Insights Into Effective Language Treatment for Internationally Adopted Children

Indian boy
I was recently asked to consult on a speech-language evaluation for a 12-year-old child who has lived with her adoptive parents in the United States for the last three years. English is the fourth language she has been exposed to since birth, but there is no trace of the child’s first three languages ever since her immersion in an English-speaking environment.

Though her adoptive parents knew which languages she was exposed to, they did not know the extent or quality of that exposure, and they were given very little information about her receptive and expressive language skills in those languages. The referring speech-language pathologist was very cautious in how she approached the assessment. She was careful to look at the length of time the child has been exposed to English, the quantity and quality of language input she has received up to this point, and so on. She recognized that the child had experienced significant native language loss.

The most important piece of information she needed, however, was missing. No one could affirm whether or not the child ever had appropriate language skills in any of the previous languages of exposure. No information was available on her comprehension, her vocabulary use, her ability to form sentences, and so forth, in her previous languages.

So how does one arrive at an appropriate diagnosis for children whose language backgrounds are virtually unknown? First, look for patterns of language development. Second, urge prospective parents to obtain extensive information on their child’s current native language functioning prior to leaving the birth country. For more on this topic, I recommend reading the articles of language-development researcher Sharon Glennen, including her ASHA Leader piece “Speech and Language ‘Mythbusters’ for Internationally Adopted Children.”

I would like to highlight a few things that set internationally adopted children apart:

  • They are not the typical English Language Learner in the sense that most adoptive parents do not speak the native language of the child. Thus, the likelihood of preserving the native language is very slim. We see that expressive and receptive language loss occurs rapidly with these children because their need for the native language is virtually nonexistent due to complete immersion in the adoptive language. In contrast, most ELLs whose contact with the native language continues (such as immigrant families) do experience varying levels of language loss but at a much slower and gradual pace. They retain some measure of bilingualism, whereas IA children do not and in essence become monolingual English speakers. This means the majority of IA children, particularly ones adopted at younger ages, won’t require bilingual testing (again, Glennen explains this thoroughly).
  • For children adopted at older ages, distinguishing true language disorders can be somewhat trickier, so it is imperative that parents gather and share with SLPs extensive information on their child’s communication skills in the native language. If accurate information is not obtained from the start, by the time concerns arise significant language loss will have already occurred. Knowledge of native language proficiency is only beneficial in the evaluation process if that knowledge is based on what was happening before the complete language immersion experience.  I have developed a simple screening measure specifically for parents to use in the birth country prior to bringing their child home.  My hope is that this will assist parents in asking the right questions of orphanage workers, caseworkers, or any adult familiar with the child.  Parents can then store the answers if more information is needed, whether immediately or in the future. The bottom line is, because of the inevitability of instant language loss, if the IA child’s native language skills are shown to be delayed on adoption, there is no need to postpone speech and language testing and to implement appropriate and direct intervention.
  • IA children gain conversational language skills more rapidly than most ELLs due to their full immersion experience, but some may struggle with cognitive language development as other ELLs do. Cognitive language or academic language encompasses specialized or content-specific vocabulary, complex grammatical structures, abstract concepts, discourse patterns or text structures, and reasoning. This means that parents can be proactive in how they assist their IA children to succeed in the school environment, especially children adopted at older ages. Resources available for adoptive parents include the SmartStart program by psychologists Carol Lidz and Boris Gindis, which is designed to help parents facilitate thinking and learning in their adoptive children through fun, meaningful family activities, games and experiences.

Though the number of international adoptions has declined in the United States in recent years, largely due to more stringent rules and regulations, thousands of children are adopted yearly into U.S. families from abroad. Given this, we must continue to provide guidance and resources for families walking this journey, as these children’s language development, school readiness and adjustment are often at the forefront of their parents’ minds.

Ana Paula G. Mumy, MS, CCC-SLP,  is a trilingual speech-language pathologist and the author of various continuing education eCourses, leveled storybooks, and instructional therapy materials for speech/language intervention.  She has provided school-based and pediatric home health care services for nearly 12 years and offers resources for SLPs, educators and parents on her website The Speech Stop.