time. But, overall, this weakened first language is the basis from which a new language is to be acquired. Normally this is not a characteristic of other groups of ELL – they, as a rule, have age-appropriate development of their first language. It is known that the best predictor of new language learning is the level of mastery of the first language. From this point of view international adoptees have a “rocky start” from the beginning, unlike their peers among ELL.
  • International adoptees learn English in a different way than "typical" ELL A second language is usually acquired based on two models: "additive" and "subtractive." When the second language is added to somebody’s skills with no substantial detraction from the native language, it is called the additive model of second language learning. When and if, in the process of second language acquisition, the first language diminishes in use and is replaced by the second language, we have the subtractive model of second language learning. The subtractive model is usually typical for the so-called "circumstantial" bilinguals: those individuals who, because of their circumstances, must learn a different language in order to survive. They are forced by circumstances to acquire English, and they do so in a context in which their own first language has no use at all. Internationally adopted children present the extreme case of circumstantial bilingualism. The subtractive nature of their bilingualism is quite amazing: they tend to lose their first language in a matter of several months.
  • International adoptees live in monolingual (English only) families The vast majority of internationally adopted children live in monolingual English-speaking families. This means that a child needs functional English for survival and does not need his/her native language for any practical purposes. The family is the primary source of patterns of proper English, while the same family cannot be a sustained source of the native language. Due to this situation, which is very different from that of families where a language other than English is the primary mode of communication, the native language quickly loses its functional meaning or personal sense for an adopted child. It leads to a peculiar situation where an ELL has the English language as his/her home's only language. It also leads to a rapid attrition of his/her first language. It creates a condition of full immersion in the English language. For the first several months the issue of communication is one of the most pressing in adoptive families. The motivational urge to acquire language is much more intense in adopted children (and adoptive families) than in bilingual children.

How to convert ESL into a remedial service

ESL teachers should realize the uniqueness of internationally adopted children as students in their program. These children live in English-speaking families and this situation changes the overall context of acquisition of the second language by bringing about the possibility of enrichment at home and active parental involvement in the process of new language learning. ESL instructors should understand that most internationally adopted children are not bilingual, and therefore the traditional ESL methodology effective for bilingual children may not be appropriate.

Modern ESL programs do take into consideration the "social" and "academic" aspects of the English language; however, the communicative aspect of the language is their priority with children from newly-arrived immigrant families. International adoptees, however, are exposed to this aspect of language in their families in a more concentrated and intense way. Indeed, they need more "cognitive" language along with language remediation.

Very often after less than a year in the US the English pronunciation and word usage of international adoptees become almost indistinguishable from their peers who are native speakers. This does not mean that they have sufficient mastery of the more abstract aspects of the English language to do well academically. After graduation from an ESL program, some children may continue to experience academic difficulties or show low verbal abilities on an intelligence test. Often a child may need ESL as a supportive academic program for a longer period of time than is indicated by the results of the exit test.

The ESL curriculum for internationally adopted children ages 7 and older should from the very beginning focus on "academic" (cognitive) language and specific literacy skills with less concentration on communicative aspects, because these skills will be learned in the families through actual communication. The ESL curriculum for international adoptees should be developmentally appropriate and have a needs-specific methodology that serves two purposes: to teach the English language and to concurrently remediate for deficiencies in language development itself. In other words, the ESL curriculum for internationally adopted children should be academic and remedial at the same time: remediation should be intertwined with academic instruction to compensate for language-related institutionalized disabilities. There should be a home "follow-up component" of the classroom instruction – the first time in the ESL history the adoptive parents can act as "language role-models" for their children.

ESL for internationally adopted children is an important, practical, and controversial issue for many adoptive families. I talk about it at much greater length in the online course/CD Course SBG2: School Issues of internationally Adopted Children: Language, Behavior, and Academic Functioning available at Bgcenter Online School

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. 
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