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Language Development and Internationally Adopted Children

By Laura Dyer, Author of Look Who's Talking

Families with internationally adopted children may have unique communication challenges. If a child is language delayed in a birth language, she may also be delayed in other areas of development, which may hinder her ability to learn a new language. In many cases, an internationally adopted child must first catch up on a lot of physical and emotional growth. Many factors influence the growth rate, like a history of poor nutrition, developmental delays, health problems, environmental conditions, and the ability to handle stress.

With all the challenges families of internationally adopted children face, many find it difficult to include birth languages in their language plans. Most internationally adopted children quickly lose their birth languages because they don't converse and interact in them. One study showed that children adopted internationally between ages four and eight lost most of their expressive birth language three to six moths after adoption and lost all functional use of the language within a year. Infants and toddlers lost birth languages even more rapidly.

Don't push your child to use a new language initially. Using unnatural methods (like flashcards) to teach the new language can strain an already stressful situation. For the first few weeks in a new home, an internationally adopted child may grieve for her life in the birth country. Is she tries to express her grief in the birth language, her adoptive family may not understand her, and she may try to communicate by hurting herself, showing aggression, and crying. When a family can't communicate with a child it's hard to comfort her. Sign language can facilitate communication before the child learns the new language. When appropriate, use words in the new language naturally and in context along with the signs. When your child is emotionally ready, research suggests that she'll rapidly acquire vocabulary in the new language. An adoptive family's attention and care seems to make a child flourish.

Despite poor language stimulation in orphanages, children adopted internationally at age three and younger without other health of developmental complications should have few problems learning a new language. Through a parent survey study conducted to Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland, Sharon Glennen and M. Gay Masters found that infants and toddlers adopted form Eastern Europe developed English language skills in the same patterns as nonadopted English-speaking children. In fact, most toddlers it the study started learning English soon after adoption, and their language skills progressed quickly. Most children in the study had conditions that might have slowed language development, like premature birth, weight, and height below the tenth percentile, large motor delays, developmental delays, and a history of chronic ottis media (chronic ear infections). Despite this fact, the study concluded that while it's important for adoptive parents to know a child's medical history, especially any conditions that may slow growth, the presence (or absence) of these conditions doesn't necessarily dictate language development.

In most cases, an internationally adopted child's language development lags behind her nonadopted peers'. How much it lags depends on her age at adoption. The older a child is when adopted, the more time she needs to develop language skills and catch up to her nonadopted peers. Once she's continuously exposed to a language, her language skills usually catch up quickly. Any adopted child who's not progressing needs immediate speech and language services.

Some parents mistakenly think that adopting a baby internationally before she begins to talk (that is, adopting her during the first year) means that she won't have any trouble acquiring an adopted language. It's true that the younger a child is when she's adopted, the more likely she'll learn a second language quickly. During the first six months, a child hears and can distinguish among all the phonemes in her birth language (the language she hears the most) and among those in another language, even though she hasn't spoken her first words yet. But this ability begins to decline after age 6 months, which affects future language development. A baby adjusts to hearing only her birth language between the ages 6 and 12 months, when she begins to babble using sounds from her birth language, thereby laying the foundation for saying first words in their birth language.

If a child is adopted internationally when she's older than 6 months, she has more trouble acquiring an adopted language for two reasons. First, like anyone learning a anew language, a child who's used to hearing her birth language and babbling in it initially has trouble perceiving and producing phonemes that aren't used in the birth language. Second, the child stops developing the birth language (unless the language is part of the family's language plan) and restarts language development, relearning all the sounds she knows so they work with the adopted language. For these reasons, speech-language pathologist usually consider internationally adopted children at high risk for speech and language delays. These children require direct evaluation and long-term follow-up to determine which ones will need intervention to overcome delays.

Excerpted from Look Who's Talking by Laura Dyer, with permission from the author. Visit her website at

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