The Language of Adoption

learning-new-languagesKids adopted from overseas learn English under much different circumstances than those born locally.

Since 90% of internationally adopted children come from orphanages, concerns over social development and physical health are at the top of the list for insuring best outcome for the kids.  Developmental delays often include language.

There is a general view that kids are brilliant at acquiring language. Maybe so, but it takes a lot of practice to learn a language, even for a junior genius. In general, I think kid’s language abilities are overrated anyway. Honestly we let a lot slide just because they are so cute.

Whether non-English-speaking adoptees are little geniuses or just plain old dopey kids, or both, replanting a child in the United States means uprooting her from every relationship and social reference point she has ever known as every adoptive parent is keenly aware.  Language is a big part of the equation.

Deborah L Bennett, a speech and language pathologist in lovely Keene, New Hampshire says, “Orphanages simply cannot in most cases provide adequate language stimulation and play opportunities. So even before switching environments, these children are at a disadvantage in learning language.

“However, those in good health who have normal cognitive development tend to acquire good nonverbal interaction and social skills in the orphanage. This helps them catch up in language once they arrive home.”

Bennett has provided a useful guide for language development among international adoptees, which I have cribbed as follows:

Kids adopted at 12 to 18 months usually have started speaking in the language of their national origin, and will likely understand much more, even if they are sometimes reluctant speakers. These kids are coming online in English, just before their brains hit the sweet spot for language learning at 18 months, so adoptees are quickly on par with the other locally born rug-rats.

Older kids with better mastery of their first language will often lag behind monoglots in language development, since “the influence of the first language tends to delay the development of comprehension, sentence length and grammar,” says Bennett.

So it’s a catch-up game for those  older kids coming over. The older on arrival, the longer it takes for the child to catch up with native-born children of the same age. Bennett’s rule of thumb is to double the arrival age to figure out when adopted kids should be on par with kids from the local cabbage patch. An adopted kid who arrives at 18months, say, should be on-track with other kids by age three, and so on. After that, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for other issues that may be causing language delays.

I’ve got first-hand experience with this. My niece Caroline joined the Clark clan from China when she was just one year old.  Any language delay she experienced passed unnoticed since she’s been going a mile a minute since I’ve known her anyways. I’m super proud of her because she just got in to U Penn. Congrats, C!

9 Responses to “The Language of Adoption”

  1. Matti Kaichen says:

    I am also the parent of a child adopted from overseas, and I certainly didn’t ntice any particular problems in this area, although I do remember a certain level of anxiety around the issue at the time.

  2. Malte Deidesheimer says:

    Congratulations on your niece.

  3. I’ve never really given this any thought before, but this does raise some very good points.

  4. Eileen Schwartz says:

    At what point is the lag really detrimental? And is it more likely to effect social integration than actual academic learning?

  5. Kids are sponges, they eventually catch to everything.

  6. Sue says:

    I’m slightly concerned about this, as my husband and I are looking into adoption from abroad.

  7. Marwin Tabel says:

    Is this study accounting for individual qualities between children, environment, etc?

  8. karunesh vohra says:

    I wonder what the comparison between young non-english speakers learning english vs young english speakers learning a non-english language would bear out?

  9. Paula Heald says:

    So, yes this makes perfect sense and everything. Older children have a bit more difficulty learning English after already beginning down the roade on a previous language, but two questions: How big is the delay with English and does it become larger with time, or is their a kind of point of critical mass so to speak? Also how hard is it for them to hang on to their original language?